Did scientists really discover a new superconductor?

At the American Physical Society’s annual March meeting in Las Vegas, Ranga Dias, a physicist at the University of Rochester, announced that he and his team had achieved a century-old dream of the field: a superconductor that works at room temperature and near-room pressure. Interest was so intense that security stopped people from entering the overflowing room. The results, published in Nature, appear to show that a conventional conductor — a solid composed of hydrogen, nitrogen and the rare-earth metal lutetium — was transformed into a flawless material capable of conducting electricity with perfect efficiency. While the announcement has been greeted with enthusiasm by some scientists, others are far more cautious.

Resurrect an ancient library from the ashes of a volcano. Win $250,000

If you know anything about machine vision — or know anyone who does — you could win $250,000 if you can somehow decipher what’s written on an ancient scroll of papyrus, which was carbonized by the eruption of Vesuvius thousands of years ago (things in Pompeii were vaporized, but in nearby Herculaneum they were buried in hot mud and preserved). The scrolls were found in 1750 by a farmer digging a well, who uncovered part of the ruins of a massive villa that was owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Using a particle accelerator, scientists were able to lift some of the text from the scrolls, showing that “digital unwrapping” is possible. And now a group of Silicon Valley investors have started a contest to help decipher as much of the scrolls as possible.

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Canada imitates Australia’s news law, but to what end?

Two years ago this month, Australia passed a law called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which, as the name suggested, forced digital platforms like Facebook and Google to negotiate deals to pay the news media for the latter’s content. If they failed to do so, the Australian government would reserve the right to impose deals between the parties. Before the law was passed, Google warned users that the legislation could affect their ability to search; meanwhile, Facebook tried to sway public opinion against the law by promising to block all news content from its platform in Australia. When the law passed, Facebook did precisely that. But after amendments made the law less stringent, the platform removed the ban. Eventually, both Facebook and Google cut deals with multiple news companies.

Fast forward two years, and a similar scenario is playing out in Canada. Encouraged by the sums of money that Australian media companies received as a result of the legislation there—about a hundred and fifty million Australian dollars, according to a report in CJR by Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School—the Canadian government moved to implement its own version of such a law: Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which has been through the House of Commons and is now making its way through the Senate. Last month, Google removed news from Canadian search results in what the company described as “tests.” Last week, Facebook said that it will cut off access to news in Canada if the law is passed in its present form. Rinse, repeat. 

Last week, Sabrina Geremia, the head of Google’s Canadian arm, and Jason Kee, its public policy manager, testified before a Canadian government committee hearing into Bill C-18. (The committee asked other Google executives to appear, including the CEO, Sundar Pichai, but they declined). Kee claimed that the bill would incentivize “clickbait” journalism and favor larger news companies over smaller publishers. Google’s opposition—or, at least, its tactics in trying to remove news from search results in Canada—may have backfired: News Media Canada, a lobby group representing digital and print publishers, said in a statement that Google’s move to cut off Canadians’ access to news was “heavy-handed” and that it “underscores that there is a significant power imbalance between publishers and platforms,” thus proving a need for regulation.

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Anne and Mary, fearsome pirates who were also lovers

Historian Rebecca Simon writes: Anne Bonny made an unforgettable impression from the bow of the pirate ship, Revenge, in the 1700s.Beautiful with fiery red hair that matched her temperament, she’d patrol the ship wearing a jacket and trousers, with a handkerchief tied around her head. Though forced to disguise herself as a man to lead the life she wanted, Anne proved herself to be just as skilled and ruthless as anypirate. One of thecrew’s newer recruits was a man named Mark Read, and Anne found herself taken with him. She revealed that she was a woman and declared her love for him — not missing a beat, Read revealed that she was also a woman. Thus began a passionate, secret love affair between two of the most fearsome pirates of the time.

Did Coca-Cola have cocaine as an ingredient, and if so how much?

From a Twitter thread by journalist Trung Phan: “By the mid-1800s, Europeans were using cocaine recreationally. A popular way to consume it was in a drink called Vin Mariani (combo of cocaine and red wine). Famous fans of the beverage included Pope Leo XIII and President Ulysses S. Grant. After the end of the Civil War, pharmacists in America started cranking out ‘patent medicines’ to provide a buzz as well as relieve headaches and bodily pains. These unregulated concoctions contained hard drugs like morphine, opium, heroin and cocaine. John Stith Pemberton borrowed the Vin Mariani formula and added kola nuts — which have caffeine — to create Coca-Cola in 1886. But critics blamed the drink for cocaine addiction and stirred racist fears that it was leading to Black crime. Coca-Cola took out the cocaine in 1902.”

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What Julius Caesar really meant by “Et tu, Brute?”

When Caesar saw Brutus among his attackers, Plutarch writes, ‘he covered his head with his toga and let himself fall.’ Suetonius adds that, according to some reports, he said in Greek: ‘Kai su, teknon’ (which Shakespeare turned into the Latin ‘Et tu, Brute?’). It literally means ‘You too, child,’ but what Caesar may have intended by the words isn’t clear. Tempest cites ‘an important article’ by James Russell ‘that has often been overlooked’. Russell points out that the words kai su often appear on curse tablets, and suggests that Caesar’s last words were not ‘the emotional parting declaration of a betrayed man to one he had treated like a son’ but more along the lines of ‘See you in hell, punk.’

A railroad fan photographed Putin’s train. Now he is in exile

For Mikhail Korotkov, a lifelong “trainspotter,” one unusual train on Russia’s railways became an obsession — like stalking a rare, shy beast. Korotkov, 31, spent years tracking and photographing President Vladimir Putin’s special hush-hush, deluxe armored train. He was the first enthusiast to post an image of the trainin 2018. To Korotkov, it was like a creepy “ghost train,” with a secret timetable, no identifying locomotive numbers and its windows always screened. At least, one of the rail cars has an unusual dome on top — believed to house special communications equipment. Korotkov’s passion, however, was apparently not appreciated by the special services tasked with protecting Putin and his secrets.

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When your mind’s eye is always blank

Sasha Chapin writes about having aphantasia, which some of you might recall I also suffer from (although maybe “suffer from” is the wrong term):

“I wonder whether my mental existence is more shallow than that of others, whether my somewhat detached, playful, and ironic view of life is partially based on my blankness. I have never been haunted by an image of suffering or pined after the picture of a distant lover crossing a hypothetical room in a hypothetical evening. When I am reminded of some contentious issue, like firearm regulation, I’m not watching a movie in my mind about horrible things happening; everything is simply a concept. It’s easy to stay at a mental remove.

It’s possible that aphantasia actually makes writing easier for me because there’s nothing to get in the way of the words. I’m not worried about doing justice to the pictures in my head—they are not there. Also, since I don’t remember through the visual, life is already stored as a series of connected verbal clusters, ready to be deployed. I just have to start moving my hands to get them out of storage. Recently, it was revealed to me that some people have trouble describing recent incidents in their lives in anecdote form. And this is totally foreign to me. The first words I call on aren’t always fantastic, but they can always be summoned.

There is another potential upside I wonder about, which is: maybe I have an easier time accepting death than other people. The transience of things has always seemed obvious and relatively easy to accept for me. Everything has already slipped into the void for me, everything that’s not right here. I remember that, last summer, I sat with a friend in a park in Dumbo at sunset, watching the pink-purple fall on all the metal and water, the wheezing cars and glass towers. I thought: this is as beautiful as it’s going to get. But it didn’t occur to me to hold onto the substance of the moment, because I knew that was impossible. When I turned around, it was gone.”

Interestingly enough, Sasha also wrote about how he used an online course, meditation, and some micro-dosing of psilocybin and LSD to trigger something approaching mental visualization — or at least more than he had before:

There is one fMRI study of an aphantasic person. Scans revealed that, when asked to visualize, he displayed different patterns of brain activity than healthy subjects—specifically, less activation in areas associated with mental imagery, and more activation in regions associated with semantic processing. Crudely speaking, he was using non-image parts of his brain to do image stuff. This matches with my subjective experience of aphantasia, wherein trying to remember an image brings up a set of words, sounds, and even spatial information, just no pictures. 

So, the way the exercises work is… okay, this is where it gets fuzzy for me. But I guess that… since people with aphantasia use their word-brain instead of their image-brain when trying to visualize… then… by using their word-brain extra hard… maybe the dormant visual brain regions will be activated a little bit in the process… so new brain connections will form?”

When Jimmy Carter helped save a nuclear reactor

In 1952, the United States military needed leaders for a new kind of mission. It involved a treacherous journey into unexplored territory, with danger a certainty. But 28-year-old Navy Lt. James Earl Carter Jr. answered the call. “Unexplored territory,” in this case, was the aftermath of one of the world’s first serious nuclear accidents. On Dec. 12, 1962, the NRX research reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, in Canada had suffered a partial meltdown. Ruptured radioactive fuel rods were stuck inside the reactor core. Radioactive water filled the reactor building’s basement. Lieutenant Carter was an officer in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program and thus an expert on reactors and nuclear physics.

Greenland’s misunderstood winter treat

For many in northwest Greenland, the iconic flavor of winter is that of fermented meat, perhaps most iconically kiviaq, a dish made by packing 300 to 500 whole dovekies—beaks, feathers, and all—into the hollowed-out carcass of a seal, stitching it up and sealing it with fat, then burying it under rocks for a few months to ferment. Once it’s dug up and opened, people skin and eat the birds one at a time. Plates of these small fermented seabirds are a staple at many kaffemiit—big communal gatherings celebrating anything from holidays to birthdays—during the winter, especially among the Inughuit.

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