Formulas or Code? It’s All Numbers When It Comes to Physics

Everyone already uses computers in physics. At the very least, students use handheld calculators (I doubt anyone is still using a slide-rule calculator). Also, it’s becoming more common to have students solve physics problem by creating and coding their own programs—and I think that is a good thing. If you aren’t familiar with these numerical calculations (another name for computational physics), the basic idea is to take a problem and break it into many smaller and simpler problems. These smaller problems are easier to solve, but you get so many calculations that you basically have to write a computer program to complete them (but you technically don’t have to use a computer).

But as numerical methods become more common, we also have to discuss the role of these methods in terms of the nature of science. I often see quotes like this: “Computational methods expand our tool set in physics. We now have three parts of science: experiment, theory, and computations.”

However, this just isn’t true. You can’t break science into three different parts. Computational methods and theory are really just two versions of a calculation—and they really aren’t that different. I’m going to show you how these are the same, but first let me be clear about the nature of science. Science is all about the building and testing of models. We create models about the way the universe works, and then we test these models with experimental evidence. These models could be an actual physical model (like a globe), a conceptual model, an equation—or even a computer program. So, both “theory” and “computation” are both models.

Let’s start with a mass connected to a spring. I’ll be honest, we physicists LOVE this situation. It’s easy enough to solve but complicated enough that we can approximate many other things as just a mass on a spring. For example, when a block sits on a table, the contact force can be modeled as a spring. Even the interaction between atoms in a solid can be approximated as a spring force. Really, this problem is everywhere. But here it is in its most basic form.

Video: Rhett Allain

I’m going to solve this problem two ways. First, I will solve it numerically by breaking it into small pieces (and using some Python code). After that, I will find an analytical solution—a solution that is a closed form function (like in terms of cosine) so that you can put in whatever numbers and parameters you want to get a bunch of solutions. But in the end, I’ll show you that these two methods aren’t really that different.

Numerical Solution

In order to build a numerical model for a mass connected to a spring, we need an expression for the force a spring exerts. If you take a spring and pull it, it pulls back with some force. The more you stretch it, the harder it pulls. Suppose the position of a mass is given by the variable x such that this is also the stretch of the spring. In that case, the spring force (in one dimension) would be:

Illustration: Rhett Allain

In this expression, k is a measure of the stiffness of the spring (called the spring constant). The negative sign means that if you pull the spring in the positive x-direction, the force will pull back in the negative direction. OK, so there’s a force on the mass. What does a force do to an object? It causes a change in velocity. You can see this with Newton’s second law (again in one dimension).

Yes, You Should Be Using Apple Pay or Google Pay

When Apple Pay was first announced back in 2014, it seemed like a revolutionary idea that would take a while to catch on. Six years later, a little under half the iPhone users out there are paying with their phone, with Google and Samsung Pay growing on Android as well. Apple Pay currently accounts for 10 percent of all global card transactions.

That’s impressive, but I can’t help feeling it should be even more popular than it is. If you aren’t using Apple and Google Pay at the grocery store, it’s time to start—it’s better than a credit card in pretty much every way.

It’s Much Faster Than Chip-Based Credit Cards

To start, credit cards have gotten annoyingly slow, thanks to the new chip-based readers. This new (old) tech is much slower than the old swipe-to-pay credit cards of yore, making plastic a bit more of a hassle. Pull out your wallet, dig through to find the right card, put it in, wait, then do it all in reverse when the reader beeps at you like you’ve accidentally tripped some sort of alarm.

With Apple and Google Pay, you just pull out your phone, unlock the home screen, and hover it over the reader—it’ll “swipe” your digital credit card instantaneously, faster than any chip-based card. You don’t even have to open the app—just unlock your phone and tap. If you have a smartwatch, you might be able to tap it to the reader without even touching your phone.

Of course I’m exaggerating the annoyance of credit cards just a bit here, but I really can’t overstate how fast and easy tap-to-pay is. Pulling out your card just feels archaic in comparison, and once you’ve tried Apple and Google Pay, you’ll want to use it whenever possible.

It’s Available in a Ton of Stores

When tap-to-pay systems first launched, it felt like they were only available at a few select stores—popular ones, sure, but few and far enough between that you were still using your credit card the vast majority of the time. That’s no longer true. Not only have more national chains caught up (from grocery stores to pharmacies to the mall and beyond), but smaller mom-and-pop shops often offer the service as well, thanks to Square and other modern payment kiosks that accept tap-to-pay. In my neighborhood, I have the convenience of Apple Pay at the grocery chain down the street as well as the independent bagel shop around the corner. It’s becoming rarer and rarer that I actually have to pull out my wallet. Of course, this may vary depending on where you live and the stores available to you—but it’s becoming much more widespread.

You can also use it for non-physical purchases, like food delivery apps, online stores like Macy’s and Target, and online ticket purchases (you know, when movie theaters become a thing again). It’ll work through the mobile apps and on websites (though Apple Pay requires a Mac for desktop usage). As long as you have a card in your Apple or Google Pay wallet, you can order that takeout from a new app without having to type in your credit card number. Seconds matter when pizza is on the line, guys.

You Still Get Your Credit Card Points

Whenever I evangelize Apple and Google Pay to friends, I get the same question: “But what about my credit card points?” This is a misunderstanding of how these services work. You aren’t paying Apple, who then pays the retailer. When you tap your phone to pay at Trader Joe’s, it works exactly as if you’d scanned your credit card—the charge shows up on your Visa bill as Trader Joe’s, and you get all the points you’re entitled to, including whatever extra bonus points your card applies to that category (double points on groceries, for example).

You can even store multiple credit cards in your digital wallet, if you like to optimize your points by using different cards at different stores. You’ll pick one as the default that scans when you tap your phone, but you can open the Apple Pay or Google Pay app to choose a different card before scanning if you want.

Yes, It’s Secure

Finally, as with all things digital, some folks are hesitant to switch to a service they aren’t familiar with—especially since digital security hasn’t had the most confidence-inducing decade.

But credit cards haven’t exactly been bastions of security either—as anyone who’s had their card stolen will tell you. In some ways, Apple and Google Pay are actually more secure than their plastic counterparts. Both services use tokenization, creating a unique code whenever you make a purchase—the merchant never sees your credit card number, and even if a thief were to somehow steal that code, they wouldn’t be able to use it to make more purchases. This is the same enhanced security your credit card’s chip uses.

For some reason, though, our credit card chips don’t require PIN numbers like they do overseas, so if anyone steals your card, they can make purchases for you. Apple and Google Pay, on the other hand, are locked behind the fingerprint sensor or face recognition on your device, adding an extra layer of security that credit cards don’t have. So even if someone were to steal your phone, they’d have a hard time using it for a Best Buy shopping spree. Oh, and if you lose your phone, you can turn your digital wallet off remotely with Find My iPhone and Google’s Find My Device.

An Engineer Gets 9 Years for Stealing $10M From Microsoft

A former Microsoft software engineer from Ukraine has been sentenced to nine years in prison for stealing more than $10 million in store credit from Microsoft’s online store. From 2016 to 2018, Volodymyr Kvashuk worked for Microsoft as a tester, placing mock online orders to make sure everything was working smoothly.

The software automatically prevented shipment of physical products to testers like Kvashuk. But in a crucial oversight, it didn’t block the purchase of virtual gift cards. So the 26-year-old Kvashuk discovered that he could use his test account to buy real store credit and then use the credit to buy real products.

At first, Kvashuk bought an Office subscription and a couple of graphics cards. But when no one objected to those small purchases, he grew much bolder. In late 2017 and early 2018, he stole millions of dollars worth of Microsoft store credit and resold it online for bitcoin, which he then cashed out using Coinbase.

US prosecutors say he netted at least $2.8 million, which he used to buy a $160,000 Tesla and a $1.6 million waterfront home (his proceeds were less than the value of the stolen credit because he had to sell at a steep discount).

Kvashuk made little effort to cover his tracks for his earliest purchases. But as his thefts got bigger, he took more precautions. He used test accounts that had been created by colleagues for later thefts. This was easy to do because the testers kept track of test account credentials in a shared online document. He used throwaway email addresses and began using a virtual private networking service.

Before cashing out the bitcoins, he sent them to a mixing service in an attempt to hide their origins. Kvashuk reported the bitcoin windfall to the IRS but claimed the bitcoins had been a gift from his father.

But the government’s complaint included quite a bit of evidence linking Kvashuk to the crime.

He sometimes used the same VPN connection—and hence the same IP address—to access different accounts, allowing investigators to draw connections between his known accounts and those used for later thefts. Device fingerprinting techniques also provided circumstantial evidence linking Kvashuk to the larger heists.

The feds also argued that the timing of Kvashuk’s sudden bitcoin wealth was suspicious. “The value of the bitcoin deposits to Kvashuk’s Coinbase account generally correlated with the value of the purchased and redeemed [Microsoft credit],” the government argued.

A jury found the government’s arguments convincing and convicted Kvashuk on several counts in February.

“Stealing from your employer is bad enough, but stealing and making it appear that your colleagues are to blame widens the damage beyond dollars and cents,” US attorney Brian Moran said in a press release. Kvashuk was convicted of “five counts of wire fraud, six counts of money laundering, two counts of aggravated identity theft, two counts of filing false tax returns, and one count each of mail fraud, access device fraud, and access to a protected computer in furtherance of fraud,” the government wrote.

Kvashuk has been ordered to pay $8.3 million in restitution, though it seems unlikely he’ll ever be able to do that. The government says he may be deported after serving his time in prison.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.


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These Rare Seeds Escaped Syria’s War—to Help Feed the World

In 2014, the remaining staff of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, fled their beloved gene bank in Tel Hadia, 20 miles south of Aleppo. Syria’s civil war, which had broken out three years earlier, had finally made the staffing of the facility untenable. But the scientists had already shipped off a resource of incalculable value: the seeds of the most important crops on Earth.

The destination of these little bits of genetic information was the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frigid facility sticking out of the permafrost on a remote Arctic island. ICARDA staffers had been among the first to deposit seeds after the vault opened in 2008, stashing away unique varieties of chickpeas, lentils, and alfalfa, among many others. They were backing up their own collection, a standard practice among some 1,700 seed gene banks dotted around the world, which are meant to preserve the genes that code our essential crops for resistance to disease, pests, and climate change. Syria’s civil war had been the most dramatic example why you’d want to do such a thing: The treasures inside the ICARDA facility required constant upkeep, and as the war raged on, it became increasingly difficult to tend to them.

Ultimately, the researchers sent three more shipments north between the years 2012 and 2014, before abandoning their own facility. All told, they ended up sending some 116,000 accessions—or seed samples representing a population of plants from a certain location—to chill in Svalbard’s -18 degrees Celsius stacks. Those samples represented 83 percent of ICARDA’s total holdings at the time of the outbreak of civil war.

The conflict in Syria has not ceased, but by 2015, the ICARDA staff couldn’t wait to restart operations: A gene bank exists to preserve unique seeds, but also to distribute those seeds to researchers and farmers. So they became the first—and remain the only—depositors to make a withdrawal from Svalbard, combing the stacks for tens of thousands of samples and shipping them to new ancillary operations in Morocco and Lebanon. From each sample they took only 300 seeds, and started planting. “This was a task that really made us not sleep sometimes at night,” says Mariana Yazbek, gene bank manager at ICARDA and a coauthor on a recent paper in Nature Plants describing the saga.

Seed samples

Courtesy of Crop Trust

After all, they were working with vanishingly few seeds from small samples. If they lost their new crop before it was able to produce more seeds, they’d have wasted that shipment from Svalbard. So they worried about the plants not getting enough rain or facing too many diseases and pests. Crops like wheat and barley dry out in the field as they mature too. “What if a fire breaks and you lose the whole season?” Yazbek asks. “So there are a number of external factors that are beyond our control.”

How Video Game Historians Resurrected Sega’s Lost VR Headset

Whitehouse has been playing emulated games since the ’90s, when he discovered he could run NES classics like Contra on his PC. For the last 10 years, he’s been diving head first into obscure source code, reverse-engineering the software environment necessary to run lost games. Earlier this year, one of the developers for a Sega VR title, a hovercraft game called Nuclear Rush, ripped the game’s source code off an old CD-ROM. He sent it to Whitehouse through a fellow game preservationist.

“When you first get source code, you have to figure out how the original developers build the source code into the game. You don’t always have the tools necessary to do that,” says Whitehouse. “We kind of had to scrape things together.”

In this case, the Nuclear Rush source code contained hints at how the game was intended to interact with the Sega VR. Whitehouse followed those breadcrumbs, believing they might lead to a way to emulate the headset itself on an emulated Sega Genesis. Pieces were missing, though. From another Sega game on the CD-ROM, Monster Hunter—no relation to Capcom’s—Hurley studied and repurposed chunks of code. “I took about a day to hunt down these tools, to hammer them together and build this game into what, hopefully, resembles the form the developers built it into,” he says. Whitehouse was eventually greeted by Nuclear Rush’s beep-boop music and title screen. Then, the words: “Checking for head tracker.”

This was the game’s intro:

2032 A.D.
ELECTRICITY IS IN DEMAND,
BUT THE FOSSIL FUELS ARE GONE.
YOUR MISSION: ACQUIRE RADIO-ACTIVE FUEL…
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
AN INFORMER, KNOWN ONLY AS THE CARETAKER,
TELLS YOU OF SECRET ZONES FULL OF THE WASTE
OF OLD-STYLE REACTORS.

“It’s that same magic feeling I felt when I first saw an NES game running on my computer,” says Whitehouse. “Once it comes together, there’s nothing else really like that.”

Whitehouse simulated a player’s head movements with the right joystick of an Xbox 360 controller hooked up to his PC, and eventually ported the emulation software to his HTC Vive VR headset. Nuclear Winter was running at 15 frames per second; modern VR games hit 100 fps.

“My first thought was, ‘This is going to feel terrible. I hope I don’t throw up,’” says Whitehouse. But surprisingly, he says, it was quite playable. As he sought out nuclear waste from his virtual hovercraft, the Vive HR camera tracked his head in a full 360 degrees. “I can see how the experience could have been significantly more miserable on real hardware than our recreation,” says Whitehouse. “We have the advantage of much snappier, smoother, more responsive head tracking.”

Content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

“The magic of emulation is that we can trick a device into thinking it’s a different device,” says Cifaldi. “The Vive we’re using to emulate Sega VR—we have made that thing a Sega VR. We turned the Vive into something nobody’s seen in 20 years. It’s a magic trick. It’s trickery.”

In a blog post documenting the technical details of the project, Whitehouse has shared an emulator for the Sega Genesis with Sega VR support and the source code for Nuclear Rush. In October, The Video Game History Foundation announced their dedicated source code documentation process. So far, they’ve already restored lost sections of 1990 PC classic The Secret of Monkey Island using original source material. But resurrecting the phantom of a lost hardware hits a little differently.

“It shows the sustainability of the idea,” says Cifaldi. “We’re going back 30 years of people trying to bring VR into the living room as a low-cost consumer experience. This demonstrates how long we’ve been trying to do this and how long that notion has survived in the imagination of hardware developers.”


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VCs Are Pouring Money Into the Wrong Education Startups

The Covid-19 pandemic has compelled students, teachers, and parents across the globe to embrace relatively new forms of education technology (edtech) quickly and on an unprecedented scale. At a glance, it would appear that edtech startups and their venture capital backers have responded swiftly and emphatically to meet this exceptional challenge. But a closer look also suggests some cause for serious concerns, particularly with respect to our most educationally vulnerable students.

Though the pandemic brought about a sharp and sudden economic contraction, overall VC investments have remained surprisingly robust. This is likely the result of both the push of low interest rates as well as the pull of new challenges in fields such as health, climate change, and education. Education technology is a particularly striking example. Since the onset of the pandemic, VC investments in education technology have increased dramatically. My calculations indicate that, though the year is not yet complete, VC investments in education technology during 2020 are already at $9.7 billion, more than twice the amount in all of 2019.

This striking increase suggests that investors see enticing opportunities in the education landscape that will endure beyond the pandemic. But a more reliable assessment requires a closer look at the nature of these new investments. Do they suggest that investors see, in the wake of Covid-19, new opportunities for radical changes in education?

In a word, no. A closer look at recent venture capital activity indicates that early-stage investments—those more likely to target risky and innovative startups—have actually declined since the onset of the pandemic. Instead, venture capital’s focus on education technology is entirely concentrated in later-stage investments that support relatively mature companies. This pattern suggests that VCs are responding to Covid-19 by accelerating existing technologies that are poised to engage substantial numbers of new users during the crisis, rather than seeking blue-sky investments in new, riskier innovations. A recent survey of venture capitalists reinforces this view, finding that they are primarily focused on supporting their existing portfolio companies through the challenges and reliably lucrative market opportunities created by Covid-19.

The exceptionally active third quarter of this year illustrates this vividly. Out of 159 edtech deals, the top seven all involved companies that provide broadly targeted online learning platforms. Together, just these seven third-quarter investments accounted for nearly 30 percent of the VC investments in education technology in all of 2020 to date. These startups include Yuanfudao, Unacademy, BYJU’s, and Coursera—mature and large-scale operations that have already established “unicorn” valuations. The financial support concentrated among these firms allows them to refine their already existing capacities at a time when unprecedented numbers of students across the globe have been turning to online learning. For example, the India-based startup BYJU’s made its services free during the pandemic and saw its user base quickly grow by 25 million. Similarly, the MOOC provider Coursera made its catalog freely available and quickly had 5 million new user registrations and 10 million course enrollments, a 644 percent increase from the prior year.

For ambitious, late-stage edtech startups and their VC investors, the pandemic-inspired rush to engage the massive number of students forced into online learning is undoubtedly a good business decision. And the nimble capacity of these startups and venture capitalists to pivot quickly in response to this demand is also likely to have meaningful social benefits. In particular, the rapid scale-up of learning platforms and resources during shutdowns has likely served as a helpful backstop to the Covid19 “learning loss” that is poised to become a major and enduring policy challenge of our time.

On Section 230, It’s Trump vs. Trump

I will confess, I did not expect to still be writing about Donald Trump’s losing war against Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in December. While there is some genuine desire for reform from both parties on Capitol Hill, Trump’s interest in the law has always seemed more instrumental. The president and his allies devoted a surprising amount of time and energy to the issue in the run-up to the election, in the midst of a pandemic, no less. I figured they must have perceived some hidden electoral advantage to criticizing the law that grants companies legal immunity for user-generated content.

In hindsight, I may have been giving the president too much credit for strategic thinking. It seems Trump really believes his own garbled propaganda about Section 230—namely, that the law unfairly allows platforms like Twitter to get away with labeling or suppressing his posts spreading lies about the election, among other offenses. (It does not. If anything, the law allows Twitter to host Trump’s tweets without fear of being sued over their content.) On Tuesday night, Trump announced that he would veto the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the US armed forces, if it didn’t include a repeal of Section 230. I hardly need to tell you where he made the announcement: on Twitter, obviously. The next day, his press secretary insisted at a press conference that the president was serious.

Trump has targeted Section 230 before, but this is by far the most serious escalation. Past threats have been limited to “REPEAL SECTION 230” tweets and legally flimsy executive orders. Now, for the first time, Trump is demanding specific legislation from Congress, and threatening to use his very real veto power to get what he wants. All of which puts the Trump administration’s position on internet immunity on a collision course with another powerful political actor: the Trump administration.

You see, for all Trump’s stated opposition to Section 230, his administration’s own trade deal with Mexico and Canada—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA—specifically includes a version of the same law. The deal, which took effect over the summer, prohibits the signatory countries from adopting any measures that would hold an interactive computer service liable for content created by others. The inclusion of this provision was seen as a huge win for Silicon Valley lobbyists. It’s easy to see why: Tech companies like being shielded from liability, and as they do more and more business outside the US, they want to make sure they’re protected from expensive litigation in other countries. (House Democrats belatedly and unsuccessfully tried to remove the provision last year.) Even now, despite Trump’s public assault, the US is pressing for the same sort of provision in the post-Brexit trade agreement it’s currently negotiating with the United Kingdom.

I know, I know. Knock me over with a feather, the Trump administration is behaving hypocritically. But the conflict actually raises an interesting legal question: Given our commitments under the USMCA, could Congress repeal or alter Section 230 even if it wanted to? Some observers have suggested that it can’t. “Big Tech has already solved this potential problem—in a way only they can love,” wrote David Dayen in the American Prospect in June. “Adding the Section 230-style provision into the USMCA created an enormous hurdle.”

But according to experts I spoke with, the hurdle may not be so enormous after all. Yes, under the new trade deal, the US has committed to preserving Section 230-type immunity. But unlike past trade deals, the USMCA doesn’t give companies or investors the ability to sue to enforce the provisions, outside of a small set of exceptions. That looks a lot like a right without a remedy.

‘Marvel Puzzle Quest’ Might Just Be My Forever Game

If there’s a bright side to be wrung out of this year’s Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it’s that four days of enforced solitude have never met a better companion than two brand-new video game consoles. On the PlayStation 5, I continued my exploits as Miles Morales, and my wife and I got some co-op time with Sackboy, the newest title in the Little Big Planet franchise; on the Xbox Series X, I dove into Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign. It was an endless sensory buffet of ray-tracing, 4K quality, new controller smell, and minimal load times—with no lines, no distractions, and no sneeze guard necessary.

Yet, even with this massive digital cornucopia at my fingertips, why did I still spend so much goddamn time playing a free match-3 game on my phone?

Here’s the truth of it: Since first downloading it 466 days ago, there’s nothing I’ve played more, or enjoyed more, than Marvel Puzzle Quest. (I’d share the Screen Time data, but frankly, I don’t really need to be confronted with that.) Not only am I not alone in this, but I’m a relative rookie. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been playing daily since the title first launched in 2013. On the game’s official forums, on its unofficial subreddit, and in Line chat rooms where groups of players microstrategize in-game events, MPQ isn’t just a free-to-play mobile game—it’s a lot of people’s “forever game,” the one that stays a constant in their lives even as other titles come and go.

You’ve got questions. Of course you’ve got questions. And the first one is probably “Wait, a match-3 puzzler? Like Candy Crush?” Yes, exactly. The game’s core mechanic is absolutely the same: You’ve got a board filled with tiles of various colors and shapes, any of which can be slid to swap places with any tile above, below, or next to it; if you make a line of three like tiles, they disappear, and the tiles above drop in to fill the void. If you match four or five tiles contiguously, you do more damage and can destroy a row or even get an extra turn.

Those similarities are exactly why my wife loves calling it Candy Crush Avengers. But they’re also the only similarities, because the joy and magic of MPQ is the role-playing game that’s built on top of the match-3 mechanic. For each round, you put together a team of three Marvel Comics characters selected from your roster. Each character has a suite of three powers peculiar to them: Some are passive, laying out special tiles that can compound damage or shield a character from enemy damage; others can shift tiles around, destroy groups of tiles, or send characters airborne to escape damage.

The trick to putting together a team, then, is to find three characters with hidden synergies. (One that’s popular right now uses Polaris, aka Magneto’s daughter; Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket and Groot; and Kitty Pryde. All three have passive powers that combine to create an inescapable deluge of damage-inflicting tiles that can overwhelm even powerful teams within a handful of turns.) It all sounds like a lot. It’s really not. When you first start out in the game, you have a single “one-star” character with limited hit points and damage capabilities—the one-star version of Spider-Man is considered the best of the bunch—but as you add roster slots and level up, you amass more powerful characters from more powerful tiers.

Conferences After Covid Will Be Shorter—and Smarter

A virtual pet parade, a “social shouting” Slack channel, and Zoom karaoke—these are some of the activities that event planners pulled together after the Covid-19 pandemic canceled in-person gatherings and they searched for virtual options that wouldn’t, well, suck.

Like, say, a cake-decorating contest. Tenessa Gemelke is director of education and events at Brain Traffic, a Minneapolis firm that organizes conferences for content strategists, and this spring she was tasked with taking Confab, the company’s long-standing popular event, virtual. The conference is perhaps unique for hosting, among other novelties, separate gatherings for introverts and extroverts. “In the introverts’ lounge, it’s just for people who feel like, ‘I just really want to check my email and please don’t talk to me’; those were really popular,” Gemelke says.

This year was different. “People were so lonely, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. The agenda included fireside chats that facilitated conversations in which people could be vulnerable, but there was also the issue of socializing. “We thought, this is TV, it’s not a party, there aren’t going to be appetizers, but what would someone watch on TV?” Gemelke says. “We always serve cake at the end of the conference … so we had a cake decorating contest.”

In an ideal world, next year’s cake would be served up in atoms rather than bits. But tightly packed in-person gatherings are likely to be among the last types of events that resume once the pandemic ends, which means that conference organizers will hang on to many of the virtual elements that were very much their Plan B. “I think what will come back first is very small local events,” says Julie Liegl, chief marketing officer at Slack. “People getting on an airplane to Las Vegas to go to a convention center seems very far away, but a group of CIOs going to a dinner in Atlanta, I could see that; I think it’ll be the small events that come back first.”

And, curiously, some of the unexpected benefits of online conferences will ensure they continue in some form, to everyone’s advantage: When organizers don’t have to pay for a physical space, they may be able to lower or even eliminate ticket fees. And events that don’t require travel can attract a much deeper pool of speakers as well as a broader audience.

That’s what Tosan Arueyingho, who runs the Black Is Tech conference and networking group, found when it came to planning this year’s event, held virtually in September. Arueyingho decided that going online presented such an opportunity to broaden his audience that he offered tickets for free. Last year’s event, which took place in New York, drew 1,000 attendees; this year, 6,000 people signed up. “Since we didn’t have the cost associated with setting up a whole venue, we had the opportunity to open it up to people; you don’t have to travel, you don’t have to pay for a hotel; that helped us grow quickly,” says Arueyingho, who’s based in Houston.

19 Last-Minute Gift Ideas for the Truly Desperate (2020)

How is it December already? The holidays are here, looming above and demanding you buy gifts for your loved ones within the next week or so. It’s … a lot.

But it’s OK. It’s not your fault. We get it. Everything is crazy right now, and our sense of time is completely out of whack. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of gift ideas just in time for you to save the holidays. All the retailers we’ve selected have two-day or expedited shipping, and these picks should arrive before December 25, though that’s not guaranteed. Whether you’re buying for people in your home or the ones you have to keep at a distance this pandemic season, let these picks spark some ideas for what to get them.

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