Archive for Allana Akhtar

More than 2.5 miles of cliff paintings found hidden in the Amazon rainforest show ancient hunter-gatherers killing Ice Age creatures

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Tepuye de Cerro Azul, the largest of the rocky, image-covered shelters studied by a team of researchers, in the Serranía La Lindosa region of Colombia.
  • Researchers discovered thousands of drawings adorning three rock shelters in the Colombian Amazon.
  • The drawings cover more than 2.5 miles of rock and are at least 11,800 years old.
  • They depict an ancient hunter-gatherer society that lived at the end of the Ice Age, with scenes of humans hunting mastodons and images of other extinct animals like Ice Age horses.
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More than 12,000 years ago, near the end of the Ice Age, humans hunted mastodons: ancient mammals that resembled a cross between mammoths and elephants. But by around 11,600 BCE, humans had likely killed many of the mastodons off. 

At least, that's the leading theory among many paleontologists. A recent discovery bolsters it: Researchers recently uncovered thousands of drawings from an Ice Age-era tribe, hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest.

The drawings are spread across three rocky shelters in Colombia's Serranía La Lindosa region. They were first painted between 12,600 and 11,800 years ago. The largest shelter alone, Cerro Azul, has drawings covering more than 2.5 miles of its surface. The images show some of South America's earliest inhabitants and their interactions with Ice Age-era animals, including giant sloths, ancient llamas, and Ice Age horses.

Some drawings, like the one below, even depict what experts think are mastodon hunts.

Mastodon hunt
A possible mastodon-hunting scene depicted on the side of a cave in the Serrania de la Lindosa region of Colombia.

Thousands of ancient, remarkably detailed images 

Many of the images show unusual levels of detail for such ancient art, according to José Iriarte, a professor of archaeology at Exeter University and a leader of the team that made the discovery.

"The Ice Age horse had a wild, heavy face," Iriarte told The Guardian. "It's so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It's fascinating."

The researchers published a study about the three sites in April in the journal Quaternary International. But on Monday, the University of Exeter released a statement with information about the discovery to coincide with the sites' coverage in an episode of "Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon," a documentary series set to air in the UK starting Saturday. 

Mark Robinson, an environmental archaeologist at the University of Exeter and coauthor of the April study, said in a statement that the people who produced these paintings likely moved into South America at a time of "extreme climate change." The Ice Age was ending.

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Drawings of possible ancient llamas and paleo horses on a cliff face in the Serrania de la Lindosa region of Colombia.

"The Amazon was still transforming into the tropical forest we recognise today," he said. "The paintings give a vivid and exciting glimpse in to the lives of these communities. It is unbelievable to us today to think they lived among, and hunted, giant herbivores, some which were the size of a small car." 

The paintings are so vast and numerous that they will likely take many years to study fully. Plus, Jeison Lenis Chaparro-Cárdenas, an anthropologist at the National University of Colombia and member of the research team, told Business Insider that "the vast majority" of cliffs in the region have not yet been fully explored.

A deeper look into the lives of prehistoric Amazonians

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Ancient drawings of animals, humans, and geometric shapes decorate three recently discovered rock shelters in Colombian Amazon.

In addition to ancient megafauna, the cliff and cave drawings depict alligators, tapirs, monkeys, turtles, serpents, and porcupines. They also include geometric shapes, as well as everyday scenes showing people hunting and interacting with plants and trees. 

"There are many things and moments of excitement and amazement," Chaparro-Cárdena said. He added that most images revolved around a common theme: "the majesty of the nature that surrounded them and with which they interacted in their daily lives."

ochre tablet
A tool used to paint ochre, a natural clay pigment used by ancient Amazonians to draw on rock faces.

The team conducted soil excavations around the rock-art sites to find clues about how the inhabitants scraped clay to extract ochre, a pigment they used to make the drawings. 

Those investigations revealed the remains of animals likely eaten by the ancient people, including piranhas, turtles, armadillos, and capybaras, according to Chaparro-Cárdenas. Modern-day inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest still eat many of the animals found at the sites.

"This shows a great variety of resources that were used by the inhabitants of the Amazon for more than 12,000 years," Chaparro-Cárdenas said.

A perilous journey '100% worth it' 

The team first began studying the region in 2014, two years before the FARC struck a peace treaty with Colombia's government. The Serranía La Lindosa region falls under FARC territory, and entering safely still requires careful negotiations with the guerilla group, according to The Guardian.

The region also has many natural hazards. Poisonous snakes and caimans inhabit the area, which is an hours-long journey from the nearest town. 

At one point, a large, venomous bushmaster snake blocked the research team's path. They had to walk around it, knowing they were far from any hospital, as the Guardian reported.

"You're in the middle of nowhere," Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist who worked with the team on the forthcoming documentary, told The Guardian. But she added that braving the dangers was "100%" worth it.

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The UK approved Pfizer’s vaccine too quickly and without the proper checks, EU politicians have warned

Boris Johnson
  • After the UK became the first Western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, EU lawmakers and European politicians spoke out against the speed of the decision.
  • "The idea is not to be first but to have a safe and effective vaccine," Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn said about the UK's approval of Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 shot on Wednesday.
  • The EU's drug regulator added that its own approval process was more rigorous than the UK's, because it was based on more evidence.
  • But the UK is adamant that Pfizer's vaccine is safe.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The EU criticized the UK's rapid approval of Pfizer and BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, after Britain became the first Western country to authorize a COVID-19 shot.

After the UK approved the shot and said it would begin vaccinating people next week, the EU said that its own vaccine approval process was more rigorous because it was based on more evidence.

Individual EU lawmakers also spoke out, calling the decision "hasty" and "problematic." The emphasis should be on getting an effective vaccine, not a fast one, they said.

The move to grant emergency authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been seen by many as a political coup for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has led his country out of the EU and faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

The decision was made under an ultra-fast, emergency approval process, which allowed the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to bypass EU regulations and temporarily authorize the vaccine soon after it began examining data from large-scale trials.

In an unusually blunt statement, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is in charge of approving COVID-19 vaccines for the EU, said its longer approval procedure was more appropriate as it was based on more evidence and required more checks than the emergency procedure chosen by Britain.

Until January 1, the UK still has to follow European Union rules, meaning that in normal circumstances the vaccine would have to be approved with the EMA to be distributed in the UK. Because of the pandemic, the MHRA was able to launch its own review.

The EMA said on Tuesday it would decide by December 29 whether to provisionally author ise the vaccine from US drugmaker Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech.

Read more: How the pharma giant Pfizer teamed up with a little-known biotech to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine in record time

A spokesman for the European Commission said the EMA's procedure was "the most effective regulatory mechanism to grant all EU citizens' access to a safe and effective vaccine," as it was based on more evidence.

Pfizer UK Country Manager Ben Osborn said, "We have provided complete data packages, the unblinded data, to both regulators. I think what you're seeing is just the difference in the underlying process and timelines, as opposed to any difference in data submission."

June Raine, the head of MHRA, said, "The way in which the MHRA has worked is equivalent to all international standards.

"Our progress has been totally dependent on the availability of data in our rolling review and our rigorous assessment and independent advice we have received," she added.

The EMA started a rolling review of preliminary data from Pfizer trials on October 6, an emergency procedure aimed at speeding up possible approval, which usually takes at least seven months from reception of full data.

The UK regulator launched its own rolling review on October 30, and analysed less data than made available to the EMA.

"The idea is not to be first but to have a safe and effective vaccine," Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference.

EU countries had opted for a more thorough procedure than the UK's to boost confidence in vaccines, he added.

"If you evaluate only the partial data as they are doing they also take a minimum of risk," the EMA's former head Guido Rasi told an Italian radio.

"Personally I would have expected a robust review of all available data, which the British government has not done to be able to say that without Europe you come first," he added.

'Problematic' and 'hasty' decision

EU lawmakers were even more explicit in their criticism of Britain's move.

"I consider this decision to be problematic and recommend that EU Member States do not repeat the process in the same way," said Peter Liese, an EU lawmaker who is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

"A few weeks of thorough examination by the EMA is better than a hasty emergency marketing authorization of a vaccine," said Liese, who represents the centre right grouping, the largest in the EU Parliament.

"There is an obvious global race to get the vaccine on the market as fast as possible," said Tiemo Wolken, an EU lawmaker from the socialist grouping, the second largest in the Parliament.

"However, I do believe that it is better to take the time and make sure that the quality, effectiveness and safety is guaranteed and matches our EU standards."

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Why is my computer fan so loud? 5 ways to troubleshoot a noisy computer

man looking at laptop computer confused concerned
There are severals ways you can troubleshoot a computer fan if it's loud.

As a computer endures use, its fans may begin to work overtime and produce a loud noise. This can be caused by anything from overworking the computer's CPU, to its specific settings adjustment, to the type of computer itself. (Some computer brands run their fans much louder than others — HP is one example.)

How to fix a loud computer fan

As with anything, the best cure for a loud computer fan is to prevent it from getting loud in the first place, but that isn't always possible. For every other situation, give these tips a try to quiet your computer's fan.

Clean the fan

This might sound obvious, but the more you use your computer, the more dust and other debris become trapped inside. A few sprays of compressed air (available at most electronics retailers) ought to do the trick of cleaning out dust and anything else that doesn't belong.

Move your computer's position to prevent obstructions and increase airflow 

It's important to make sure that your computer's vents are not obstructed by anything, especially fabrics and other items that could cause the computer to overheat. It's best to use your computer on a flat, stable surface to allow its airflow to remain uninterrupted. If your computer is inside an enclosed space, like a desk cabinet, you're better off moving it out so that air can flow freely through its fans.

Use fan control software

There are several different options of fan control software available, such as Speedfan. These programs attempt to control the speed of a computer fan without messing with any other settings. Keep in mind, however, that this kind of software has limited applications and may not work with the type of computer you have.

Use the Task Manager or Force Quit tool to close any unnecessary programs

If there are any programs running in the background while you work on your computer, it could cause the computer's fans to run loudly. Use the "End Task" function in Task Manager on a PC or force quit programs on a Mac to close out of any unwanted programs and increase your computer's performance.

Replace the computer's fans

If none of the above steps help and you've exhausted all other options, it may simply be time to replace your computer's fans. This would void the warranty but could solve your problem, depending on what specifically needs replacing. In order to get the best deal possible, make sure you do research ahead of time and confirm that the fans you're trying to replace are, in fact, in need of replacing and not just unusually loud.

Related coverage from Tech Reference:

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Logitech’s new $80 Bluetooth computer speakers sound great for the price and deliver convenient wireless control for a clean workspace

When you buy through our links, we may earn money from our affiliate partners. Learn more.

Logitech speakers
  • Logitech's Z407 Bluetooth computer speakers offer wireless control for a clean desktop workspace.
  • The updated design looks modern without swaying too much towards futuristic, and offers two setup options for a custom look.
  • Though light on codec support, the speakers sound great for the price, with strong bass and nice mids. 
  • Competing in the sub-$100 computer speaker market usually means cutting noticeable corners, but Logitech manages to avoid this with speakers that are sure to be crowd-pleasers.  
  • For more speaker recommendations, check out our guide to the best computer speakers
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

Logitech is a household name when it comes to affordable computer speakers. My first speakers back in college were Logitech and I've owned three more speakers from the brand since then. 

Logitech's affordable speakers are known for balancing solid audio quality with low prices, and they ride that line better than pretty much any other competitor. The Z407 Bluetooth computer speakers look like yet another example of this legacy with both wired and Bluetooth support, adjustable left and right monitors, and an included subwoofer.

But do they sound good? Is it worth spending $80 on the system, or should you save up and get something more expensive? We've spent some time with the Logitech Z407 speakers to find out.

Logitech Z407 speaker specifications

Logitech speakers specs

  • Speaker dimensions: 7.87 (H) x 3.7 (W) x 3.35 (D) inches
  • Subwoofer dimensions: 9.45 (H) x 9.21 (W) x 7.09 (D) inches
  • Controller dimensions: 1.16 (H) x 2.75 (W) inches
  • Colors: Gray
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0, 3.5mm AUX, Micro USB
  • Power: 80W peak power
  • Controls: Wireless control puck

Design

Logitech speakers 3

Logitech hasn't strayed too far from its tried-and-true design choices over the years, but there has been an attempt at advancement. The face of each speaker is smooth and free from gloss accents, and the shape is more consistent than the "free form" look of other Logitech models, like the Z313. The speakers are attractive, if not easy to ignore.

Adding to this, Logitech only offers them in one color: a sort of off-black slate gray that is relatively uninteresting on its own. That said, the result of the more uniform shape and single color option is a speaker that blends in nicely with most environments.

The biggest change from some of Logitech's older speakers is the move from a connected control dial — which was usually attached directly to the right speaker or via a cable — to a wireless one. This wireless puck serves as the nerve center for the device, offering Bluetooth connectivity, volume control, pause/play, and skip forward/back functionality. 

It's also the only place you can switch between Bluetooth and wired modes, which can be done from a button on the bottom of the disc. More on that below. 

The Z407 is not heavy. Each monitor feels almost feather-light in hand and the bass unit, despite its size, also surprises with how easy it is to lift. Extremely light weight is usually a red flag for audio equipment, but that's not the case with the Z407 speakers. 

The last note on design is that the left and right monitors can be set up in one of two ways. They are pill-like in shape, and you can choose to orient them vertically or horizontally. They come with a detachable stand that lightly clips in place and will hold them in whichever of the two positions you prefer. I find both work just fine, but personally prefer the more compact look of the standard "tall" orientation. 

Setup and interface

Setting up the Logitech Z407 speakers is painless. In the box you'll find the wireless control puck, left and right speakers with attached color-coded cables, a subwoofer, the power cable, and an optional 3.5mm male-to-male headphone jack cable. You can also connect using a Micro USB cable, but that's not included. 

After plugging the subwoofer into the wall and connecting the left and right speakers to the appropriate sockets on the back of the subwoofer, all that's left to do is insert the included AAA batteries into that wireless puck and hit the Bluetooth connect button on the bottom. The system will make a noise that indicates it's looking for a suitable Bluetooth partner, and you can then select the device from your Bluetooth menu on either your computer or smartphone. 

Once connected, volume can be controlled by spinning the puck left or right. The top rotates a full 360 degrees and the bottom stays affixed to your desk thanks to a snug rubberized pad. When you spin the puck, it gives you feedback via a light click — almost like the "Wheel of Fortune" wheel if the pegs were made of rubber. It's nearly silent, but you can feel the movement clearly. Pressing down on the center of the puck will pause or play music, hitting it twice will skip forward, and hitting it three times will skip back. These are pretty standard controls, but they work great.

Logitech speakers 3

To control the bass level, you have to press and hold the top of the puck down for two seconds. It will then switch from volume control to bass level, and you can toggle it up or down from there. You have to hold the puck down for two more seconds to revert back to volume control. This isn't a particularly fast process, and there's no visual indication of what level your bass is set to. Instead, the speaker plays a chime when you hit either the max or the minimum bass setting. It's not the best user experience, but it gets the job done. 

To swap between Bluetooth and wired connectivity, you have to use the two buttons found on the bottom of the control dial. Hitting either the Bluetooth button or the AUX button once will quickly change the source. When in Bluetooth mode, you need to have the wireless puck in order to command the connection. While wired, you can use the puck to get access to all the controls found in Bluetooth mode, but you can also fully disconnect the puck and the speakers will work just fine. 

There doesn't seem to be a way to tell the speakers to go to a wired connection if the battery dies in the puck, however, so you'll have to do this preemptively. Still, it's nice that Logitech hasn't make the wireless puck a necessary part of the system. 

It should be noted that only way to connect a pair of headphones to the system is through the AUX port on the subwoofer. Some people value an integrated headphone port right on the front of the speakers themselves, and older wired Logitech models offer this connection right on the control puck. With the switch to a wireless puck, that port has now been ditched. If that's important to you, you might want to look elsewhere. 

Audio performance

Logitech makes it a point to highlight the 80 watt peak power of these speakers, which is up from the 50 watts in the Z313 or the 40 watts of the Z333. Wattage does equate to loudness, but it's not a good indicator of sound quality.

I tested these speakers using a mix of Spotify and Tidal to get a sense of how they handle low, mid-level, and high volume with different sources using both wired and Bluetooth connections. I also listened to music with the bass setting on low and with it turned up.

Because they lack aptX support (only the SBC codec for Bluetooth), listening to music is slightly better when using a wired connection with high quality sources, like Tidal Master Tracks, but there's no noticeable quality change when switching between Bluetooth on an Android smartphone, iPhone, or MacBook Pro. Spotify fans are unlikely to hear a difference between the connection options.

Bass

I want to address the bass first, because this setting will have a big impact on how you perceive audio. The good news is, these speakers do have the ability to offer some excellent bass power. The downside is that robust bass is only available at the risk of overwhelming your other channels.  

When bass is at its lowest setting, music sounds hollow and tinny. It's not the same as having a set of studio monitors that exhibit low bass but do so in a balanced manner. With the Z407 speakers, turning the bass fully down means extracting a lot of the warmth that acts as a backbone to the mids. 

Additionally, the only way to get the strong, fulfilling rumble that I crave when watching movies or listening to specific songs is to turn the bass up to its max. I try to get the speakers to give me that rumble at slightly lower settings, but that punch is always the first thing to go. So, while you'll get more balanced bass at about 50% power, you will lose that sought-after chest-rattling boom.

Volume levels

At low volume, the speakers are at their weakest. With bass tuned up, the speakers don't do a particularly good job balancing the lows with the mids and highs. Highs especially get overwhelmed, so playing music in the background while I work tends to turn into a rumbly experience that buries any subtlety. With bass at its lowest, music suffers from the hollowness I described earlier.

Meanwhile, at maximum volume, these speakers get incredibly loud with shockingly powerful bass. You can very easily fill a living room with sound from the Z407, and quality generally holds up. You can hear the speakers struggling a bit with keeping balance, but they do an admirable job and it's unlikely you'll find yourself jamming out with these at max volume anyway. 

On that note, most people will be listening to audio somewhere in between those two extremes, and that's where the Z407 excels. At moderate volumes, about 30% to 70% of the max, these speakers perform their best. Overall audio quality cleans up considerably and the balance is much better. I think anyone listening through these speakers at mid-volume levels is going to be thrilled with the $80 spent.

If you're especially critical of speakers, you might notice that clarity is a little lacking and the transition between different frequencies is a bit rough. Higher quality speakers give a smoothness to audio that resembles how a sine wave looks, while these speakers are more akin to several bars in a graph lined up against one another — a transition for sure, but not a smooth one.

However, these complaints are not something most people shopping for a sub-$100 speaker are going to care about or even notice, and these speakers perform very well for their price. 

The bottom line

Logitech speakers 5

Discerning audiophiles will of course find areas to complain about when it comes to balance, but most buyers looking for an affordable pair of $80 computer speakers will be extremely happy with the wireless features, sound quality, and bass from the Z407

What are your alternatives?

The Logitech Z407 speakers is positioned against several alternatives, but navigating between them all is a real challenge: there are some good options, and a lot of noise — pardon the pun. 

In many ways, Logitech is actually competing against itself in the budget range, with the $40 Z313 and the $70 Z333 speakers both still widely available. Other similar computer speakers, like the Bose Companion 2 Series III or Edifier R1280T, are a little more expensive and don't include a subwoofer or offer Bluetooth functionality. 

If you're intent on sticking to a budget, it's hard to beat the Logitech Z407 when looking at what you get for the price. 

Pros: Good design, easy to set up, intuitive wireless controls, solid audio quality, powerful bass for size, affordable price

Cons: Unbalanced audio channels at low and high volumes, no easy-access headphone port, no visual indicator for bass level, only SBC Bluetooth codec

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4 things you can do today to feel better about your money, according to an expert

master your money banner no fidelity
making a plan
Small wins add up to big results when it comes to financial planning. (Author not pictured.)
  • Data shows that people are more engaged with their money than before the pandemic. 
  • A crisis is as good a time as any to get your finances in order, and there are small ways you can get started today.
  • Start by taking inventory of your current financial situation and clearly defining your goals.
  • Next, make small monthly transfers to build up an emergency fund and review your insurance to make sure all your assets are protected. 
  • This article is a contributed piece as part of a series focused on millennial financial empowerment called Master your Money.

2020 has been an intense, emotional year, and with uncertainty running high, a lot of people are feeling particularly stressed about their finances;

The good, and perhaps surprising, news is that we've actually seen people engage more with their finances throughout the pandemic. According to recent Schwab data, 40% of Americans are saving more, 24% are more likely to have a financial plan, and 22% are more likely to be investing than during pre-pandemic times. Engagement is the key to decreasing anxiety and boosting confidence.

If you want to seize the moment and start 2021 with your financial house in order, get moving on this financial empowerment checklist: 

1. Do something

Lying awake at night or burying your head in the sand altogether — those aren't strategies. Instead, try the simple yet empowering first step of taking financial inventory. Assess your income, assets, investments, debts, credit score, and any other key finances to get a clear picture of where you stand. From there, develop a detailed budget to keep things on track.

2. Plan it out

Whether it's for a big interview, a bucket-list trip, or a wedding, we all know that advanced planning increases confidence and typically leads to better outcomes. Building a plan from the ground up can seem daunting, but it is one of the best ways to alleviate the questions and anxiety keeping you up at night. Just make sure that you start by clearly articulating your goals. The next steps will flow from there. 

In other good news, complementary and low-cost financial planning resources, tools, apps, and robo-advisors are readily available to help you through the process. 

3. Cushion the blow

If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we can't predict everything life will throw our way. That's why having a solid emergency fund to help you manage through a potential setback is so critical. Emergency savings can help reduce the chances of going into debt or adding more debt during an already challenging time. 

My colleague Amy Richardson, a Certified Financial Planner with Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium, typically advises her clients to set aside three to six months of expenses. However, don't get overwhelmed if you don't have the funds available right now. Saving up over time will be more manageable (and less stress-inducing) than you think if you are consistent. Consider automating your savings by setting up small, achievable monthly transfers and watch your emergency fund grow at a steady pace. 

4. Cover your assets

Everyone knows how critical it is to have health insurance, but have you factored other types of personal insurance, like renter's or long-term disability insurance, into your overall financial plan? 

Insurance might feel like an unnecessary cost — especially if you are aiming to whittle down your monthly expenses — but having that extra cushion if you need it can be meaningful to your long-term financial success. During an already uncertain time, insurance can add a layer of security and soften the blow of a theft or accident, and it's pretty affordable to boot. 

Keep it up 

When so much seems beyond your control, it's crucial to focus on what you can do to get that much-needed peace of mind. Small wins add up to big results, and making a thoughtful financial plan goes a long way. 

The end of the year is a good reminder that our situations change with time, so remember to come back to your fundamentals regularly — at least once a year — and adjust accordingly.

Cynthia Loh is vice president of Digital Advice and Innovation at Charles Schwab and a member of BI's Money Council.

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10 affordable online classes, networks, and resources to help you get freelance writing jobs

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Courses in freelance writing 4x3

For both new and experienced writers, freelancing can be a great pathway to professional growth. The ability to come up with creative ideas, write clearly, self-edit, and adhere to deadlines can land you work at newspapers, magazines, websites, ad agencies, retailers, and non-profits, for starters. It can be a competitive field, but there's also tons of opportunity and flexibility. 

British journalist Robert Fisk once said, "everyone wants to be an author," yet not everyone can deliver the goods or makes a living from freelance writing. If you dream of becoming a professional writer, a couple of skills make all the difference. Obviously, the first part is the craft itself, but you also need to steep yourself in the business of writing. This means finding and joining networks, learning from people who know the rules of the game, and continually refining what you already know as industries undergo changes.

The resources on this page will steer you through the full arc, from ideation to selling your work and building your brand. 

Learn what it takes to be a published freelance writer with these free and affordable resources, all created by top-tier writers and teachers.

Like the idea of making money from writing but not sure what that looks like for you? This book can help. Petit explains what freelance writing involves, where to sell your work, and how to approach commissioning editors. Perhaps most usefully, the book walks you through how the industry works and how your ideas can fit into it. Sections on story anatomy, interview tips, and common publishing terms are handy if you're new to writing or don't have connections in the business.

Almost every freelance article that gets published has a "news hook", which is when an idea relates to or explains a current event or cultural moment. Being able to spot a news hook is vital if you want to sell your work. Knowing what makes topics newsworthy and how to report them can also give you a competitive edge, and will help you refine how you present your ideas.

This beginner course by journalist Joshua McGuigan covers the building blocks of news journalism. Nail these and you'll be a step closer to winning over readers and commissioning editors.

"New York Times" editor Tim Herrera knows good writing, and can teach you how to achieve it. Together with other industry insiders, Tim's mission is to help you make money from your words. The bulk of the learning takes place via email newsletter, and focuses on practical, effective skills (for example, recent content includes real-life pitch letters and tactics to find more work). As a bonus, there's a roster of regular Zoom meetings, where successful freelance writers reveal how they generate ideas and sell stories to the biggest publishers out there.

The Knight Center's courses have a global reputation — so much so that, in almost any circle of professional writers, it's very likely someone has gone through this training.

Courses are self-paced and taught through video and reading materials, typically running 4-6 weeks. 

Don't want to be a journalist? These quality courses teach transferable skills in everything from research to finding and breaking exclusive stories, making them useful for writers of all stripes.

Solutions journalism is a form of storytelling that explains why things work the way they do. As the name implies, it reports on people and systems that make a positive difference. Traditional news and storytelling tends to focus on problems, but there's a growing appetite for content that helps readers and communities move forward.

This Learning Lab course takes around two hours to read through, with quizzes and examples along the way. Of particular note are interactive story blocks that explain how real stories are structured – which you can apply to your writing across the board.

Being able to write eye-catching headlines is a nice touch when you're writing feature articles. It's also the secret to writing emails that editors actually open (which ultimately brings you closer to getting an assignment). Starshine Roshell's course deftly steers you through the basics, so you can feel confident about writing powerful headlines that make editors excited and eager to read your work.

Attention to detail is a key attribute for any writer. It shows you care about your work and respect your editor's time – and that's a good foundation for any professional relationship. On the flip side, work that looks sloppy (or worse, contains factual errors) can kill your chances of getting commissioned. Heather Saunders' online course helps you side-step those dangers, revealing how to polish and perfect your writing for editors and audiences alike.

Once you've got the basics under your belt – how and what to write – Writer's Market lifts the lid on where to send your work. This bible of the writing industry lists an incredible range of magazines and journals, with details about who to pitch, how to contact them, and what they pay. There's even advice on writing query letters, understanding contracts, and managing your earnings.

The BBC is one of the world's most trusted content providers, and their training programs have a similar level of prestige. Digital Cities offers free training sessions that are run regularly throughout the year. Content addresses a wide range of creative industries, and writers can find fresh ways to build brand presence and sell their work. Live sessions run to UK times but catch-up content is available via the site and social media channels.

Think of the Society of Freelance Journalists as a kind of vast, virtual concourse. The main hub is a Slack messaging channel, which is a space to chat with freelance writers all over the world, share ideas, and ask for help. This alone makes it a fantastic resource – freelance writing is often a solo venture, so it's worth building your network early. The cherry on top is the number of jobs and writing opportunities posted to the channel: you may well find your next commission here. Another great, affordable option is Study Hall, which sends you a weekly newsletter of freelance pitch requests, gigs, fellowships, and full-time writing jobs, while also providing a Slack channel and email listserv to keep you connected to other writers.

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Private spies reportedly infiltrated an Amazon strike, secretly taking photos of workers, trade unionists, and journalists. Now a union is taking legal action.

Amazon protest Jeff bezos mask
November 2018: An Amazon worker with a mask of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos posing during a strike on Black Friday in the main logistic center protesting demanding better working conditions.
  • Private spies sub-contracted by the infamous Pinkerton Agency, a firm Amazon employs, infiltrated and photographed a worker strike at a warehouse on Black Friday 2019, according to a Spanish media report.
  • The spies compiled a 51-page document, which included photos of trade unionists, workers, and journalists who attended the strike, Spanish news site El Diario reported.
  • Amazon has used Pinkerton spies to track warehouse workers and labor movements at the company in the past, according to a November report.
  • Spanish labor union CCOO has asked a judge to seize documentation relating to the report ahead of potential legal action against Amazon. An Amazon spokesperson told El Diario the e-commerce firm had not instructed Pinkerton or any other agency to spy on the strike.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Amazon is facing a potential court battle with a Spanish workers' union over a report that private investigators were hired to infiltrate and secretly surveil a strike outside one of its warehouses.

According to a 51-page document obtained by Spanish news site El Diario, private detectives spied on an Amazon workers' strike at a warehouse near Barcelona on Black Friday in 2019. The strike was part of a broader freight workers' strike in the province of Catalonia.

Per El Diario, the private detectives who compiled the document were employed by a Spanish company called Castor and Polux, which had been sub-contracted by the Pinkerton Agency. A November Motherboard report revealed that Amazon employs the Pinkerton Agency to monitor union activity across Europe

The document contained photographs of trade unionists, workers, and even journalists who attended the strike, according to the El Diario report.

An excerpt from the document reads: "We saw a group of people meeting, who could be seen wearing CCOO and UGT union [two Spanish workers unions] bibs/vests. They're recorded for possible identification at subsequent events." This was accompanied by a photograph.

Castor and Polux declined to comment when contacted by El Diario, citing client confidentiality. An Amazon spokesperson told El Diario the e-commerce firm had not instructed Pinkerton or any other agency to spy on the strike.

Amazon and the Pinkerton Agency did not respond to a request for comment. Business Insider has also contacted Castor and Polux for comment.

The Spanish labor union CCOO on Tuesday announced it planned to bring legal action against Amazon. Ricard Bellera, CCOO Secretary for Work and Economy in Catalonia, told Business Insider the union had asked a judge to seize both the 51-page report covered by El Diario and any documents showing any agreement between Castor & Polux and Amazon.

"CCOO wants to know if Amazon carried out, through a contracted company, exhaustive monitoring of people, photographs, and prepared reports of workers and trade unionists of CCOO. The union will assess with its legal services the filing of a criminal lawsuit against Amazon," the union said in a press release

It added that if the report is proven to be true, it will mean Amazon has broken Spain's constitutional laws on right to assembly and data privacy.

This isn't the first report of secret operatives infiltrating an Amazon warehouse.

Motherboard reported Pinkerton agents were deployed inside a warehouse in Poland in 2019 to investigate whether management was coaching candidates on how to complete job interviews. At the time of the report, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski told Business Insider that the firm partners with Pinkerton to "secure high-value shipments in transit," not to gather intelligence on warehouse workers, and that all activities are "fully in line with local laws."

Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the international UNI Global Union, told Business Insider in a statement that Amazon was "using its immense power and resources to snoop on workers looking to improve their jobs."

"As bad as spying on workers is, it doesn't come in a vacuum. There's a pattern here — Amazon's enormous appetite for growth is bad for our societies. This is why on Black Friday more and more people who believe in the dignity of work and the politics of the common good went on strike to stand up to Amazon and demanding change," she added.

This year on Black Friday Amazon workers and activism groups in fifteen countries staged protests against the company demanding better pay and benefits, an end to worker and union surveillance, and commitment to sustainability under the slogan "Make Amazon Pay."

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Biden said he’d ‘end forever wars,’ but he’s shown few signs that he won’t repeat the mistakes of the past, human rights groups warn

Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province January 11, 2011.
  • President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to "end forever wars," but human rights groups are concerned by a lack of specifics behind this vow. 
  • "Withdrawing troops in itself does not end those wars, or US involvement in them, if the US continues to conduct air strikes, whether by drones or by piloted aircraft," Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International told Insider. 
  • Biden has been fairly silent on topics like drone strikes and air strikes, and hasn't outlined how he'd work to prevent civilian casualties. 
  • "Abusive US counterterrorism policies are a threat to national security as well," Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch told Insider, warning that civilian casualties "fuel grievances that groups like ISIS love to exploit."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to "end forever wars," a proposal that's politically palatable to a majority of Americans after roughly 20 years of continuous foreign conflict. But human rights groups are concerned about the lack of specifics behind Biden's vague promise and his relative silence on issues such as drone and air strikes. 

"My primary concern is that while he, like other candidates, suggested he wanted to wind down the 'endless wars' ... most of the discussion has been about withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere," Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of Security With Human Rights, told Insider.

"But withdrawing troops in itself does not end those wars, or US involvement in them, if the US continues to conduct air strikes, whether by drones or by piloted aircraft," Eviatar added. "It's not at all clear from Biden's statements ... whether the new administration plans to end or reduce air strikes, or to make more of an effort to protect civilians from being killed or injured by them, if they continue." 

The president-elect needs to "recognize that undeclared wars are still wars if hostilities reach a certain intensity or duration," Letta Tayler, an associate director in the Crisis and Conflict Division at Human Rights Watch, told Insider.

"And if the US targets a terrorism suspect outside of an armed conflict situation, then the rules on lethal strikes are even stricter: the targeted person must pose an imminent threat to life and cannot be stopped using less extreme means like capture," said Tayler, whose work focuses on terrorism and counterterrorism.

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Yemeni men walk past a mural depicting a US drone and reading " Why did you kill my family" on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa.

Biden should avoid repeating Obama's mistakes

Biden's pick for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, played a key role in establishing the legal framework of the Obama administration's use of drones and drone strikes. Progressive groups have already expressed concern about Haines in this regard, with some worrying the Biden administration will simply be a continuation of the Obama era when it comes to foreign policy. 

Biden's economic recovery plan has been dubbed "Build Back Better." Tayler suggested extending this philosophy and commitment "to US counterterrorism policy — and not by simply replicating Obama's drones program, which killed thousands of people with grossly insufficient transparency."

"'Build Back Better' in this context includes ensuring that the US commitment to core principles like the presumption of innocence and victims' right to redress extend to all people, including terrorism suspects and their family members," Tayler added. "The US abandonment of those values in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has been a blight on the country ever since and Obama only partially reversed the course."

Time is of the essence because 'lives are at stake'

The global "war on terror" has been ongoing for almost two decades, displacing at least 37 million people, killing over 800,000, and costing the US government over $6.4 trillion, according to a recent report from Brown University's Costs of War project. As a senator, Biden voted in favor of authorizing the use of military force that paved the way for the US to wage war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries across the globe.

It's been 19 years and counting since the initial invasion, and US troops are still stationed in Afghanistan. Though the Islamic State lost its caliphate, or territorial holdings, US troops also remain in Iraq and Syria. American service members are also scattered across Africa and involved in counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes, throughout the continent. 

Despite objections and concerns from some members of Congress, including Republicans, President Donald Trump has made the abrupt move to withdraw large numbers of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq before he leaves the White House. The president, much like Biden in 2020, pledged to put a stop to endless wars during his 2016 campaign. 

The president-elect, who has promised to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan, is unlikely to break from Trump's plan in a major way. 

US Army Syria
A member of the US Army holds a biscuit and candy in his hand to distribute to children in Syria before launching his convoy in the patrol.

Biden's campaign website said he would put a stop to the "forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East," and "end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen." The site added that a Biden administration would "narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS." In September, Biden told Stars and Stripes he wants to keep a small military footprint in the Middle East with a focus on special operations in coordination with allies against ISIS and other terror groups. 

But the site said nothing about drones, which were central to the US government's approach to counterterrorism when Biden was vice president.

The president-elect's transition website is also devoid of references to drone and air strikes.

And it's difficult to point to any specific remarks Biden has made on drones over the years, which could be linked to the fact that it's a touchy subject for the Obama administration. 

If Biden's silence on these matters "means he intends to consult with all sides, including rights and victims groups, before forming and announcing a policy, that's a good sign," Tayler said. "But he shouldn't wait long. Lives are at stake."

'Bar the CIA from carrying out drone strikes'

The use of drones in counterterrorism operations began under former President George W. Bush, but the drone war expanded drastically under former President Barack Obama. 

The Obama administration used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, for purposes of surveillance and targeted killings. Obama saw drones as a means of going after suspected terrorists without putting US troops in harms way. But Obama's drone war led to numerous civilian casualties and raised myriad legal and ethical questions.

Obama
President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013.

During his presidency, Obama faced repeated criticism from human rights groups, civil liberties organizations, and the media over a lack of transparency surrounding the drone program, as well as the administration's dubious legal justifications for targeted killings in places where the US was not technically at war.

As Insider previously reported, a total of 563 strikes, primarily by drones, were conducted in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen during Obama's two terms, killing between 384 and 807 civilians, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported. There were 10 times more covert air strikes as part of the war on terror under Obama than Bush, according to the Bureau, which has tracked US drone strikes for years.

In 2013, Obama moved to limit the CIA's ability to carry out drone strikes, shifting most of the operations over to the Pentagon as part of an effort to improve transparency and accountability. Trump reversed course, granting the CIA more authority to conduct drone operations. 

"One of Biden's first steps should be to bar the CIA from carrying out drone strikes and other targeted killings. Unlike the US armed forces, the CIA as a general rule provides no information on its role in lethal strikes, including what kinds of investigations it conducts when it kills the wrong people," Tayler said.

'Abusive' counterterrorism policies help terrorist groups like ISIS

Late into his second term, Obama signed an executive order designed to increase transparency on drone strikes and avoid civilian casualties. The order represented a small step away from the opaqueness that has typified the US drone program, but Trump abandoned the changes and escalated the drone war.

Trump also increased air strikes more generally. Civilians casualties skyrocketed as a consequence. 

Donald Trump

"We saw a huge increase in air strikes during the Trump administration, and a corresponding huge increase in civilians killed and injured from those air strikes," Eviatar said, noting that Amnesty documented 1,600 civilians killed from a four-month campaign in Syria alone.

"The Trump administration changed targeting rules to make it much easier to kill suspected 'terrorists' even if civilians were likely to be harmed in the process," she added. "Biden needs to make clear he'll change those rules immediately and follow the standards set out in international human rights law for the use of lethal force."

Tayler said that Biden should also consider the fact that jihadist groups receive a disproportionate amount of attention in relation to the level of threat they pose to the US, while warning that "abusive US counterterrorism policies are a threat to national security as well." 

"The vast majority of attacks by Islamist extremist groups or their followers take place outside the West," Tayler said. "Indiscriminate or disproportionate killings of civilians, with scant transparency or accountability, are short-sighted as well as unlawful because they fuel grievances that groups like ISIS love to exploit."

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

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Why Volkswagen stopped making its most iconic car, the VW Beetle

  • The Volkswagen Beetle sold over 23 million units in its 81-year run.
  • From its dark origins in 1930s Nazi Germany to the "Summer of Love" in 1967, the VW Beetle is one of the most recognizable cars ever made.
  • In 2019 the final Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico — but after eight decades, has it finally hit the end of the road? Scott Keogh, Volkswagen America CEO, says "never say never."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. 

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator:  From its dark origins in Nazi Germany to the "Summer of Love" and the big screen, the Volkswagen Beetle is one of the most recognizable cars ever made. In its 81-year run, the quirky car sold over 23 million units and left tread marks on 91 countries worldwide.

But in 2019, Volkswagen officially produced its last Beetle. So, how did this tiny German car take over the world, and has it really met its end?

The Volkswagen dates all the way back to the 1930s, commissioned by none other than Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator wanted a car that the general public could afford. So Hitler tapped engineer and Nazi Party member Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, that Porsche. He designed the Volkswagen, or "the people's car."

Jason Torchinsky: Out of all the ideas the Nazis had, it's the one non-terrible idea because a cheap car for everybody is sort of the thing that the Model T was in America and the Mini was in the UK.

Narrator: The Volkswagen Type 1 was a two-door car with an air-cooled engine in the back. Production began in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1938. But when World War II started, manufacturing for the general public stopped. The only Volkswagens made at the time were for military officials. Hitler himself drove a convertible version.

After the war, the British took over the factory, and within the first year, they'd produced 10,000 Beetles, because it filled the demand for cheap and practical cars across war-torn Europe.

Torchinsky: Plus it was good on gas, which was still expensive and in short supply in a lot of places. Part of the reason it's got such a curved design is to minimize the amount of sheet metal that it uses. So, it was a resource-efficient design, relatively. It took a lot of human power to build them. But that was actually a good thing at the time because they wanted to give people jobs.

Narrator: In 1949, Volkswagen took the Beetle to the United States, and it was a massive success. Unlike the big, flashy cars popular of that era, with their chrome and fins, the Beetle's modest size and teardrop shape stood out.

Torchinsky: If you look at it head-on, the biggest thing you'll notice compared to an average car of, like, say, the '50s or '60s, is there's no big grill. It's not intimidating in any way. It's got big, round headlights, like big friendly eyes. It wasn't aggressive, it wasn't trying to hurt you. It was your pal who was your car.

Narrator: Not only was it cute, it was durable.

Announcer: At Volkswagen, we don't worry about how our car looks; we worry about how it works.

Torchinsky: They built the hell out of Beetles. So many other carmakers coming into America had problems with their cars just not being built to take the massive scale of America. The Beetle's engine was designed to be low-revving. You could drive it flat-out all day and it's not gonna kill it.

Narrator: No one better catapulted the Beetle to success in the States than advertiser Bill Bernbach. His revolutionary 1959 ad campaign highlighted the Beetle's oddball features as its strengths.

Marita Sturken: Those ads were very good at giving the car a kind of voice. It's as if the car is honest, the car is humble. And it's talking to you, the consumer, about these new values of conservation, of thinking small and taking into account broader kind of social issues in even in your decision of what to purchase as a car.

Narrator: The campaign was a success. Volkswagen sales jumped 52% in the United States as other European imports dropped 27%. And the misfit car was cemented as a symbol of the counterculture.

Torchinsky: If you drove a Beetle, on some level, you were saying, I'm not taken in by all the excesses of capitalism, or whatever. So, it made sense that the hippies would gravitate to it.

Narrator: The Beetle was perfect for hippies. It was the exact opposite of the cars their parents liked. Plus, it was easy to maintain, and it could last on those long California road trips.

Scott Keogh: America was changing from what did the government tell me, what is the truth, what do I believe in as a person. And the Beetle just threw a dart right into that place, and magic.

Narrator: Not to mention it was cheap. A new Volkswagen Beetle in 1967 came in at $1,600, about 12 grand in today's money. A Ford Mustang would've cost you about $2,700, or about $20,600 today.

Keogh: It was an honest, straightforward proposal. It had a great price. It didn't over-promise anything. It promised exactly what it was capable of doing, and that's why it caught on.

Narrator: And then Hollywood stepped in, introducing Herbie the Love Bug in 1968.

Announcer: A mind of his own makes Herbie the sole Bug of the love generation.

Narrator: The anthropomorphic Beetle with a big personality would go on to star in five movie spin-offs. That same year, VW Beetle sales in the US hit an all-time peak with 423,000 cars sold. By 1972, the 15 millionth Beetle rolled off the manufacturing line, breaking the Ford Model T's 40-year standing record for the best-selling car in the world.

But soon, the road turned bumpy for the Beetle in America. In the 1980s, the car couldn't keep up with competition from newly introduced Japanese vehicles. But as sales slipped in the US, the VW Beetle found success abroad.

Torchinsky: So, in America, it was pretty much dead, you know, for new cars by, like, the '80s. But then in Mexico and Brazil and South Africa and other countries, it was still going strong. So every time you thought the Beetle was dead somewhere, it would pop up somewhere else and just kind of keep on going.

Narrator: But VW wasn't ready to give up on America just yet. In 1998, VW did what they'd never done before. They introduced a completely new Beetle model. It was called the New Beetle, but technically it more closely resembled the VW Golf.

Torchinsky: It was a sort of a return to fun in consumer design when things had been kind of beige and rectilinear and straightforward for so long. It definitely made people give a damn about Volkswagen again.

Narrator: With fuzzy steering wheels and candy colors, the car was a nostalgic throwback. And it worked. Kind of.

Keogh: When you bring it back now, 30, 40-ish years later, obviously, a lot of competition. We were getting 100,000 units versus getting, you know, 400,000, 450,000 units back in the '60s. So, clearly, the market had changed, but it was the right call because honestly it put a shot in the arm for the entire brand.

Narrator: And then, in 2015, Dieselgate happened. The scandal revealed Volkswagen had cheated on emission tests on their diesel models, including the Beetle. The company paid over $30 billion to settle the case in 2018.

Keogh: Did it have an impact? Absolutely. And the reason it impact is we broke the trust. And if you look at what the singular thing the Beetle was so fantastic at: trust. It took millions and millions of families to school across America, to Woodstock, on and on. And the fact that this fiasco broke that trust is absolutely the most unsettling thing.

Narrator: And the Beetle's final lap was not far behind. By 2018, the Beetle made up just 4% of VW sales. Even with a worldwide fandom and iconic status, the Beetle just wasn't selling new units anymore. In 2018, Volkswagen announced it was ending production of its storied car.

Keogh: Why the decision is made to, you know, say bye-bye Beetle and to end the Beetle is frankly the market has changed dramatically. Small cars struggle. It's an SUV marketplace.

Narrator: The final 2019 Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico, in July 2019. After eight decades, worldwide success, and arguably legendary status, has the Volkswagen Beetle really hit the end of the road?

Torchinsky: I don't really buy it. I kind of believe we're going to see another version of the Beetle down the road, and it's probably gonna be an MEB electric Beetle at some point, 'cause they'd be crazy not to. Why wouldn't they do it?

Keogh: You know, with the Beetle, never say never. It's not in our product portfolio. It's not in our plans. We're certainly gonna keep its, you know, soul alive, as I referenced, but the MEB is a phenomenal platform. We've shown a buggy off of that. We've shown a bus off of that. We've shown an SUV off of that. Never say never.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This video was originally published on September 2, 2019.

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The Alisal is an all-inclusive dude ranch set on 10,000 acres just outside Santa Barbara, California — here’s what it was like taking a family vacation there during COVID-19

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alisal ranch review

Living in Los Angeles, my family and I have muddled through more than half a year of some of the toughest restrictions in the country. Because we have a young infant — a lockdown baby born in April — my husband and I have been especially conservative about recreation. However, after months of staying at home, we were on the hunt for a safe getaway.

Our conditions were many. We wanted someplace within easy driving distance from LA that was family-friendly and easy with a baby. It also needed to have excellent social distancing and rooms with private entrances and no crowded hotel corridors, per current expert advice. Ample outdoor offerings, plus al fresco dining, were also on the must-have list.  

Our winner: The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, California.

Just 45 minutes outside Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley, the all-inclusive dude ranch has been welcoming families and travelers for nearly 75 years. Set on 10,000 acres with a 100-acre lake, it has outdoor offerings galore and features cottages, studios, and suites, all with private entrances. 

It's also the type of hotel where people often book their next stay while checking out. I myself first stayed at The Alisal two years ago and was eager to return. Plus, with the resort currently only booking 50% capacity and implementing strong new COVID-19 protocols, we had even more peace of mind.

Rates typically start around $700 per night, and the initial sticker shock can be off-putting. But, as an all-inclusive resort where the nightly rate includes breakfast, dinner, an alcohol package, and numerous activities from kid's adventure excursions to yoga and tennis, what initially seems expensive is actually an excellent deal when you sit down to crunch the numbers. You can also occasionally find last-minute deals that start closer to $550 if you're vigilant about checking the website. And, for an additional value play, the hotel offers many featured packages with bundles that can help bring the rates down.   

I stayed in a mid-tier Select Suite with the Alisal Golf Awaits package, which typically runs $710 per night based on double adult occupancy. While I paid a media rate of $350, I found the package to be an exceptional value and would gladly return at the full cost.  

Keep reading to see why I was so impressed by The Alisal

1 Hotel Reviews Banner first impression
alisal ranch review check in
Check-in was entirely outdoors via the building's windows, with clear signage for social distancing and required masks.

Depending on whether you're coming from the north or the south, there are two entrances to the Alisal, and I've taken both. On this trip, our GPS took us around the back of the property, driving over miles of dirt road, weaving through shaded trees, and past Alisal's lake. We finally pulled into the main area of the property near the rodeo grounds and stables. 

It was quite the impression, reminding us that we were on a gigantic, sprawling ranch in the middle of nowhere, which was a good feeling amidst the pandemic.

The lobby is a small, quaint wooden building, but guests are no longer allowed inside. Instead, check-in was via the building's windows, with social distancing signs clearly marked. The fact that everything, even check-in, took place outdoors set the tone for our stay. A giant sign, placed between large potted plants, blocked the doors to the building and clearly stated that masks were required. 

alisal ranch review casitas
The sprawling accommodations include casitas and Spanish Colonial-style abodes arranged around a village green.

We arrived just after 4 p.m. and our room was ready to go. Check-in only took a couple of minutes, and we received an envelope with the schedule for our stay, which included a book of activities we booked online in advance, as well as our breakfast and dinner time for each day. Our keys were safely sealed in a plastic ziplock bag, along with a map of the property. 

We walked across the nearby bridge surrounded by greenery and flowers, leading over a dry riverbed to the main part of the property. As we reached the end of the bridge the sprawling accommodations suddenly came into sight: casitas and Spanish Colonial-style abodes arranged around a village green, with the pool at the center of one area, and the main dining building the anchor of a second area. We quickly located our own suite and headed inside.

2 Hotel Reviews Banner The room
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort bedroom
Our suite included a king-sized bed, a private front patio with seating, and two couches that converted into twin beds in the living area.

A sticker on the door confirming that our suite had been thoroughly sanitized with no one entering after was a nice first reassurance. Our room was a 550-square-foot Select Suite, one of the smallest suite offerings. Still, it was supremely comfortable and felt plenty spacious, with two couches that converted into twin beds in the living room, a half bath, and both a walk-in shower and a bathtub, in an ADA configuration.

Although the Alisal is luxurious, it's unpretentious, laid-back luxury. Our suite had plenty of natural light, a king-sized bed, a private front patio with seating, and a wood-burning fireplace. The decor was on theme for a ranch stay, and distinctly western. As is standard with all rooms, we received a bottle of Alisal wine from the local Santa Ynez Valley, as well as two refillable water bottles, plus an amenity kit including sanitizing wipes and sanitizing gel.

It's important to note there is no air conditioning at the ranch. However, for the hottest days, portable fans are available, and there are also vigorous ceiling fans in each room. All windows open and have screens to prevent bugs, and our front door also had a screen door. At night, with the windows open and the fans roaring, our room became glacial; in fact, we chose to turn off the fans in the middle of the night and were then comfortably cool. 

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort bathroom

Our suite had two bathrooms. In addition to the small powder room off the living room, there was a larger bathroom off the bedroom. The water did take a few minutes to get warm, but once it got going it stayed hot. The Alisal-branded in-bath amenities were nothing to write home about, but perfectly acceptable. The bath counter had a decent amount of space to spread out toiletries from two people.

Our room also featured a refrigerator, a coffee machine with complimentary coffee and tea provided, a filtered water dispenser, and two robes. There are no TVs in any rooms, on purpose, to encourage guests to get out and enjoy the property. The Wi-Fi, however, was surprisingly great; our kindergartener even Zoomed into her remote classes the morning after we arrived.

Housekeeping is paused during the pandemic. Instead, we received a card in our room with instructions on how to get fresh towels, as well as a checklist of amenities we wanted to be replenished.  

Overall, the room felt extremely clean and very tidy. Where it matters, the Alisal was a sumptuous stay: the beds were heavenly, the robes plush, the complimentary bottle of wine was delicious, and the feeling of having a safe entrance and exit without having to use an elevator or pass other people in an enclosed hallway was priceless.

alisal ranch review studio room
Entry-level studios can be found for $550 in the low season if you're vigilant about checking prices to snag a deal.

Rooms and suites are dotted throughout the property, like summer camp cabins, and each accommodation has its own parking space, making for very easy loading and unloading of bags. Most rooms and suites are two to a casita, although some of the larger suites have an entire building to themselves. Ours shared a wall with another family, although we didn't hear a peep from them during our stay. 

The Alisal features several different accommodation categories that generally range from studios, starting at $550 to $700 depending on the season, to massive suites, which start from $895 per night and can sleep up to five. For couples, the studio rooms are more than sufficient, though I would certainly recommend upgrading to a more spacious suite if you plan to travel with your family as I did.

Rooms are usually at their least pricey between November and March. All rates are based on double occupancy since meals, drinks, and activities are factored into the room price, though children under 6 are no charge.

Compare room types and prices for The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort

3 Hotel Reviews Banner On site amenities
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort Horse
Annoyingly, trail rides are one of the few activities not included in the room price. However, kids' lead-around rides are free and offered twice daily.

The myriad on-site amenities are where The Alisal shines and why people come in the first place. There is a 20% service charge, which covers staff gratuities as well as the tremendous number of included amenities. While this can seem like a lot on top of the already pricey room rates, I felt it was more than reasonable given how much was included in our stay. Additionally, tipping is folded into the service charge.

One of the reasons the Alisal is so popular and beloved by guests is its summer camp feel. Every day brings something new in the way of rotating activities and fun offerings. 

The stars of the show at the Alisal are the horses and the working cattle ranch. The daily activities available at the Equine Center are many, including rides for all levels on over 100 miles of trails.

However, unless you've selected one of the packages with certain rides included, horseback is one of the few activities that come with a fee — generally between $50 and $100 depending on the length of the ride and age of the rider. I found this annoying given the steep price we were already paying. However, kids' lead-around rides are free and offered twice daily. If you do want to book a ride, do so early as they fill up fast.

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort arts and crafts
Beyond the horses, the numerous complimentary on-site activities include tennis, yoga, crafting kits for kids, and much more.

If horses aren't your thing, or you don't feel like paying extra, it's not hard to pack your schedule with alternatives. It's common to see people playing shuffleboard on the lawn or kids making arts and crafts on their patios with takeaway crafting kits from The Laurel Room kids club. Other highlights include tennis and pickleball courts and classes — my daughter joined a group tennis lesson for kids, everybody masked up and distanced — while there are also two 18-hole golf courses. 

Other complimentary highlights include a daily mindful yoga walk, a breakfast haywagon ride, outdoor meditation, biking, country dancing, family bingo, croquet, horseshoeing, star gazing, ping pong, family karaoke, and the Alisal Rodeo, which takes place once a week. 

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort pool
The pool is a great place to relax and you book a specific time slot to ensure crowds are limited.

The pool is a big draw and a lovely spot to relax. Due to COVID-19, guests currently sign up for pool times before they arrive. We chose a 3 p.m. slot and were pleased to see that it was nearly empty during that time. The rush is during and after lunch, but even then, it's not particularly crowded and easy to distance from other sunbathers and swimmers.

Another classic Alisal highlight is fine dining in the Ranch Room or Sycamore Room, two areas of the dining pavilion off the Grassy Oval. Each atmospheric room features a roaring fire, western tapestries, white tablecloths, and wooden and stone walls. Dressing up for dinner in "country formal" style is a favorite Alisal tradition, with men wearing sport coats and cowboy hats, and women wearing dresses and boots. Guests get very into it, and it's fun to experience.

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort outdoor dining
Dining is currently mostly outdoors underneath a magical canopy of lighted sycamore trees.

Because of COVID, dining has migrated creekside underneath a canopy of lighted sycamore trees, complete with heat lamps and a crackling fire pit on which to roast s'mores. It's the same signature experience, simply al fresco and with well-spaced tables.

Guests choose their dining time in advance and get the same table each night. We felt safely distanced away from other groups, with ample space between us and the next table. Some guests did choose to eat indoors, but they were few and far between, and spread out on far corners of the room. 

For breakfast, guests can order a la carte from a menu — think pancakes, bacon, and eggs however you like them — or venture briefly inside to the Oak Room (normally a bar, but closed due to COVID) to a custom omelet station, a buffet of fresh fruit, pastries, sausages, pancakes, hash browns, and more. The buffet was manned by masked workers and was not self-serve; guests indicated which foods they'd like and each item was plated by staff.  

Other eateries include The Chuckwagon Grill, a lunch spot overlooking the pool, and two restaurants overlooking the golf courses. However, be aware that meals at these spots aren't included in the dining plan, and prices can add up quickly.   

4 Hotel Reviews Banner What's nearby

Two hours from Los Angeles, and four and a half hours from San Francisco, the Alisal is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley in the charming Danish village of Solvang. The quaint town enjoys a reputation as one of the most Christmassy towns in America. However, Solvang is delightful year-round, with small boutiques, wine tasting rooms, Danish bakeries, a sausage garden, a Christmas boutique, and ample cheer. Downtown Solvang is close enough to bike to from the Alisal, and is a pedestrian-friendly town; the greater Santa Ynez area in general is also extremely bike-friendly.

Further afield, Santa Ynez Valley enjoys a reputation as one of California's best wine areas, known for its cool climate wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms a short distance away.

Sun-soaked Santa Barbara — the so-called American Riviera — is less than 40 minutes away.

Check flight prices to Solvang on Expedia

5 Hotel Reviews Banner What others say

A TripAdvisor Traveler's Choice 2020 award winner, The Alisal is ranked 1 out of 12 hotels in Solvang and has more than 366 reviews, averaging 4.5 stars, and deemed "excellent."

Many reviews praise the ranch as being "relaxing," "magical" and the staff as "friendly" and "attentive but not hovering," while several note that the resort did an excellent job of maintaining the special feel despite COVID-19 restrictions. 

Negative reviews hone in on the resort's lack of air conditioning, while others dislike the extra charges for certain activities including trail rides. Many also stress the necessity of booking popular offerings in advance.

Read reviews, compare prices, and book the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort on Trip Advisor

6 Hotel Reviews Banner What you need to know

Who stays here: Young families, groups looking for a fun, adult summer camp vibe, and multi-generational groups celebrating anniversaries or milestone birthdays can all be found here. Many guests are repeat visitors.

We like: The location makes the Alisal doubly attractive: not only is there a seemingly endless amount of on-site activities, but it's a stone's throw away from some of the best wineries in the country, making an afternoon of wine tasting an enticing proposition (if you can tear yourself away from the ranch). 

We love (don't miss this feature!): At least one horse ride while at The Alisal is an absolute must. They're up to two hours long, and cover an enormous amount of terrain, allowing you to see parts of the resort you otherwise would miss. Ask for the trail ride by the lake for the best scenery.

We think you should know: Studios and suites are comfortable but rustic and no-frills. There's no in-room air conditioning, but portable A/C units are available on request and all windows open.

We'd do this differently next time: There's genuinely too much to see and do at The Alisal in one stay. Next time, we hope to visit the restaurants by the golf course, arrive in advance of our 4 p.m. check-in so we can make better use of the grounds on our first day, and follow through with our plan to take the hay wagon ride.  

Hotel Reviews Banner COVID 19 policies
  • Masks are required on property everywhere, per a mandate from the state of California.
  • Guests will be advised to practice physical distancing by standing at least six feet away from people outside of their immediate party. This includes while standing in any line or moving around the Ranch. Restaurant dining, activities, and other physical layouts have been arranged to ensure appropriate distancing. 
  • Hand sanitizers, wash stations, and hygiene reminders will be placed at key contact areas for guests and employees.
  • Appropriate PPE will be worn by all employees based on their roles and responsibilities.
  • The Alisal uses HEPA filters in all of the guest rooms and public spaces. There is also UV lighting in filters in all public spaces. 

I was impressed with the COVID-19 policies in place. We appreciated the lack of housekeeping and the COVID amenity kit provided upon check-in, as well as the fact that staff was extremely diligent about wearing masks.

Most of the guests were similarly attentive about mask usage, though we did overhear some people at breakfast complaining about the annoyance of masks and discussing how they wore mesh masks at the gym. However, on such an enormous property, it was very easy to avoid such guests.

My husband was nervous about using the pool, as it's one of the two places — dining being the other — where people tend to take their masks off. He was especially pleased to see that the ranch encouraged guests to make pool reservations and also appreciated that the pool was practically empty during our late afternoon time slot. Overall, we felt incredibly safe throughout our entire stay.

7 Hotel Reviews Banner Bottom Line

If you're seeking a memorable, relaxing, outdoor-oriented getaway with on-site activities galore, the Alisal is absolutely unbeatable. Plus, thanks to ample social distancing, lots of ventilation and fresh air, strict new COVID-19 regulations, and rooms with private entrances, the dude ranch is especially appealing during the ongoing pandemic.

With last-minute rates starting at $550 per night and standard rates frequently starting closer to $700, the Alisal is certainly a splurge. And, at these prices, some may be disappointed that the accommodations aren't over-the-top luxurious and that there is still a service fee and additional charges for some key activities, such as trail rides.

However, with our nightly rate covering a spacious family suite, breakfast, dinner, alcoholic drinks, and a dizzying array of complimentary activities, I found the Alisal to actually be an exceptional value at the end of the day. Like so many of the ranch's repeat guests, I'm already planning my next visit.

Book a room at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort starting at $550 per night

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