The Presidential Daily Brief


  1. North Korea’s Long Time Right-Hand Man Gets the Boot

    Kim Jong-un’s uncle, mentor and the man assumed to be the ruler’s No. 2 has been relieved of his duties, according to reports. Jang Song-thaek’s sizable influence dates back to Kim’s father, and some Korea-watchers expected he might fall out of favor as the son establishes his authority. Jang, 67, was vice-chairman of the nation’s top military office, and recently saw two close aides executed over corruption charges. But no one seems to know exactly what the shakeup means for North Korea moving forward. 

    Sources: NYT, BBC

  2. Singapore Tops Ranking of International Test Scores

    The U.S. lags around the middle of the pack, based on science, math and reading exams given to more than half a million 15-year-olds around the world last fall. The once-every-three-years test landed the U.S. at number 17 out of 34 nations, a slight drop. Poland saw a great gain. At least one analyst calls the data virtually meaningless, since it doesn’t adjust for the greater socio-economic disparities in the U.S., while others say the test, like many such measures, misses a major intelligence component altogether. 

    Sources: WSJ, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz

  3. Bronx Train Almost Tripled the Speed Limit Before Crash

    Investigators have confirmed that the Metro-North train that derailed in the Bronx Sunday was racing along at 82 mph when it entered the 30 mph curve. The posted speed on the stretch before the curve is 70 mph. The engineer cut the throttle only six seconds before the crash, and hit the brakes only five seconds before derailment — “very late in the game” according to a National Transportation Safety Board representative. The engineer insists he applied the brakes but they didn’t respond. Four people died and more than 60 were injured.

    Sources: CNN, NYT

  4. UN Investigation Denounces Syrian Regime

    A UN investigation has uncovered “massive evidence” implicating the highest levels of Bashar al-Assad’s government, including the Syrian president himself, of war crimes and crimes against humanity, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said. The commission previously reported that both sides in the conflict committed crimes, but now confirms that the crimes committed by government forces amount to a systematic effort reflecting a policy. Although the Syrian foreign minister dismissed the accusations as “nonsense,” the evidence could form the basis for an indictment against Syrian officials by the International Criminal Court.

    Sources: BBC, CNN

  5. Thai Violence Halts, However Briefly

    Just as Thailand appeared to teeter on the brink of revolution, with police resorting to rubber bullets and water canons, officers were ordered to stand down in an attempt to ease tensions. Four people had died and more than 100 had been injured. The protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban declared a day of victory and reiterated demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, viewed by opponents as the embodiment of the nepotism and corruption that plagues Thailand’s government. The calm is expected to last through Thursday as both sides celebrate the King’s birthday, a traditional day of prayer and celebration.

    Sources: Reuters, The Guardian, Time

  6. Unproductive U.S. Congress Embarks on Year’s Final Session

    Congressional historians agree: with just 60 public laws passed since January, the current 113th Congress is the least productive ever. House and Senate leaders agree on certain “must-pass” items, including Janet Yellen’s Fed Chair confirmation, a farm bill to prevent dairy prices from expiring, and an extension of laws banning plastic guns. But even those could prove challenging. With the House returning yesterday, and the Senate not back until Monday, the dysfunctional chambers have not even managed to sync their calendars, and will likely only overlap for one week before adjourning.

    Source: Washington Post

  7. Biden Seeks Rapprochement with China, Chimpanzee Seeks Personhood

    Detroit becomes the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy. (USA Today). 

    U.S. VP Joe Biden begins Asia tour “deeply concerned” about China’s new air defense zone. (Time).

    Rights group seeking legal person status for captive chimpanzee. (NYT).

    Apple buys trend-spotting data analytics firm Topsy. (Bloomberg).

    Ukraine PM warns of coup as protests intensify. (BBC).

    Why the ”12 Days of Christmas” would make an extremely expensive and impractical set of gifts. (The Atlantic).



  1. Afraid of Heights? Blame Your Grandmother

    A new study by the Emory University School of Medicine provides compelling evidence that memory can be passed through generations and that environment can actually modify DNA. Mice were trained to fear a particular smell, and that aversion was passed on to their “grandchildren,” even if they had never come across that scent before. Experts believe the findings will be particularly relevant to research on phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. In fact, this multi-generational approach might also be useful in tackling public health issues like diabetes, obesity and metabolic disorders.

    Sources: BBC, Nature


  2. Iceland Struggles With First-Ever Deadly Shooting

    Iceland police say they regret killing a 59-year-old Reykjavik man who has become the first ever police shooting victim in the country’s history. With a population of only 300,000 or so, and one of the lowest crime rates in the world, shootouts are extremely uncommon in Iceland. The victim refused to respond to police attempts to contact him and shot two officers before being hit. Although the story would make headlines in few other places around the world, an Icelandic police chief said it was “without precedent” there. “Police regret this incident and would like to extend their condolences to the family of the man,” he said.

    Sources: The Guardian, NPR

  3. South Korea’s Soju is World’s Most Popular Booze

    The drink that Korean pop sensation Psy called his “best friend” remains the world’s best-selling spirit, according to Drinks International. Soju — now sold in 80 countries and featured at hot spots in London, New York and elsewhere — sells more than twice as much as any other spirit in the world. A buttery, malty distillation made from fermented rice, Soju has been a South Korean favorite since Mongul invaders first introduced it in the 14th century. Soju now owns a whopping 97 percent of the spirits market in the country, which consumes alcohol at the highest per capita rate in the world.

    Source: The Guardian

  4. Second Hobbit Film Premieres in Los Angeles

    The second installment of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of “The Hobbit” premiered in Los Angeles last night. Having split the original novel by J.R.R. Tolkien into three films, Jackson launches “The Desolation of Smaug” in theaters on Dec. 13. The Hobbit trilogy is a prequel to the Academy Award-winning Lord of the Rings series, this time following a band of dwarfs as they seek to reclaim their home from a gold-loving dragon. The worldwide box office from the Middle Earth franchise could near $6 billion.

    Source: LA Times

  5. British Olympic Diver Reveals Gay Relationship

    Bronze medalist and 2012 London Olympics poster-boy Tom Daley is in a relationship with a man and “couldn’t be happier.” The British diver, 19, publicly aired his sexuality at a time when the sporting world is still unsure how to deal with such revelations. Cyclist Graeme Obree, who came out in 2011, said it was a “positive day” but warned that Daley may lose sponsorships. With the controversy over Russia’s anti-gay laws in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, this news will may help further normalize homosexuality in sports.

    Sources: BBC, The Guardian