A BBC documentary highlights growing social-media censorship in India

Last weekend, the Indian government ordered YouTube to remove clips from a BBC documentary. It sent a similar order to Twitter, telling that platform to remove any tweets that featured links to those clips and pointing to more than fifty specific posts that had done so. The documentary, called India: The Modi Question, covers, in part, a series of violent riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. More than a thousand people died—most of them Muslims. The documentary features quotes from UK government correspondence that described the riots as having had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing” and held Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, “directly responsible.” Modi is now India’s prime minister.

According to the orders from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the clips from the documentary and the tweets referring to them were to be removed under information technology laws that the Modi government implemented in 2021. According to one report, senior officials from different branches of the government reviewed the documentary and found it to be “an attempt to cast aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India, sow divisions among various Indian communities, and make unsubstantiated allegations regarding the actions of foreign governments in India.” (The Supreme Court had previously cleared Modi of blame for the riots.) One official told The Hindu that the documentary undermined “the sovereignty and integrity of India,” and had the potential to “adversely impact public order within the country.”

India has several laws that give officials the authority to order information providers to remove or block access to content, including the Information Technology Act of 2000, which allows the government to block content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order.” The additional law that the Modi government passed in 2021 bills itself as a “digital media ethics code” that requires social media platforms to take down content within thirty-six hours of receiving a government order, and to otherwise assist law enforcement agencies with their inquiries. Foreign social-media companies are also required to employ a local staffer who can handle such official requests. Some critics have referred to this as a “hostage-taking law,” on the grounds that these local employees could end up in prison should their employer refuse to play ball.

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Earth’s core has stopped and may be reversing direction

Earth’s inner core has recently stopped spinning, and may now be reversing the direction of its rotation, according to a surprising new study that probed the deepest reaches of our planet with seismic waves from earthquakes. The results suggest that Earth’s center pauses and reverses direction on a periodic cycle lasting about 60 to 70 years, a discovery that might solve longstanding mysteries about climate and geological phenomena that occur on a similar timeframe, and that affect life on our planet. But while it sounds like the plot of a disaster movie, most scientists think this periodic spin switch is a normal part of its behavior that does not pose risks for life on our planet.

The Wright Brothers’ flight wasn’t the first

We’reused to thinking that the Wright brothers flew the first powered flight, but Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft – the definitive source for airplane-related facts – says a 1901 flight by Connecticut aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead was the first successful powered flight in history, beating the Wright brothers’ first flight by more than two years. Jane’s has traditionally backed the Wright Brothers as first in flight, but now they say the evidence for Whitehead’s flight is strong enough for the publication to reverse course and recognize it as the first successful powered flight. Jane’s Editor Paul Jackson describes what happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901.

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An iconic photo of American workers is not what it seems

Eleven pairs of shoes were dangling over the New York City skyline. It was September of 1932, as the Great Depression was reaching its height. Unemployment and uncertainty could be felt throughout the city and the entire country. But on West 49th Street, a pillar of hope was under construction: the art deco skyscraper that would come to be known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The ironworkers constructing its 70 floors were taking a break, sharing boxed lunches and cigarettes. They appeared to be completely unfazed by the location of this break: a narrow steel beam jutting out into the sky, hundreds of feet above the pavement. But this iconic photo is not really what it appears to be.

What happens when anaesthesia fails

Donna Penner’s panic attacks began after a small medical procedure that she had before her 45th birthday. She was working in the accountancy department of a local trucking company and had just celebrated the wedding of one of her daughters. But she had been having severe bleeding and pain during her period, and her family physician had suggested that they investigate the causes with exploratory surgery. It should have been a routine procedure, but, for reasons that are far from clear, the general anaesthetic failed. Rather than lying in peaceful oblivion, she woke up just before the surgeon made the first cut into her abdomen.

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Playing music to cheese as it ages changes the flavor

Last September, Swiss cheesemaker Beat Wampfler and a team of researchers from the Bern University of Arts placed nine 22-pound wheels of Emmental cheese in individual wooden crates in Wampfler’s cheese cellar. Then, for the next six months each cheese was exposed to an endless, 24-hour loop of one song using a mini-transducer, which directed the sound waves directly into the cheese wheels. The “classical” cheese mellowed to the sounds of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The “rock” cheese listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” An ambient cheese listened to Yello’s “Monolith,” the hip-hop cheese was exposed to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got).”

What it’s like to be the only person with a unique genetic condition

Beverly Gage writes about finding out she has a unique genetic disorder: “In early 2021, Dr. Michael Ombrello, an investigator at the National Institutes of Health, received a message from doctors at Yale about a patient with a novel genetic mutation—the first of its kind ever seen. A specialist in rare inflammatory and immune disorders, Ombrello was concerned by what first-round genetic tests showed: a disabling mutation in a gene, known as PLCG2, that’s thought to be crucial for proper immune functioning. It was hard to discern how the patient, a forty-eight-year-old woman, had survived for so long without serious infections. That’s how I ended up as a patient in his clinic.”

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In medieval times, women could be troubadors too

Unlike what history tells us medieval women were like, these “trobairitz” or female troubadors  openly criticized men and even made fun of their romantic advances. They felt no need to submit or be meek simply because society expected it of them. Some of them, such as Comtessa de Dia, openly sang about sexual exploits and infidelity. On at least one occasion, a trobairitz song was written specifically from a woman’s point of view addressing another woman! Trobairitz wrote and performed in the same accepted styles of their male counterparts (the troubadours). Themes were similar of course, as was poem structure. Singing or writing about politics or other “masculine” topics was still off limits to women, so the trobairitz stuck with love and romance.

This subterranean cave city in Turkey could hold 20,000 people

The ancient city of Elengubu, known today as Derinkuyu, burrows more than 85m below the Earth’s surface, encompassing 18 levels of tunnels. The largest excavated underground city in the world, it was in near-constant use for thousands of years, changing hands from the Phrygians to the Persians to the Christians of the Byzantine Era. It was finally abandoned in the 1920s by the Cappadocian Greeks when they faced defeat during the Greco-Turkish war and fled abruptly en masse to Greece. Not only do its cave-like rooms stretch on for hundreds of miles, but it’s thought the more than 200 small, separate underground cities that have also been discovered in the region may be connected to these tunnels, creating a massive subterranean network.

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“The Spirit World” by David Sedaris

David Sedaris writes about the last time he saw his sister Tiffany, who suffered from severe mental health issues and took her own life in May of 2013. At the time of her death, they had not spoken for several years. The last time he saw her was at the Symphony Hall in Boston, when he was on the verge of performing at the beginning of a tour.

“The last time I saw my sister Tiffany was at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. I’d just finished a show and was getting ready to sign books when I heard her say, “David. David, it’s me.” We hadn’t spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn’t have been more than forty-five.

“It’s me, Tiffany.” She held up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo on it. Her shoes looked like she’d found them in a trash can. “I have something for you.” There was a security guard holding the stage door open and I said to him, “Will you close that please?” I had filled the house that night. I was in charge—Mr. Sedaris. “The door,” I repeated. “I’d like for you to close it now.”

And so the man did. He shut the door in my sister’s face and I never saw her or spoke to her again. Not when she was evicted from her apartment. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalized after her first suicide attempt. She was, I told myself, someone else’s problem. I couldn’t deal with her anymore.”

from the Paris Review via A. J. Daulerio’s newsletter The Small Bow

Google search tips for murderers

Not to make light of someone’s death, but I find it fascinating just how many killers don’t realize their Google search history is going to become evidence in the case against them. Here are just a few of the search queries that Brian Walshe of Boston typed into Google before he killed his wife, Ana:

  • How long before a body starts to smell.
  • How to stop a body from decomposing.
  • 10 ways to dispose of a dead body if you really need to.
  • How long for someone to be missing to inherit.
  • Can you throw away body parts.
  • How long does DNA last.
  • Can identification be made on partial remains.
  • Dismemberment and the best ways to dispose of a body.
  • How to clean blood from wooden floor.
  • What happens when you put body parts in ammonia.
  • Is it better to put crime scene clothes away or wash them.
  • Hacksaw best tool to dismember.
  • Can you be charged with murder without a body.

A bomb cyclone, or windy with a chance of hyperbole?

The widespread use of colorful terms like “bomb cyclone” and “atmospheric river,” along with the proliferating categories, colors and names of storms and weather patterns, has struck meteorologists as a mixed blessing: good for public safety and climate-change awareness but potentially so amplified that it leaves the public numb to or unsure of the actual risk. The new vocabulary, devised in many cases by the weather-science community, threatens to spin out of control. “We need significantly clearer language, not hyped words,” said one weather expert. “The worst is ‘polar vortex,’” said Andrea Lopez Lang, an atmospheric scientist at the State University of New York in Albany.

How donkeys changed the course of human history

According to archaeologist Laerke Recht at the University of Graz in Austria, donkeys made a huge difference in humanity’s ability to transport goods over long distances by land due to the animals’ endurance and ability to carry heavy burdens. “While rivers such as the Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt could be used for transport of heavy and/or bulk goods, donkeys meant a massive increase and intensification of contacts over land,” she says. “Donkeys could carry the heavy copper over long distances and into areas where it could not be found naturally (or only in very small amounts).”

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On Russian bots and Twitter’s influence

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, a virtual cottage industry—or possibly even a real, full-sized industry—emerged, bent on laying the blame for that victory somewhere, and social media was one of the primary targets. The argument, both in Congressional hearings and in academic treatises, was that misinformation and “fake news” spread by Russian trolls helped get Trump elected. More recently, however, research has poked some significant holes in this argument. The most recent is a study that was published recently in Nature, entitled: “Exposure to the Russian Internet Research Agency foreign influence campaign on Twitter in the 2016 US election and its relationship to attitudes and voting behavior.”

Six researchers from universities in New York, Ireland, Denmark, and Germany co-authored the study. It correlated survey data from about 1,400 respondents with Twitter data and found a number of things, including: 1) Exposure to Russian disinformation accounts was heavily concentrated, with only one percent of users accounting for 70 percent of exposures. 2) Exposure was concentrated among users who strongly identified as Republicans, and 3) Exposure to the Russian influence campaign was vastly eclipsed by content from domestic news media and politicians. In sum, it said: “We find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.”

To some, the study was a vindication of their belief that the anguish over foreign disinformation was a fraud from the beginning, an excuse to force social media to censor information. Glenn Greenwald, a noted Twitter gadfly, said: “Russiagate was – and is – one of the most deranged and unhinged conspiracy theories in modern times. It wasn’t spread by QAnon or 4Chan users but the vast majority of media corporations, ‘scholars,’ think tank frauds, and NYT/NBC’s ‘disinformation units.'” (to which Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner and CEO, responded: “True.”) Others noted that looking to Twitter for foreign influence didn’t make any sense, since Facebook was the primary engine for such things.

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