Ground Control to Tom Cruise …

Not only is Tom Cruise planning to shoot a film while circling the Earth at the International Space Station, but one of the project’s producers, Space Entertainment Enterprise, hopes to establish a studio there by 2024. “The site will host films, television, music and sports events — although on-site audience capacity is yet to be determined — as well as content creators who want to develop, produce, record, broadcast and livestream 250 miles above Earth,” reported The Guardian. The low-orbit facility will be called SEE-1.

Cruise’s movie won’t be the space station’s first. A Russian film crew had a 12-day shoot at the I.S.S. in October for The Challenge, “about a surgeon who has to operate on a sick cosmonaut in space because his medical condition prevents him from returning to Earth to be treated,” according to the newspaper.

Word that a debt collector named Cui Xiaopan has won the 2021 Vanke Headquarters Outstanding Newcomer Award might have gone largely unremarked upon—except the recipient is an avatar. In bestowing the honor to Cui, the chairman of China Vanke, a property developer, “credited the AI employee for proving much more efficient than human beings in terms of pressing debtors and reminding them to pay,” according to the South China Morning Post.

China Vanke, which has 140,000 employees (virtual or otherwise), already uses robots to prepare lunches, and expects that “40 per cent of its property management services—from sweeping floors to guarding its estates—would be done by robots in 10 years,” the newspaper said. Cui, a lifelike young female avatar, was said to have achieved “a 91.4 per cent success rate in collecting accounts receivable and overdue loan repayments.”

Another kind of virtual reality is in the works for the Winter Olympics, as China has hired Western influencers to disseminate bromides—sorry: fascinating cultural and historical tidbits—to a targeted audience. “Concerned about the international backlash against the Beijing Games amid a wave of diplomatic boycotts, the government has hired western PR professionals to spread an alternative narrative through social media,” The Guardian reported. “Vipinder Jaswal, a US-based Newsweek contributor and former Fox News and HSBC executive, signed a $300,000 contract with China’s consulate general in New York to ‘strategise and execute’ an influencer campaign promoting the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics in the US.”

Jaswal—“well aware” of China’s controversial policies, according to the newspaper—said, “What we are trying to do is to simply highlight the integrity and dignity of the Olympics.” Via, apparently, a contractually promised “3 million impressions on social media platforms frequently used by young Americans.”

An online campaign with the hashtag “saccageParis” (trashedParis), in which citizens have been posting photos of Parisian ugliness—from overflowing garbage bins to plastic café furniture to dead trees—has yielded results: the city has announced a new initiative called “Manifesto for Beauty.” The goal is to “revert when it can” to the mid-19th-century elegance of “heavy wood and cast iron street furniture,” reported The Times of London. “Newly planted trees will be fitted with ‘Davioud grills’, the circular Second Empire plate around the trunk, rather than left open for local residents to plant flowers and shrubs.” And for local dogs to plant other things.

The avatars of Dinesh S. P. and his fiancée, Janaganandhini Ramaswamy, with Hogwarts Castle, where they will host their metaverse wedding reception for 5,000 guests, including the bride’s late father.

On February 6 a young Indian couple will tie the knot in the 3D virtual world, with some 5,000 guests expected to attend their Harry Potter–themed wedding ceremony, among them the bride’s late father, in his avatar iteration. “Software professionals Dinesh S.P. and his fiancé Janaganandhini Ramaswamy, both 24, will enter the virtual set-up by logging in through a website link,” reported the South China Morning Post. “This will take them to the dining room of Hogwarts castle…. Digital avatars of the bride and the groom will wear black jackets and be positioned against the backdrop of the iconic building.”

“Both of us are huge Harry Potter fans, we will be ‘Potterheads’ and meet and greet our guests from across the world in the virtual mode,” Dinesh told the newspaper. Estimated cost for what, we suppose, is a destination wedding of a sort is a reasonable-sounding $4,000.

Last November, when Mauricio Leal, 47, the popular “boy genius” hairdresser to Colombian notables, was found dead alongside his 67-year-old mother—both stabbed, an apparent suicide note from Leal nearby—the obvious assumptions were made. But the week before last, police arrested Leal’s 50-year-old brother, Jhonier, also a hairdresser, and charged him with both murders, which he eventually confessed to, and which had reportedly been carefully planned.

Among Jhonier’s slipups, according to The Times of London, was “withdrawing large amounts of cash from family accounts he now controlled.” Also, the victims’ wounds were made by someone who, like Jhonier, was left-handed; Mauricio was right-handed.

And now there’s a new twist, according to the newspaper: “Mauricio’s businesses were receiving suspicious daily payments of $50,000, swiftly transferred to other accounts. The authorities believe he may have been laundering money for a drug cartel. The hairstylist’s fortune, which his brother hoped to inherit, has been seized by the government pending further inquiries.”

Italy is again applying to UNESCO for “Intangible Heritage of Humanity” status for its espresso, a year after it was initially turned down. The Italian Espresso Institute’s “strict regulations for the perfect espresso include the use of a certified coffee blend, certified equipment and even licensed personnel,” reported The Guardian. “It specifies that the crema, the lighter froth that sits on the top of the dark caffeinated brew, ‘must be uniform and persistent for at least 120 seconds from the time the coffee has been dispensed without stirring’. It says its colour should be ‘hazel-brown to dark brown [and] characterised by tawny reflexes’.”

Sounds professional, persuasive, and worthy. So what went wrong in 2021? “Two candidates were vying to be the Italian entry,” The Wall Street Journal reported last year. “A consortium based in the northeastern city of Treviso put forward an application for recognition of traditional Italian espresso. An opposing bid came from Naples, which sought recognition for the Neapolitan coffee culture. In March, the Italian Unesco Committee spiked both candidacies, advising the groups to come back united next year.” Well, “next year” is this year. Buona fortuna!

George Kalogerakis, one of the original editor-writers at Spy, later worked for Vanity Fair, New York, and The New York Times, where he was deputy op-ed editor. A co-author of Spy: The Funny Years and co-editor of Disunion: A History of the Civil War, he is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL