Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric and writing.
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The missing six weeks: how Trump failed the biggest test of his life

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When the definitive history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the date 20 January 2020 is certain to feature prominently. It was on that day that a 35-year-old man in Washington state, recently returned from visiting family in Wuhan in China, became the first person in the US to be diagnosed with the virus.

On the very same day, 5,000 miles away in Asia, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in South Korea. The confluence was striking, but there the similarities ended.

In the two months since that fateful day, the responses to coronavirus displayed by the US and South Korea have been polar opposites.

One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.

Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.

Some 357,896 tests later, the country has more or less won the coronavirus war. On Friday only 91 new cases were reported in a country of more than 50 million.

The US response tells a different story. Two days after the first diagnosis in Washington state, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”

‘A fiasco of incredible proportions’

A week after that, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion article by two former top health policy officials within the Trump administration under the headline Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic. Luciana Borio and Scott Gottlieb laid out a menu of what had to be done instantly to avert a massive health disaster.

Top of their to-do list: work with private industry to develop an “easy-to-use, rapid diagnostic test” – in other words, just what South Korea was doing.

It was not until 29 February, more than a month after the Journal article and almost six weeks after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the country that the Trump administration put that advice into practice. Laboratories and hospitals would finally be allowed to conduct their own Covid-19 tests to speed up the process.

Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership. Today, 86,012 cases have been confirmed across the US, pushing the nation to the top of the world’s coronavirus league table – above even China.

More than a quarter of those cases are in New York City, now a global center of the coronavirus pandemic, with New Orleans also raising alarm. Nationally, 1,301 people have died.

Most worryingly, the curve of cases continues to rise precipitously, with no sign of the plateau that has spared South Korea.

“The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. He told the Guardian: “We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.”

In Konyndyk’s analysis, the White House had all the information it needed by the end of January to act decisively. Instead, Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the threat, blaming China for what he called the “Chinese virus” and insisting falsely that his partial travel bans on China and Europe were all it would take to contain the crisis.

‘The CDC was caught flat-footed’

If Trump’s travel ban did nothing else, it staved off to some degree the advent of the virus in the US, buying a little time. Which makes the lack of decisive action all the more curious.

“We didn’t use that time optimally, especially in the case of testing,” said William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University medical center. “We have been playing reluctant catch-up throughout.”

As Schaffner sees it, the stuttering provision of mass testing “put us behind the eight-ball” right at the start. “It did not permit us, and still doesn’t permit us, to define the extent of the virus in this country.”

Though the decision to allow private and state labs to provide testing has increased the flow of test kits, the US remains starkly behind South Korea, which has conducted more than five times as many tests per capita. That makes predicting where the next hotspot will pop up after New York and New Orleans almost impossible.

In the absence of sufficient test kits, the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially kept a tight rein on testing, creating a bottleneck. “I believe the CDC was caught flat-footed,” was how the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, put it on 7 March. “They’re slowing down the state.”

The CDC’s botched rollout of testing was the first indication that the Trump administration was faltering as the health emergency gathered pace. Behind the scenes, deep flaws in the way federal agencies had come to operate under Trump were being exposed.

In 2018 the pandemic unit in the national security council – which was tasked to prepare for health emergencies precisely like the current one – was disbanded. “Eliminating the office has contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response,” Beth Cameron, senior director of the office at the time it was broken up, wrote in the Washington Post.

Disbanding the unit exacerbated a trend that was already prevalent after two years of Trump – an exodus of skilled and experienced officials who knew what they were doing. “There’s been an erosion of expertise, of competent leadership, at important levels of government,” a former senior government official told the Guardian.

“Over time there was a lot of paranoia and people left and they had a hard time attracting good replacements,” the official said. “Nobody wanted to work there.”

It was hardly a morale-boosting gesture when Trump proposed a 16% cut in CDC funding on 10 February – 11 days after the World Health Organization had declared a public health emergency over Covid-19.

Schaffner, who describes himself as the “president of the CDC fan club”, said he has been saddened by how sidelined the CDC has become over the past two months. “Here we have the public health issue of our era and one doesn’t hear from the CDC, the premier public health organization in the world,” Schaffner said.

Under Trump, anti-science sweeps through DC

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the diagnostic tests and will control any new treatments for coronavirus, has also shown vulnerabilities. The agency recently indicated that it was looking into the possibility of prescribing the malaria drug chloroquine for coronavirus sufferers, even though there is no evidence it would work and some indication it could have serious side-effects.

The decision dismayed experts, given that Trump has personally pushed the unproven remedy on a whim. It smacked of the wave of anti-science sentiment sweeping federal agencies under this presidency.

As the former senior official put it: “We have the FDA bowing to political pressure and making decisions completely counter to modern science.”

Highly respected career civil servants, with impeccable scientific credentials, have struggled to get out in front of the president. Dr Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert who has become a rare trusted face in the administration amid the coronavirus scourge, has expressed his frustration.

This week Fauci was asked by a Science magazine writer, Jon Cohen, how he could stand beside Trump at daily press briefings and listen to him misleading the American people with comments such as that the China travel ban had been a great success in blocking entry of the virus. Fauci replied: “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?”

Trump has designated himself a “wartime president”. But if the title bears any validity, his military tactics have been highly unconventional. He has exacerbated the problems encountered by federal agencies by playing musical chairs at the top of the coronavirus force.

The president began by creating on 29 January a special coronavirus taskforce, then gave Vice-President Mike Pence the job, who promptly appointed Deborah Birx “coronavirus response coordinator”, before the federal emergency agency Fema began taking charge of key areas, with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, creating a shadow team that increasingly appears to be calling the shots.

“There’s no point of responsibility,” the former senior official told the Guardian. “It keeps shifting. Nobody owns the problem.”

Trump: everything’s going to be great

Amid the confusion, day-to-day management of the crisis has frequently come directly from Trump himself via his Twitter feed. The president, with more than half an eye on the New York stock exchange, has consistently talked down the scale of the crisis.

On 30 January, as the World Health Organization was declaring a global emergency, Trump said: “We only have five people. Hopefully, everything’s going to be great.”

On 24 February, Trump claimed “the coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”. The next day, Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s top official on respiratory diseases, took the radically different approach of telling the truth, warning the American people that “disruption to everyday life might be severe”.

Trump was reportedly so angered by the comment and its impact on share prices that he shouted down the phone at Messonnier’s boss, the secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar.

“Messonnier was 100% right. She gave a totally honest and accurate assessment,” Konyndyk told the Guardian. And for that, Trump angrily rebuked her department. “That sent a very clear message about what is and isn’t permissible to say.”

Konyndyk recalls attending a meeting in mid-February with top Trump administration officials present in which the only topic of conversation was the travel bans. That’s when he began to despair about the federal handling of the crisis.

“I thought, ‘Holy Jesus!’ Where’s the discussion on protecting our hospitals? Where’s the discussion on high-risk populations, on surveillance so we can detect where the virus is. I knew then that the president had set the priority, the bureaucracy was following it, but it was the wrong priority.”

So it has transpired. In the wake of the testing disaster has come the personal protective equipment (PPE) disaster, the hospital bed disaster, and now the ventilator disaster.

Ventilators, literal life preservers, are in dire short supply across the country. When governors begged Trump to unleash the full might of the US government on this critical problem, he gave his answer on 16 March.

In a phrase that will stand beside 20 January 2020 as one of the most revelatory moments of the history of coronavirus, he said: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment – try getting it yourselves.”

To date, the Trump administration has supplied 400 ventilators to New York. By Cuomo’s estimation, 30,000 are needed.

“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” Cuomo scathingly asked on Tuesday. “You pick the 26,000 who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.”

‘A total vacuum of federal leadership’

In the absence of a strong federal response, a patchwork of efforts has sprouted all across the country. State governors are doing their own thing. Cities, even individual hospitals, are coping as best they can.

In an improvised attempt to address such inconsistencies, charitable startups have proliferated on social media. Konyndyk has clubbed together with fellow disaster relief experts to set up Covid Local, an online “quick and dirty” guide to how to fight a pandemic.

“We are seeing the emergence of 50-state anarchy, because of a total vacuum of federal leadership. It’s absurd that thinktanks and Twitter are providing more actionable guidance in the US than the federal government, but that’s where we are.”

Valerie Griffeth is a founding member of another of the new online startups that are trying to fill the Trump void. Set up by emergency department doctors across the country, GetUsPPE.org seeks to counter the top-down chaos that is putting frontline health workers like herself in danger through a dearth of protective gear.

Griffeth is an emergency and critical care physician in Portland, Oregon. She spends most days now in intensive care treating perilously ill patients with coronavirus.

Her hospital is relatively well supplied, she said, but even so protective masks will run out within two weeks. “We are all worried about it, we’re scared for our own health, the health of our families, of our patients.”

Early on in the crisis, Griffeth said, it dawned on her and many of her peers that the federal government to which they would normally look to keep them safe was nowhere to be seen. They resigned themselves to a terrible new reality.

“We said to ourselves we are going to get exposed to the virus. When the federal government isn’t there to provide adequate supplies, it’s just a matter of time.”

But just in the last few days, Griffeth has started to see the emergence of something else. She has witnessed an explosion of Americans doing it for themselves, filling in the holes left by Trump’s failed leadership.

“People are stepping up all around us,” she said. “I’m amazed by what has happened in such short time. It gives me hope.”

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A crash course in virtual teaching: Real learning achieved?

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“Remote teaching sucks. It’s yucky and it is not the future of education.”

Thus spake my wife, a high school English teacher with many years of experience. And she’s right. I teach at a university, and we have also moved to virtual lessons in the face of COVID-19. Even before the current crisis, I already made extensive use of digital tools in the classroom. However, virtual lessons are a poor substitute for actual in-person lessons. Let me take you on a tour of a future that we all should be trying to avoid. (It isn't all doom and gloom, though; we’ve discovered some hidden treasures as well.)

The problem is that teaching is an intimate activity: students give up a certain degree of control to the teacher and trust that person to help them master some new topic. It doesn’t matter how big the class, that intimacy is unchanged for the teacher. Teaching is personal. Yes, from the student’s perspective, a one-on-one lesson is more personal than a lecture delivered to 500 students. But the anonymity and safety in large classes does not mean that teachers are not seeing and modifying their approach via instantaneous feedback from their classes.

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betajames
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Google cancels its April 1 jokes

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thank god
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The only good thing to come of the coronavirus so far...
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Your neighbors are not the disease

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It can be tempting to blame each other for the spread of a pandemic, but the real villains are not the idiots standing too close to each other in the park.
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“Some people are in such poor health that catching coronavirus would have been fatal to them regardless — but millions more will die because they happened to catch the illness in countries where decades of criminal under-investment and pathetic servitude to the profit motive had already left health services stretched to breaking point.”
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How Games Marketing Invented Toxic Gamer Culture

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"A little trash talk is an expected part of competitive multiplayer action, and that's not a bad thing. But hate has no place here, and what's not okay is when that trash talk turns into harassment." This was Microsoft's attempt to draw a line between good-natured put-downs and more toxic forms of online interaction in a May 2019 update to its Xbox community standards. The document also helpfully outlines examples of acceptable and unacceptable trash talk. For instance, "That sucked. Get good and then come back when your k/d’s over 1" receives the official Microsoft seal of approval. But you've stepped over the line if you instead suggest, "You suck. Get out of my country — maybe they’ll let you back in when your k/d’s over 1."

Flash back to 2002, however, and Microsoft's marketing campaign to promote Xbox Live's launch told a very different story. In one print advertisement, a photo of a disaffected young man with a controller in his hand is accompanied by a caption claiming that an Xbox Live opponent "wanted to meet me so he could see the face of failure."

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An early Xbox Live ad, from GamePro Issue 171, December 2002 / retromags.com

Another 2002 ad asks, "Does ruining someone's day make you do the dance of joy?" A promotional video from the same era features a player sneering into her headset, "You guys are so pathetic. You chafe my ass!" Sony was in on the act, too. A 2002 ad hyping the debut of the PlayStation 2's online functionality encouraged players to "reach out and smoke someone," while highlighting the ability to trash talk opponents as an essential feature of the new service.

These ads, along with others from the era, point us toward an uncomfortable truth: Companies like Microsoft and Sony frequently marketed toxicity as a key selling point for their new online gaming platforms. This is a puzzling strategy from the vantage point of 2020, a time when toxicity is practically synonymous with online gaming and too often spills over into real-world harassment. Perhaps these campaigns were eerily prescient in anticipating the downward spiral of gaming culture. Or maybe these edgy advertisements modeled the exact brand of toxicity that the same companies are now struggling to curb.

It wasn't always this way. Ads for online platforms that predated the modern internet — services like CompuServe and Prodigy — emphasized the potential of these technologies to bring people together as opposed to presenting them as platforms to trash talk strangers anonymously. A low-baud modem was your ticket to making friends with people from around the world who shared any number of interests, including games. The Sierra Network, launched by Sierra On-Line in 1991 and later rebranded as the ImagiNation Network, promised all the wholesome fun of "chatting with your friends and staying up all night playing games" on "the network that has the whole country talking." Even ads for TSN's racier LarryLand, inspired by Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry series, remained decidedly tame.

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An ad for the ImagiNation network, InterAction Holiday 1993 Issue / SierraGamers.com

When did the shift toward commodifying and marketing toxicity occur? In many ways, the late 1990s and early 2000s were a defining period for video games — the crucible in which modern gaming culture was forged. It was an attitude-driven era characterized by the intense competition and skull-cracking trash talk of the ascendant first-person shooter genre. Take this copy from a 1997 ad for Quake, showcasing the game's nail gun: "Player 2 feels the sting of raw metal parting his skin and fatty tissue. Player 2 hears the grinding of his sternum as the spike passes through with ease. Player 2 lurches forward as rusty steel hollows out his chest cavity, bursting his inner organs. Player 1, despite himself, smiles." Scratchy fonts, violent imagery, and an emphasis on pwning n00bs were de rigueur for ads from this period. Lest we forget, it's the same era that produced the infamous "John Romero's about to make you his bitch" Daikatana ad in 1998.

Other advertisements cut out the middle man altogether and simply trash talked potential customers directly. "It knows you like running off-tackle on third and short," taunts a 1999 print ad for NFL 2K on the Sega Dreamcast. "Obstinate little tool, aren't you?" Another ad for Sonic Adventure boasts, "Sonic has a new light speed dash. Too bad your lame-ass reflexes are the same."

At the same time, a growing emphasis on hardware specs gave rise to a gaming "hot rod" culture obsessed with dominating opponents through technological superiority. The console wars of the early to mid-'90s had instilled a fierce sense of brand loyalty in gamers — and with it, the fetishization of bits, bytes, MIPS, pings, color palettes, polygons, frames per second, and any number of other quantitative measures of gaming supremacy. Being a gamer meant having the latest and greatest hardware, and the true elite were dumping thousands of dollars into souping up their PCs. After all, as a 1999 ad for 3dfx graphics cards reminds us, "There are two kinds of gamers in this world. The ones who still play on consoles. And the ones who've actually seen breasts."

Speaking of fragile masculinity, the turn of the millennium is also a period when magazines, marketing campaigns, conventions, and the games themselves consistently reinforced the hardcore "boys only" mentality we know all too well today. This was a time when booth babes still walked convention floors. Ads from the era frequently relied on sexualized images and lazy masturbation-adjacent puns to sell games to a presumed audience of straight, adolescent boys. Meanwhile, magazines like PC Accelerator and PC Zone ran contests for readers to win a date with Lara Croft — or at least whoever was currently under contract with Eidos to portray Lara at industry events.

Given this broader cultural context of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it's no surprise to see various forms of aggression, over-competitiveness, and hypermasculinity creep into advertisements for online gaming platforms. In fact, their toxicity hardly seems out of place considering the zeitgeist of the moment.

It's around this time that Sega emerged as an industry thought leader with provocative advertisements for Heat.net, its online PC gaming platform. A 1998 ad for the service includes a disturbing testimonial from a presumably fictional Heat.net player: "I used to take out my bullets, and on each one I would write the name of each person on my bus. Then a friend showed me I could purge my violent urges in Net Fighter on Heat.net against other people. Thanks to Heat, the people on my bus will never know how close they came."

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A Heat.net ad in 'GamePro' Issue 112, January 1998 / retromags.com

Sega explored this theme across several Heat.net ads, coining the term cyberdiversion theory and suggesting if we "satisfy our primal violent urges on the Net, we won't have to hurt people in reality." After all, who needs to talk through their issues with deep-seated rage with a therapist when there's Heat.net? As another Heat.net advertisement from 1997 reminds us, "CYBERBULLETS CAUSE NO PAIN!!"

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Another Heat.net ad from 'Computer Gaming World' Issue 155, June 1997 / cgwmuseum.com

When Sega launched the Dreamcast launched as the first console with a built-in modem, the company turned to none other than rap-rockers Limp Bizkit to promote their SegaNet online gaming service. In a 2000 print ad, what can only be described as a chibi cartoon version of frontman Fred Durst assures the reader, "If you get your ass kicked, it's probably me on the other end of the line."

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A Seganet ad from "Official Sega Dreamcast Magazine' Issue 11, February 2001 / retromags.com

It's an advertisement for Sega's ChuChu Rocket!, a puzzle game about mice evading cats by escaping on rocket ships, that showcases the very worst of this toxic marketing. The ad, which hit magazines in mid-2000, depicts a player named Cap'n Carnage unleashing the following diatribe on her rivals: "I stuck a cat in your rocket, you backass Tuscaloosa cracker. He’s in there chewing your mice. But you probably eat mice yourself when you run out of possum, you monster truck-loving, buck-toothed hillbilly. And you other two mentally challenged dopes. Hang up, I won.”

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Another Dreamcast ad from Official Sega Dreamcast Magazine Issue 5, May 2000/ retromags.com

This rant would almost certainly earn a ban from most reputable gaming platforms today, but twenty years ago, Sega considered it a perfectly reasonable way to sell the first online Dreamcast game to potential customers. While Microsoft and Sony never stooped quite so low in promoting their multiplayer platforms, we nevertheless see similar themes of toxicity and harassment at play in their early ads.

Sure, readers might have flipped past these toxic ads to get to GamePro's exclusive Syphon Filter 2 strategy guide or EGM's preview of the latest WWF game, but they saw them. And, as is so often the case, the ads in question are about more than just selling a product or a service. They teach potential customers how they will use the product, how they should feel about it, and where it will fit into their lives. The apparent lesson here? These online services are designed, at least in part, for verbally harassing strangers from behind the safety of an anonymous handle. As the ChuChu Rocket! ad boasts, Sega and its industry counterparts had unleashed the ultimate horror: your fellow Americans.

Of course, all of this suggests a fundamental chicken-or-egg problem. Did companies like Sega, Microsoft, and Sony identify a population of hyper-competitive, angry gamers and market their online services toward them, or did the marketing of these platforms model an acutely toxic mode of interaction that gamers then seized upon and imitated? The likely answer is that the two are mutually reinforcing. The toxic marketing campaigns wouldn't have existed without the audience, but that doesn't mean the ads didn't continue to shape that audience once they were out in the wild.

Regardless of which came first, what's certain is that the major companies began to steadily back away from these edgy marketing strategies by the mid-2000s. Of course, by that point, ill-mannered 12-year-olds yelling sexist, racist, and homophobic threats at rivals during online play had already attained meme status. In turn, when the Xbox 360 launched, Xbox Live ads were reminiscent of a bygone era: "Distance tears friends apart. Xbox Live brings them together." Similarly, marketing for the PlayStation Network would eventually focus on themes of bringing gamers together, downplaying trash talk and harassment as value propositions.

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A later Xbox Live ad from GamePro Issue 220, January 2007 / retromags.com

We also see this shift reflected in the community standards adopted in recent years by companies like Microsoft and Sony. The PlayStation Network urges its members, "Be patient and considerate. Be kind. Remember you were new once too. You can help make someone’s early gaming and community experiences good ones." Today, Xbox Live encourages gamers to "be yourself, but not at the expense of others."

Yet, at a time when harassment remains a pervasive and very real problem in gaming culture — particularly for already-marginalized members of the community — the aggressive behavior modeled in these early advertising campaigns offers a window into how we got here in the first place. We may think of toxicity as a bug in 2020, but two decades ago, game companies were selling it as a feature.



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Two Quick Links for Wednesday Noonish

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Media Matters: "Fox News' coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic: medically inaccurate, malevolently racist, motivated by politics" [mediamatters.org]

A prescient article from 2018: The Next Pandemic Will Be Arriving Shortly. "As a result, in 2018, it is impossible to reconcile the redirection of funds away from preparing for pandemics with these realities on the ground." [foreignpolicy.com]

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Note: Quick Links are pushed to this RSS feed twice a day. For more immediate service, check out the front page of kottke.org, the Quick Links archive, or the @kottke Twitter feed.

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