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The Zoom-fatigued person’s guide to connecting virtually on Thanksgiving

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Lisa Long is immunosuppressed and suffers from chronic pain. That means that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the US in March, she and her family, which includes her two daughters, 11 and 14, have been isolating at home outside St. Louis, save for the occasional doctor’s visit. Visiting family is out of the question for Thanksgiving.

But Long will get to be with her nieces and nephews in Utah and Colorado on Thursday. She’ll sit down to dinner with them on Bloxburg, a simulation game on the popular children’s video-gaming platform Roblox. For months, Long has been working with her daughters and their cousins to build a house on Bloxburg, and those efforts will lead to a “Bloxburg Thanksgiving,” as Long puts it.

“We’re going to try to get together to make turkeys and set big tables,” she says. “We’re going to try to get as many family members as possible to role-play and have the meal together.”

Long is among the millions of people for whom a “normal” Thanksgiving is not happening in 2020. State governments have pleaded with families not to travel and instead to hunker down at home; the Centers for Disease Control has also recommended against travel to tamp down spiking coronavirus infection rates.

That means reimagining Thanksgiving virtually. And while it might be easy to send out a Zoom link to family and chosen family inviting them to gather with plates at a set time, you wouldn’t be blamed for feeling disdain about joining Yet. Another. Zoom.

Zoom fatigue, after all, is very real. While companies like Microsoft are trying to work around the collage of squares we’re used to by superimposing cutout figures at a table, for example, the fact is that staring intensely at faces for long periods of time is draining. As we trudge through the eighth month of this pandemic (and counting), signing on to a Zoom might signal “work mode” to our brains, which can be anxiety-inducing and not at all what the doctor ordered for Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind, here are some ideas for making the best of Thanksgiving—and the rest of the end-of-year holidays—at a distance. 

Find another space online to do something together 

Video games have emerged as a social media platform and gathering space of their own during the pandemic. One of the most accessible, family-friendly ways to participate is on Animal Crossing, which requires a Nintendo Switch. Players take on cute avatars, build their own house, explore, and “travel” to other islands if they want.

If a Nintendo Switch isn’t something you have access to, millions of families log on to Roblox to play a myriad of games that offer similar opportunities to connect. Beyond the home-building simulation game Bloxburg, there are competitive sports, fashion-oriented games, and more. All Roblox requires is an internet connection.

Or if you want to dip your toes into the fall’s hottest game, have everyone download Among Us from Google Play or the App Store. Private sessions with up to eight players are available; one to three are designated “imposters” who assassinate fellow players. Think Clue meets Knives Out. A periodic chat function lets players convene to deduce who the imposters are—or commiserate about Thanksgiving traditions.

Other options include Jackbox, a popular virtual party game in which players sign in to an app to play games reminiscent of charades or Pictionary.

If you’d rather not play a game with your ultra-competitive relatives or are looking to zone out a bit, various co-watching apps and extensions have allowed the quarantined to replicate the tradition of watching a holiday film all snuggled up on the couch. Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) integrates a single screen and chat function for groups wanting to view something on either Netflix, Disney, HBO, or Hulu. If your group is more into YouTube videos and drama, Airtime is your way to co-watch.

And if you’re fed up with screens, consider voice games, which require a smart speaker. In the past year, voice games have quietly become increasingly more complex, moving from “choose your own adventure” games and Jeopardy! showdowns to sci-fi tales that embed players into the action. Kids can get in on this too: Pretzel Labs has released a series of voice games aimed at children. One of their most popular is Kids Court, in which Alexa acts as an arbiter for kids’ inevitable fights.

Plan ahead, try different things, and buy some stamps

One size doesn’t fit all. Families should use multiple mediums over the course of the holidays to connect with each other, says Lisa Brown, a director of the trauma program and Risk and Resilience Research Lab at Palo Alto University. “I would not encourage family members to try to check the box and have a single Zoom,” says Brown, who studies the mental-health consequences of catastrophic events on older adults. “We have to choose multiple forms of connecting over the holiday season over a long period of time versus a one-and-done Zoom call.”

But like everything else in the pandemic, successfully finding ways to create sustained connection over time takes a little extra effort these days, especially when it involves introducing new technology remotely.

It’s important to keep in mind that different generations are going to feel more comfortable having meaningful conversations on different mediums. “The medium for older adults is not Zoom and it’s not texting,” says Brown—it’s physical mail. 

In other words, this is the year to send a holiday card or letter to your older relatives and friends. Bake some holiday treats that will keep in the mail. If you celebrate Christmas, consider an Advent calendar. Brown also suggests creating a chain letter that grows as it’s sent: each recipient can add a line to a story or drawing you create together. 

Troubleshoot problems early 

There are other complications when trying to use technology to connect across generations. Navigating the internet can be especially frustrating for some older adults without help or the proper infrastructure. And having a new technology introduced right before a holiday gathering can be stressful. 

Even when connections are fostered virtually, waiting until the morning of Thanksgiving to reconnect might be too late. Older relatives will have to be comfortable not only with how the games work but also with the idea of acting not as “Mom” or “Grandma” but just another character in the kids’ virtual world.

Bear in mind, too, that some older adults will live in facilities where well-meaning technology-powered gifts might turn into frustrating disappointments. Brown gave the example of her own intention to buy her dad in a Florida retirement community a digital picture frame that could display photos from her home—until she called the IT person for the facility and discovered that the building’s thick, hurricane-proof walls meant the Wi-Fi-powered frame would never work there. 

Be aware that nostalgia can trigger both happy memories and sadness 

As the holiday season goes on, maybe you’re considering more structured video-chat activities like carol singing. It’s not a bad idea. But nostalgia could have some unintended consequences this year in particular. Nearly 260,000 Americans have died in the coronavirus pandemic, and tens of millions more have caught the virus. Some families are grieving the dead, while others may be adjusting to the crisis’s long-term effects. Meanwhile, this year has intensified loneliness, interrupted connections, and increased economic hardships. Re-creating holiday traditions virtually could bring comfort for some. But for others, those activities will trigger painful memories of when things were better. 

“When you engage the senses, they trigger memories,” Brown says. “Typically older adults harken back to teenage years, their 20s, but for everybody it triggers times back to our youth. Be aware of the fact that it’s a blade that cuts both ways.” Music is a particularly powerful trigger in general, she notes. Christmas carols can draw out good memories, or remind someone of the people who are no longer here. 

“We know already about how the holidays can be particularly triggering for people if you’re already feeling lonely or wistful, if you’ve lost a loved one or a close friend,” she says. For those in whom the holidays already trigger painful memories or loneliness, “covid has turned the volume up. Those who were a 6 are now an 8.” 

As you’re planning the right way to connect on Thanksgiving, or through the holidays, just be aware of that. Re-creating virtual versions of happy memories from the holidays of the Before Times could lead people to dwell on how lonely they are right now. 

And be mindful of putting too much pressure on people, too. Virtual meetings, even social ones, are harder to turn down than invitations for real-life gatherings—after all, where else would you be? And once you’re in them, they require active participation for the duration. There’s no walk after Thanksgiving dinner when the entire day is on a virtual schedule, after all. 

If you must Zoom

First things first: Get the technical glitches and hiccups out of the way. No one wants to spend a precious chunk of an allotted Zoom call figuring out why your aunt and uncle can’t connect. If possible or needed, a pre-Zoom meeting checkup with the less technically inclined members of your group can be useful.

Then, think about how to make the conversation flow. Once on Zoom—or whatever video-chatting platform you are using—try to move beyond the usual “How are you?” and “How’s the weather?” space fillers and do a group activity. 

“Ask them for a recipe. Ask them to teach you a new skill,” says Brown. “It can make people feel purposeful.” But don’t try to do too much in a single call and turn the whole thing into an interrogation of your great-aunt’s entire life, she cautions. 

Set up a question or two up for each household to answer that evokes more than a yes or no answer. Ask older family members about their memories of the holiday when they were younger, or younger ones about a hobby they are passionate about. Steer clear of topics you avoid in real life (Politics in 2020? Nope), and be sensitive to people who are alone, struggling, or experiencing a particularly difficult year.

And finally: Holidays always involve a great degree of tradition and expectation. But this is the year to be adaptable: instead of defaulting to a virtual re-creation of your family’s normal Thanksgiving dinner, maybe try asking what others might find fulfilling or fun. 

And if your calendar has already filled up with Thanksgiving family Zooms, this is also the time to remember that it’s okay to log off and have some time to yourself. It is the holidays, after all.

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What Musk’s $100 million carbon capture prize could mean

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk, now the world’s richest person with a net worth north of $180 billion, announced on Twitter that he plans to give away $100 million of it as a prize for the “best carbon capture technology.”

He added in a subsequent tweet that he’ll provide more details next week, so it’s not yet clear how such a contest will work or even what technologies might qualify. Carbon capture can refer to methods that prevent greenhouse gas pollution escaping from power plants and factories, or various ways of pulling it out of the atmosphere.

Some startups are developing so called direct-air capture machines that pluck carbon dioxide molecules from the air; these can then be stored underground or used to create carbon-neutral fuels. Other groups are exploring ways of using minerals, trees, plants and soil to pull down the greenhouse gas.

Neither on-site carbon capture or air removal are happening on large scales today, however, principally because they’re highly expensive and there’s limited value for the captured gas right now. But more money and attention is flowing into both areas as the dangers of climate change grow.

Climate models show that vast amounts of carbon removal will be necessary to prevent really dangerous levels of global warming, given how much we’ve emitted and how slowly we’re moving away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, on-site carbon capture tools may offer promising ways of cleaning up certain tricky sectors, like cement and steel production, or to provide carbon-free electricity from natural gas plants when intermittent solar and wind sources flag.

The number of nations and corporations banking on some level of carbon capture removal is rising sharply as they plan to zero out emissions in the coming decades, creating a growing reliance on expensive or unproven approaches—and thus an imperative to accelerate progress in these spaces.

Musk is far from the first to offer up funds to the field, either as an award or a more direct investment. A year ago, Microsoft announced plans to create a $1 billion fund for “carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies,” as it looks to cancel out its entire historic emissions. Direct-air capture startups such as Climeworks, Carbon Engineering and Global Thermostat have all raised at tens of millions of dollars of investment. And the CarbonX prize has offered $20 million to companies developing ways to incorporate carbon dioxide into products, in an effort to create bigger markets and greater value for the gas.

Another $100 million could certainly help whatever venture, or ventures, clinch Musk’s prize. But it will also only go so far. Carbon Engineering, for instance, has previously said just one full-scale direct-air capture plant could cost between $300 and $500 million.

Money aside, however, one thing Musk is particularly talented at is drawing attention. And this is a space in need of it.

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Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

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Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

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Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

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eSports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International, and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s eSports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, Founder, and CEO of VSPN said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, Head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, Managing Director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s Office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

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