‘Desus & Mero’ Adapt to Life in Quarantine

Having one’s own TV show comes with a lot of perks, but these days regular grooming is the one The Kid Mero often misses most. Along with his comedy partner Desus Nice, Mero hosts Showtime’s Desus & Mero, a show for which he normally gets his hair and makeup done before going on air. Now, New York’s shelter-in-place guidelines mean no more regular barbering. “In about a week,” he says, “my beard is going to be long enough for me to start drawing faces on random balls around the house and calling them my friends.”

The show might be hairier, but it must go on. Desus and Mero aren’t the only ones showing up on late-night TV a little more au naturel. The social restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic make it impossible to bring together the full crews necessary to put on a talk show, let alone assemble a studio audience, so in recent weeks many productions have been experimenting with filming their shows remotely. John Oliver reports from what looks like a vacuum for HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has a new camera operator: his wife, Nancy Jovonen. For a brief period early on, Stephen Colbert was doing The Late Show from a bathtub. Adapting Desus & Mero had an added challenge because, as its title suggests, it’s not one guy sitting behind a desk. “The big dilemma: We have two humans,” executive producer Tony Hernandez says. Hernandez watched how other late-night hosts had started shooting remotely and realized it wouldn’t work for his program. “They both needed to talk, to interact with each other.” Producer Julia Young, who guides the show’s flow by teeing up videoclips and making jokes with the hosts, needed to be in the mix as well.

What’s more, the heart of the appeal of Desus & Mero is its goofy, conspiratorial hangout energy, like eavesdropping on the funniest people you know shooting the shit. That mood of intimacy “brings a different quality than other late-night shows have,” says Desus & Mero producer Victor Lopez, who is also the duo’s longtime manager. Re-creating that feeling while its hosts were sequestered separately proved to be a challenge. “A big part of our chemistry is me and Mero being in the same room,” Desus says. Now they’re not even in the same state. Normally filmed in a midtown Manhattan studio with a live audience, Desus & Mero is currently working with two ad hoc sets: Mero’s basement in his New Jersey home and Desus’ “sneaker room” in his New York apartment.

Initially, the desire to stay close-knit had the crew floating other ways to keep the show on before they realized how long this crisis would last. “We were going to just hunker down in the studio with all the staff members,” Desus says. “We were just like, ‘What if we just get a lot of food and everyone just stays in the studio? We could just live here because it used to be the old Al Jazeera studio. So it’s bulletproof, fully protected, and self-contained.’ So in theory, we could have probably stayed there for a couple weeks. But, you know, people have families and kids.” The remote option quickly became the only option.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

The hosts are using some of their own equipment, but much of it was either sent over from the studio or, after the studio abruptly closed, ordered online and shipped to their homes. “No matter what limitations we had, the tech team figured it out,” Desus says. “The Showtime tech team virtually went into my MacBook and had the unmitigated audacity to tell me my MacBook was too old to run the streaming software! So I was sitting there in my feelings like, ‘How dare they?!’ But because it’s Showtime, the next day there was a fresh-out-the-box MacBook Pro at my door, and I had to spray it with Lysol and keep it moving.”

Desus tried to set up his living room as his home office but didn’t like the way his white walls looked, especially after he compared his background to MSNBC anchors and Trevor Noah’s setup. “Everyone has a really nice house. So I was like, ‘I have to find the best place in my apartment so people don’t think I’m broke.’” He settled on his sneaker room, a small second bedroom where he keeps his expansive shoe collection. “I’m not going to lie. Every time I look at it on TV, I’m like, ‘Wow, that looks cool as hell.’”

Mero, meanwhile, has turned the “weed-smoking basement” in his suburban home into his studio. “I have four kids, so that makes recording anywhere else in the house pretty much impossible,” he says. As all of the children are currently being homeschooled, Mero says being able to lock the door is crucial to avoiding constant cameos from his offspring. Plus, he often writes in the basement, so it feels like a comfortable space to create, especially now that he’s loaded up with gear. “There’s four microphones in a stand, there’s headphones out the wazoo, there’s all types of hard drives. And there’s multiple monitors,” Mero says. “I look like a conspiracy theorist. It’s wild, but it works.”

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With the crew’s help, the technical elements of producing the show haven’t been as challenging as anticipated. “If I had to do it on my own, forget it, I’d be lost in the sauce,” Mero says. “You know how people say something was a team effort but one guy scored 45 points? Like it’s just the polite thing to say? Well, this really was a team effort.”

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HBO and AMC Are Offering Free Streams for Folks Stuck Inside

Hello, and welcome to this Monday’s edition of The Monitor, WIRED’s entertainment news roundup. Today we’ve got some news about Jay-Z and Meek Mill, a surprising second act for the South by Southwest film festival, and some free content from HBO and AMC. Let’s get going.

HBO and AMC Are Offering Free Streams for Folks Stuck at Home

Rejoice, everyone looking for new content to binge-watch! HBO and AMC are both now offering tons of streaming content for free. Starting Friday, HBO began offering nearly 500 hours of programming—from Veep to The Sopranos to Six Feet Under—available for free through its HBO Now and HBO Go apps. (Notably, it’s not offering Game of Thrones.) It’s also offering some 20 Warner Bros. movies, like The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and Crazy, Stupid, Love. (The full list of free programming is here.) The move is intended to give folks something to watch while they’re under stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Similarly, AMC Networks announced a campaign on Friday allowing viewers to watch the first half of The Walking Dead’s 10th season for free on the AMC website until May 1. It’s also making a series of BBC America documentaries free to watch, as well as IFC series Spoils of Babylon and Baroness von Sketch Show. (See the full lineup here.) “We want to join with our talent and respond to this moment in the best way that entertainment companies can—which is, to entertain people,” Sarah Barnett, head AMC Networks Entertainment Group, said in a statement. “We also wanted to make our great content available to more viewers at a time when we are all looking for fantastic things to watch.”

The SXSW Film Festival Is Headed to Amazon

As you may have noticed, South by Southwest didn’t happen this year. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see the films intended for its festival lineup. Last week, Amazon announced that the company is working with the annual Austin festival to stream the movies originally slated to play at this year’s event, which was canceled due to coronavirus. Organizers haven’t announced a date yet, but once the online film festival starts, filmmakers who opt to have their films screened will be able to offer them on Amazon Prime for free for 10 days, so that even folks who aren’t Prime members will be able to watch them. Those filmmakers will also receive a screening fee for their film. “We were delighted when Amazon Prime Video offered to host an online film festival, and jumped at the opportunity to connect their audiences to our filmmakers,” SXSW’s head of film, Janet Pierson, said in a statement. “We’re inspired by the adaptability and resilience of the film community as it searches for creative solutions in this unprecedented crisis.”

Jay-Z and Meek Mill’s Org Is Donating Masks to Prisons

The Reform Alliance, the criminal justice organization cofounded by Jay-Z and Meek Mill, announced over the weekend that it is sending 100,000 surgical masks to jails and prisons across the US. Covid-19 poses a heightened risk to inmates and correctional facility workers, and the masks are intended to help them prevent an outbreak. According to the organization, 40,000 masks will go to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, 5,000 will go to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, 50,000 will go to Rikers Island jail in New York City, and an additional 2,500 will go to a Rikers medical facility. “It’s a very vulnerable population, Reform’s chief advocacy officer, Jessica Jackson, told CBS News. “We’re really worried about the number of people coming in and out of the [facilities], the fact that people living there might be might be sitting ducks during this pandemic.”


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A van Gogh Art Heist Tops This Week’s Internet News Roundup

During the last week, the world passed a gruesome milestone: More than 1 million people have now tested positive for the coronavirus. Countless others are out there undetected or undiagnosed. As a record 6.6 million people file for unemployment in the US, a sign of the destruction brought by the pandemic beyond simply the sickness, you might be wondering how bad things are going to get. The answer, worryingly, may be “really bad,” especially because Americans didn’t stay at home like they were told to. Good job, everyone. Still. At least Dolly Parton continues to be the best.

Coronavirus has started to impact celebrities in ways beyond just events being canceled or Tom Hanks being trapped in Australia. (He’s back now, by the way.) British comedian Eddie Large died from Covid-19-related complications, as did US musician Adam Schlesinger, whose work you’ve enjoyed whether you were a fan of Fountains of Wayne, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or the movie Josie and the Pussycats. (Those who remember That Thing You Do, yes, that was him, too.) It is, sadly, likely just the start of a trend that will continue for some time.

With all this going on, it almost feels churlish to ask what people are talking about. They’re talking about coronavirus, of course. That’s not to say that there weren’t other topics of conversation online, but there’s been a lot less chatter about, say, Lindsay Lohan’s musical comeback, or the Barefoot Contessa’s giant cocktails than you might expect. What have people been talking about this week? Well, this.

I’m Not Saying a Month Can Be Haunted, but Let’s Appreciate That It’s Not March Anymore, Agreed?

What Happened: Take a minute and appreciate this small, but important, fact: March is over.

What Really Happened: Let’s start things off, unusually for once, with some good news. Just take a look at the calendar: It’s April. It really is. We made it, even though March felt like one of the longest months in recent memory. As it neared its end, many couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe it could really happen.

The increasingly popular meme quickly spread throughout an internet impatient for an increasingly crappy month to just end already. Things were slightly complicated by the fact that March actually was longer than people expected, thanks to the last day that everyone forgets every single year. (Well, aside from those with March 31 birthdays, presumably.)

In fact, March—a month in which basically everything, including life as we knew it, was canceled in response to a global pandemic that decimated everything, including the economy—felt so cursed and immortal that some really couldn’t bring themselves to think it could actually end. After all, we’ve all seen those horror movies where the villain seems to be dead before making an “unexpected” comeback, right?

But now, here we are in a new month and everything is going to be … better?

… Dammit.

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With Sports on Hold, Restless Gamblers Turn to Videogames

If there’s one word to describe hardcore sports fanatics right now, it’s “desperation.” With coronavirus-related season suspensions hitting the NBA, NCAA, MLB, NHL, and more, habitual sports-watchers are turning to marble racing, binge-watching Netflix, and asking sportscaster Joe Buck to narrate their sex tapes. (Unsuccessfully. He is, however, providing play-by-plays of people’s backyard chicken coops and dog-exercising.)

If it’s doom-and-gloom for sports, you can be certain the billion-dollar sports betting industry isn’t faring much better. Log in to any of the dozens of sports betting websites with an Andrew Jackson burning a hole in your pocket and you’ll find your pants singed; there’s barely anything live to bet on.

“It’s been a bloodbath,” says Ebbe Groes, CEO of sports betting software company EveryMatrix. “The betting volume for regular sports events dropped about 80 percent as there was nothing left to bet on. That’s when we turned to esports.”

Over the past four years, online betting sites have been slowly welcoming fans of the volatile but growing industry of livestreamed competitive gaming into their pools and brackets. As two teams of pro gamers go head to head in a League of Legends match live on Twitch, risk-loving viewers tab onto websites like DraftKings, Betway, and Loot.bet hoping to earn a bit of cash from their savvy projections. Now, these sites are describing an exponential surge in betting spurred by the dearth of traditional sports content—despite some of the risks involved with the Wild West esports industry.

In less than a month, the volume of dollars Groes has seen bet on esports has gone up by a factor of 10. EveryMatrix offers software facilitating esports betting on everything from Fortnite and FIFA to dozens of online betting sites, from Germany’s Mybet to Russia’s 1xBet. Before Covid-19 hit, esports bets constituted just 1 percent of bets he saw. Now, it’s 35 percent. The typical bet, he says, remains $25 between sports and esports betters.

“Especially now with this kind of downtime with sports, esports have stepped up and become the number one offering on DraftKings,” says Matt Kalish, cofounder and president of DraftKings North America, which facilitates fantasy sports drafting. Esports fantasy contests are 20 times more popular than they were prior to the pandemic, he says.

For dedicated esports betting site Loot.bet, daily bet volume has grown by 20 percent. “In 2019, live bets accounted for 75 percent of volume, but in March 2020 that had grown to 83 percent,” says a Loot.bet representative. “We’re putting this down to the huge number of fans in lockdown, who are watching more live esports streams, and hence placing more live bets.”

Seasoned sports betters looking for an easy onboarding into digital gaming are slowly finding their way onto sites that allow betting on sports sims. Fans of Nascar are betting on eNascar, a racing league built on the iRacing simulator. In March, a Pro Invitational Series cropped up; one night drew 1.6 million unique viewers, some of whom were keeping things spicy on betting sites. (DraftKings has a $10,000 winner-take-all Sportsbook Pools contest.) On March 31, 2K Gaming, the NBA, and the NBPA announced the NBA 2K Players Tournament, which will feature competitions between 16 top NBA players, including Kevin Durant and Trae Young. The champion will receive $100,000, to be donated to a charity combating Covid-19. Standard sports betting sites like Bovada are publishing odds.

Although sports sims have the sexiest sell to desperate fans seeking a familiar thrill—a nearly one-to-one ratio of play to gameplay—betting sites say they’re seeing low betting volumes so far. However, Loot.bet says that over the past month, the volume of bets it has received on soccer sim FIFA 20 exceeded the combined total of bets placed on Starcraft 2, Call of Duty, and Overwatch—games that aren’t necessarily huge among esports betters but are popular to watch.

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You Can Still Play *Pokémon Go* Even When You Can’t … Go

While most game makers are seeing booming usage statistics in the era of coronavirus-induced social distancing, Niantic is in the opposite position. The company’s games—including Pokémon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and Ingress—are all built around the idea of leaving the house and meeting up with people in real-world locations.

ARS TECHNICA

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

Now that those things are impossible or discouraged for large portions of the population, Niantic is adjusting its game design philosophy to “embrace real-world gaming from home,” as it says in a blog update Monday.

“We have always believed that our games can include elements of indoor play that complement the outdoor, exercise and explore DNA of what we build,” the company writes. “Now is the time for us to prioritize this work, with the key challenge of making playing indoors as exciting and innovative as our outdoor gameplay.”

To that end, Niantic will be improving its existing Adventure Sync connection, which lets your mobile device track steps to earn in-game rewards even while you’re not playing. Niantic says it will update that feature “so it works even better with indoor movement and activities” and so “activities like cleaning your house and running on a treadmill count toward game achievements.”

Pokémon Go players will soon also be able to team up for raids without the need to congregate together in a real-world place. Live events like the (sometimes disastrous) Pokémon Go Fest will also be going virtual, with more details to come soon. And the company is “looking into” ways for players to visit favored real-world locations virtually, “until they can once again visit them in person.”
Niantic is also highlighting game-specific changes that make it easier to complete objectives without leaving the house. That includes an earlier Pokémon Go update that heavily reduced the in-game cost of incense and Pokéballs, so players can catch virtual critters without the need to move.

“In areas where it is permitted by local authorities, outdoor walks, practiced with proper social distancing, will continue to be a great way to contribute to physical and mental well being and you’ll still be able to play our games while you do that,” the company said. “The changes we are making offer an alternative when that’s not possible.”

The forced changes are a bit ironic considering Niantic’s ongoing, zero-tolerance battles with automated bots. While many used these unauthorized third-party services to level up quickly without actually playing the game, some used the GPS-spoofing functions to simply find creatures and virtually reach locations that they couldn’t reach in the real world. Now that we’re all stuck inside, though, that aspect of what used to be considered “cheating” is being embraced by Niantic, to a degree.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.


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An Online Library Is Venturing Into Uncharted Legal Waters

One of the casualties of coronavirus-related social distancing measures has been public libraries, which are shut down in many communities around the world. This week, the Internet Archive, an online library best known for running the Internet’s Wayback Machine, announced a new initiative to expand access to digital books during the pandemic.

ARS TECHNICA

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

For almost a decade, an Internet Archive program called the Open Library has offered people the ability to “check out” digital scans of physical books held in storage by the Internet Archive. Readers can view a scanned book in a browser or download it to an e-reader. Users can only check out a limited number of books at once and are required to “return” them after a limited period of time.

Until this week, the Open Library only allowed people to “check out” as many copies as the library owned. If you wanted to read a book but all copies were already checked out by other patrons, you had to join a waiting list for that book—just like you would at a physical library.

Of course, such restrictions are artificial when you’re distributing digital files. Earlier this week, with libraries closing around the world, the Internet Archive announced a major change: it is temporarily getting rid of these waiting lists.

“The Internet Archive will suspend waitlists for the 1.4 million (and growing) books in our lending library by creating a National Emergency Library to serve the nation’s displaced learners,” the Internet Archive wrote in a Tuesday post. “This suspension will run through June 30, 2020, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.”

The Tuesday announcement generated significant public interest, with almost 20,000 new users signing up on Tuesday and Wednesday. In recent days, the Open Library has been “lending” 15,000 to 20,000 books per day.

“The library system, because of our national emergency, is coming to aid those that are forced to learn at home,” said Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. The Internet Archive says the program will ensure students are able to get access to books they need to continue their studies from home during the coronavirus lockdown.

It’s an amazing resource—one that will provide a lot of value to people stuck at home due to the coronavirus. But as a copyright nerd, I also couldn’t help wondering: is this legal?

‘It Seems Like a Stretch’

The copyright implications of book scanning have long been a contentious subject. In 2005, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google over its ambitious book-scanning program. In 2015, an appeals court ruled that the project was legal under copyright’s fair use doctrine. A related 2014 ruling held that it was legal for libraries who participated in the program to get back copies of the digital scans for purposes such as digital preservation and increasing access for disabled patrons.

Both rulings relied on the fact that scans were being used for limited purposes. Google built a search index and only showed users brief “snippets” of book pages in its search results. Libraries only offered full-text books to readers with print disabilities. Neither case considered whether it would be legal to distribute scanned books to the general public over the Internet.

Yet the Internet Archive has been doing just that for almost a decade. A 2011 article in Publishers Weekly says that Kahle “told librarians at the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego that after some initial hand-wringing, there has been ‘nary a peep’ from publishers” about the Internet Archive’s digital book lending efforts.

James Grimmelmann, a legal scholar at Cornell University, told Ars that the legal status of this kind of lending is far from clear—even if a library limits its lending to the number of books it has in stock. He wasn’t able to name any legal cases involving people “lending” digital copies of books the way the Internet Archive was doing.

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Collective Cabin Fever Tops This Week’s Internet News Roundup

Another week, another opportunity to start this column by saying, “It’s been a helluva week.” As the coronavirus continues is morbid march, people the world over are sheltering in place and doing all they can to stay safe and sane. People, it seems, are in this for the long haul, and that’s going to destroy the internet … or, well, slow it down, at least. We’d say folks should be spending their time masturbating—Pornhub has made its premium service free for 30 days for self-quarantine purposes, and is also supporting Covid-19 relief efforts—but that requires the internet, so perhaps it’s not a good solution. This is what we get for practicing social distancing, perhaps, even if we might have to call it “physical distancing” soon.

Nonetheless, coronavirus continues to be almost all anyone is talking about, but with almost everything closed and the outside world off-limits, what else is there to do? There’s a record number of people unemployed in the US right now, and folks are streaming content like there’s no tomorrow (HBO Now streaming rose 40 percent the week before last, and Disney+ sign-ups almost tripled)—perhaps because, to many, that’s just what it feels like. At least Netflix renewed The Circle and Love Is Blind.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, somehow the Taylor/Kanye feud returned, which was perhaps even more nonsensical than the Hannah Montana reunion, but can anything match director Tom Hooper’s Cats commentary for sheer, out-of-the-box weirdness? Probably not, but everyone probably needs a little weirdness these days. Here’s what the assembled subconscious that is the internet was talking about last week.

Say Goodnight, Grandma

What Happened: File under “Things you never thought you’d hear on television”: What if a politician actually suggested that, just maybe, in order to keep the country on an even-keel, grandparents accepted that they might have to die? Too dark too early?

What Really Happened: Americans started last week in a new world, or at least a new country, as multiple states asked people to stay at home, as businesses, schools, and everything folks used to consider “normal” were closed in an attempt to … well, keep as many people healthy as possible. The changes have caused an emotional response many are comparing to grief, but these are extraordinary times, asking extraordinary sacrifice in order to do the right thing.

Oh, yeah; also, it turns out, some folks really aren’t into the economic impact of the shutdown, and last week President Trump started publicly toying with the idea of reopening everything early to prevent businesses losing more money. If that means people die as a result, well … let’s go back to what Texas’ lieutenant governor Dan Patrick was saying on Fox at the start of the week.

Patrick’s comments were quickly picked up by the media because, well, he basically said old people should be willing to die from Covid-19 to help the economy. On social media, people were unimpressed by his argument.

Patrick’s idea even resulted in a hashtag, #NotDying4WallStreet.

Patrick later clarified his comments, saying that he was just referring to the White House’s “15-day lockdown” plan, which President Trump seems to want to stick to, even as experts suggest it’s nowhere near enough time to help the situation. So, everything’s going real well, thanks for asking.

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Reddit’s Wedding Planners Pivot to Covid-19 Crisis Comms

The difficulty in deciding how to manage the coronavirus posts was exacerbated by a lack of clear advice and the conflicting needs of different users—some of whom have weddings planned imminently, and others who are just starting to plan. The moderators were keen to operate best practices from a public health perspective, but weren’t always sure how—especially when there was limited official health advice available. “Several of us have science backgrounds so we can moderate some content but none of us are pandemic experts,” Emilia says. “This is a wedding planning subreddit!”

They first automatically redirected all coronavirus-related posts to the pinned ‘Daily Discussion’ thread, but the automoderator didn’t catch every post and some people got upset when their posts were removed or redirected. “It sounds easy—all coronavirus threads in one place—but there were a lot of nuances we didn’t anticipate because we got so many different variations on the topic,” Emilia says.

By March 15, the moderators were struggling to keep up with demand and the public health situation in the US and Europe had changed significantly. The mods introduced a daily COVID-19 Megathread, which is now the first thing people see when they visit the subreddit. Comments are divided into months of the year, so members can easily find other wedding planners working to a similar timeline.

Although the moderators say that many subscribers have been kind and thoughtful to one another, the response from the community hasn’t always been positive. After all, most of the subreddit’s active users are currently planning weddings, and are having to face difficult decisions over what is supposed to be a joyful occasion. “Weddit as a community is going through a lot of emotions, and these emotions have changed over time as the situation has changed,” says Maeve. “Disbelief, sadness, and anger are three emotions we see a lot. Lots of anger.” Sometimes this gets directed at the moderators. “People upset or unclear about why their post was moved, upset about no megathread, upset about having a megathread, upset that we’re not explicitly saying you should postpone or cancel your wedding, upset that we’re allowing people to imply you should cancel your wedding, the whole gamut,” Emilia says.

A particularly controversial topic, especially when official advice on social distancing and gatherings was unclear, was whether couples should go ahead with their weddings or cancel. In one instance, a user whose comment had been deleted wrote to the mods that, “Blood is going to be on your hands if you continue to censor any dissent toward brides proudly refusing to cancel and in doing so, risking countless lives.” But in that case, the mods explain, they had removed the post because its language did not meet the subreddit’s number one rule of “constructive criticism and respect”—the user had told the person who posted to “get the fuck over themselves” and “fuck those bridezillas who think their wedding is worth people literally dying.”

Even apparently anodyne posts can cause schisms. In the past couple of weeks, many Wedditors have been sharing pictures of the dresses they didn’t get to wear in an attempt to lighten the mood and maintain a celebratory atmosphere. But dress pictures on r/weddingplanning have always been surprisingly divisive, with some users complaining that the subreddit is overwhelmed with dress posts and that the new wave of dress posts is just copycat spammers trying to reap karma.

It’s been a tough time for the moderators, who didn’t exactly expect to be sifting through posts about a pandemic when they took on the r/weddingplanning mantle. They all say that they are pleased to have the support of each other. Addy, who is also a moderator on some sport subreddits, says the vibe there is notably different: “There, it’s been quieter and more about finding anything to fill the unexpected gap in content, which is a huge contrast from dealing with the (very understandable) stress and crises on r/weddingplanning.” She says that r/weddingplanning is usually her “moderator oasis” compared to dealing with the rivalry, sexism and racism on the sport forums. “It’s so sad to now see r/weddingplanning as the more emotionally taxing place to moderate (although still extremely light on the bigotry, thankfully),” she says.

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Actually, the Spartans Weren’t All That Great

Sci-fi author Myke Cole recently turned his hand to military history with his 2018 book Legion Versus Phalanx. In a follow-up volume, The Bronze Lie, he takes a skeptical look at the myth of ancient Sparta.

“I analyze Sparta’s complete military record, and prove that they were not the super-warriors that they’re reputed to be, and that most people believe they were based on Frank Miller’s hit comic 300, which was then made into an even bigger movie by Zack Snyder,” Cole says in Episode 407 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

The military record of ancient Sparta might seem like an academic curiosity, but Cole says the subject has taken on new urgency in the current cultural context. “The symbology of the Spartans as the world’s ultimate badasses has been appropriated by the extreme right,” he says. “They’re used as this cult-like symbol of the far right, and I show how disastrously unhealthy that is.”

Last year Cole addressed the issue in his New Republic article “The Sparta Fetish is a Cultural Cancer,” which generated a strong backlash. “It really underscored to me that I’m doing the right thing, that people feel so strongly about this myth of Spartan military supremacy,” he says. “It showed me that I’m really mining a vein here that needs to be explored. So it only made me dig in and want to push on with it.”

He hopes The Bronze Lie will reclaim Sparta from the far right, and show that everyone can draw lessons from the actual history.

“They were cowards just like we are, they were greedy just like we are, they showed fear just like we do, they lost just like we do, and they also were capable of heroics and great things,” he says. “I think flawed humans are so much easier to connect with and take inspiration from than this crazy idea of mythical super-warriors, which nobody ever was, let alone the Spartans.”

Listen to the complete interview with Myke Cole in Episode 407 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Myke cole on his novel Sixteenth Watch:

“One of the things I noticed with military science fiction is it’s focused almost exclusively on the war-fighting branches of military service—the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Army—and most importantly on their war-fighting functions. One of the things that’s been a big, instrumental part of my own military experience is that there’s a lot more to warriors than war. The military—especially now, but really always—does a lot of other stuff than fighting, and I’ve never seen a military science fiction book that emphasizes it. In the United States we have this unique military branch, the US Coast Guard, which I had the privilege of being an officer in. … And I thought that would be a really cool direction in which we could push military science fiction.”

Myke Cole on hosting the TV show Contact:

“The show is entertainment. They’re trying to tell a story, they’re trying to entertain. For every hour we shoot, maybe a minute makes it into the final cut, over which I have no input and no control. When you’re offered the lead in a major network television show, you say yes. I went into it as a hardened skeptic, I remained a hardened skeptic throughout the entire show, I am a hardened skeptic now. I certainly think we made a wonderful, incredibly entertaining show that a lot of people really enjoyed. I loved doing it, I loved working with everyone at Karga Seven and Discovery. It was a blast, I would do it again, I love doing television. But I am dead, dead on the line that we have not made contact with extraterrestrials.”

Myke Cole on his comic book Hundred Wolves:

“If the Ottomans had succeeded in taking Vienna, the argument can be made that the Ottoman Empire might have stretched eventually all the way to the shores of France, which is an amazing thing to contemplate. It was a touch-and-go thing. Vienna almost fell, and it was this unprecedented working together effort of a lot of different nations. It culminated in this charge of these Polish winged knights—and they really did wear fake wings on their backs back then, so it really was a charging army of angels, which is an incredible visual sight. And when you look at the visuals here—Turkish janissaries, Cossacks with what we would consider these punk rock hairdos, and these winged knights—the visuals are amazing, which is why I wanted to do it as a comic book.”


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Joining the Stay-at-Home Bread Boom? Science Has Some Advice

Bread is on the rise. The number of people Googling “bread” hit an all-time high this week. Instagrammers and Twitterers alike are rolling in dough—not figuratively, but literally—and bread-making has become such a popular activity during this incredibly stressful time of coronavirus self-quarantining that grocery stores are running low on flour and yeast.

None of this surprises Stephen Jones. Jones is a wheat breeder and the director of Washington State University’s Bread Lab, located about six hours north of WSU’s campus. Jones and his team conduct research on thousands of different kinds of wheat and grain to help farmers and processors decide what kinds of crops will perform best. As you might expect, Jones’ team also bakes a lot of bread in the lab’s kitchen—which they’re still doing, though in staggered shifts, he notes, to avoid contact with one another.

WIRED caught up with Jones by phone to talk about why we turn to bread-making in times of calamity (aside from the rather obvious fact that it feeds us), the spiritual element of baking bread, why you shouldn’t strive for the “Instagram bread loaf,” and how the US’s consolidation of flour mills over the years has contributed to the current shortage of staples.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Lauren Goode: We’ve interviewed you before at WIRED, but you run something called the Bread Lab. So for people who haven’t heard of it before, explain what it is exactly that you do.

Stephen Jones: We’re wheat breeders first, so we work for the farmers. We try to find wheats that will yield well for them, and that we can use in 100 percent whole wheat situations. Tthen we figured out that we needed a laboratory so we could bake things ourselves, with our own students and maybe visiting bakers, to find out the best use for these. We’re completely out of the commodity system, and to do that you need your own laboratory to find out the best use [for the wheats], whether it’s a soft sandwich bread, or a baguette or a pizza dough, or flatbread, or cookie or scone, or whatever. So that’s kind of what we do. We work nationally and globally with people that have lost their regional grain system.

How has Covid-19 affected what you’re currently working on in the lab?

Well, it’s done a few things. It certainly has demonstrated something that we’ve been working on for many years, which is the food sovereignty end of it. The fact is that in this nation we went from about 25,000 flour mills a little over 100 years ago to 163 today. Twenty of those produce about 95 percent of the flour in this country. Right now you can’t buy flour in our area except for the fact that there are two mid-sized flour mills that have started up that are selling it. Otherwise we wouldn’t have flour here. So what we noticed right away is how fragile our food systems are.

We knew our food systems were screwed up, in terms of what the emphasis was on—getting things first as cheaply as you can, and then selling them for as much as you can, and not looking at flavor and nutrition. We also had a hint that the system was quite fragile, in that if you can’t get shipments in or you’re having some kind of pricing issue, you’re out of flour. But literally overnight here all the stores were out of flour and yeast and salt and things like that, that you would need to make breads. That’s not just true here, it’s true in other areas [too].

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

So people are baking a lot of bread right now. Does this surprise you in any way?

It does and it doesn’t. What we do, prior to all this, what we do is help people sort of rediscover that they can bake. We do that in various ways, but one way is when people come through the labs or we have casual workshops, the first thing we do is encourage people to take the pressure off of themselves. This Instagtam bread loaf, you know, the one with the big open crumb, is really not that desirable anyway. It’s not something to shoot for. So—

I just want to make sure I understand. When you say the “Instagram bread loaf” is not something to shoot for, can you explain that?

Well it’s open crumb, so it’s—it’s called the Hairy Forearm Crumb Shot.

[Laughs]

It’s somebody holding up a rustic loaf that’s been cut in half and has these huge bubbles in it and things like that. People think if they can’t do that, they’re failing at baking. It’s part of this notion that your bread has to look perfect to be good, right? People should take pressure off themselves in that way.

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