The unlikely survival of the humble avocado

Fascinating story here of how we got the avocado — something that was not a given by any means, as Maria Sharapova describes at The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings):

In the last week of April in 1685, English explorer and naturalist William Dampier — the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times — arrived on a small island in the Bay of Panama. Dampier made careful note of local tree species, but none fascinated him more than the tall “Avogato Pear-tree,” with its unusual fruit — “as big as a large Lemon,” green until ripe and then “a little yellowish,” with green flesh “as soft as Butter.” He described how the fruit were eaten — two or three days after picking, with the rind peeled — and their most common local preparation: with a pinch of salt and a roasted plantain, so that “a Man that’s hungry, may make a good meal of it.”

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How COVID affected one person with a chronic illness

Hannah Soyer, who has a condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy that affects her lungs, writes about trying to negotiate friendships and other relationships with people for whom COVID has been largely a nuisance:

“Before COVID, I’d never faced such blatant disregard for disabled and chronically ill life. I watched friends and family members — people who said they loved and cared about me — take part in activities clearly linked to spreading the virus, like eating in crowded restaurants and attending large parties. These choices felt like betrayals, and each new one stung.

I believe I have a right to exist safely in public spaces. Do others have an obligation to make that happen? What do we owe each other, as humans, as friends? Do we owe each other a chance at living, and how much should we change our lives to do that? Alternatively, do we owe each other forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt, and if so, to what extent?”

The sweet relief of being a tiny speck in the universe

This is from a recent instalment of Ann Friedman’s great newsletter, about the new images of deep space taken by the new James Webb telescope — images of hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies, whose light has only just reached us after billions of years:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” wrote Carl Sagan in 1994 about an image of our home planet, seemingly alone in the vastness of space, captured by Voyager 1. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light,” he continued. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” Now we can see, thanks to the mind-bending chaos of deep space revealed by the Webb telescope, that we aren’t alone in a vast cosmic emptiness. We are alone in a crowd.

The “cosmic cliffs” of the Carina Nebula. This image is about 250 lightyears across

But the effect is the same: Our terrestrial problems have been placed in appropriate context once again. “My life is meaningless!” exclaimed my friend Agatha, in a relatable post about the Webb photos. “I’m so relieved!” Is there a word for this feeling? The comfort of knowing you are a brief speck? I feel it when I’m in a deep gorge or at the base of a giant tree. When I connect with a work of art created in a lifetime that never touched my own. When I behold a thumping rave of faraway galaxies as they existed billions of years ago. 

A bronze mirror with a hidden secret

While plumbing the archives at the Cincinnati Art Museum, curator Hou-mei Sung uncovered what appeared to be an ordinary bronze mirror (prior to the development of glass mirrors, people often used polished bronze to see their reflection). After closer inspection, she realized that when a light was shone on it, the mirror revealed a hidden image of a spiritual figure surrounded by rays. Often called a “Magic Mirror,” this extremely rare work is part of a small collection of similar objects that date back to the Han dynasty (202 BCE to 220 CE)—only a few similar Buddhist pieces from China and Japan are thought to exist.

via Colossal

The Statue of Liberty’s disembodied arm

The Statue of Liberty’s disembodied arm stood in Madison Square from 1876 to 1882. It had been agreed that Frédéric Bartholdi would create the statue while the United States paid for the pedestal. Americans were a bit behind in offering donations, so Bartholdi sent along the arm and torch to help inspire contributions. It took six years of benefit concerts, auctions, souvenir photos, and other mementos, but the full statue was finally dedicated on Liberty Island on October 28, 1886.

via Futility Closet

Also, I learned that the structure holding up the various pieces of the statue was designed by a guy named Gustave Eiffel, who later built a pretty famous tower in Paris. And the arm of the statue was damaged in a massive explosion at a munitions depot on nearby Black Tom Island in 1916 — an explosion that much later was proven to be an act of sabotage by German secret agents.

Queen Victoria, 18th century marriage and the rise of the middle class

A fascinating sociological study of what happened when Queen Victoria became a widow and her mourning period interrupted the London Season — the period in which eligible bachelors tried to find eligible young ladies to marry. That interruption led to more intermarriage between peers and commoners, and that in turn helped change the economic landscape in Great Britain forever.

Peers courted in the London Season, a matching technology introducing aristocratic bachelors to debutantes. When Queen Victoria went into mourning for her husband, the Season was interrupted (1861–1863), raising search costs and reducing market segregation. I exploit exogenous variation in women’s probability to marry during the interruption from their age in 1861. The interruption increased peer-commoner intermarriage by 40 percent and reduced sorting along landed wealth by 30 percent. Eventually, this reduced peers’ political power and affected public policy in late nineteenth-century England.

Introducing Quinn Leanne Hemrica

On Sunday, June 26th at about 4 in the morning, I became a grandfather. It seems strange to type those words, in part because it makes me feel really old 🙂 but it’s true. And as soon as I saw little Quinn Leanne Hemrica, I fell in love! I know every parent and grandparent says this, but she was and is perfect — even when she is crying. Caitlin had a pretty rough labour, but she toughed her way through it, and I thought she looked fantastic even after all that.

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Twitter goes to court in India over free speech

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Twitter had filed a lawsuit against the government of India in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, challenging a recent decree that ordered Twitter to take down content and block a number of accounts. Twitter obeyed the order, removing the content and blocking the accounts, according to the Times, but then filed the suit in an attempt to overturn the order. A source who spoke with the Times said Twitter isn’t trying to invalidate the law under which the order was issued, but instead argues that the government interpreted it too broadly. A TV network in New Delhi reported that the suit alleges the order was “overbroad, arbitrary, and disproportionate,” and that the content in question is either political commentary, criticism, or otherwise newsworthy, and therefore should not be removed.

It’s not known which specific tweets or accounts are the subject of the order, in part because India’s laws forbid platforms from talking about the takedown orders they receive, or any of the content they refer to, or the reasons for the order. Last year, the Indian government ordered Twitter to remove tweets by Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit group that promotes democracy around the world. The group noted that internet freedom was declining in India, and included maps whose borders the government of India disputes. Tweets from Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist, and Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a fact-checking organization, were also subject to a similar order, as were accounts belonging to a number of political parties and groups.

Other accounts ordered to be blocked allegedly made “fake, intimidatory, and provocative tweets” that some took to be accusing the Indian government of genocide. In a number of cases, Twitter simply blocked access to tweets from within India, using what it calls its “country withheld” tool, a form of geo-blocking. In February of last year, in one of the largest such moves, Twitter removed more than 500 accounts (after initially refusing the order) and used geo-blocking to hide others, because of remarks those accounts made about Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. At the time, Twitter said it refused to remove any accounts belonging to journalists, politicians, or activists because it believed doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression.”

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On the shores of the Polar Sea in 1875

Public Domain Review highlights a document from 1875, written (and illustrated) by the ship’s surgeon on a British Arctic expedition

When the British Arctic Expedition set sail from Portsmouth on May 29, 1875, the explorers hoped to reach the highest latitude, and perhaps even approach the ever-elusive North Pole. It was believed that, should they successfully pass through Smith Sound, between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, they would encounter an Open Polar Sea free from troublesome ice. With this primary goal, three steamships set out across the stormy Atlantic only to immediately become separated by a violent cyclone, reconvening at Disko Bay on the western coast of Greenland some weeks later. Perhaps they could have interpreted this early inconvenience as a sign of the winter to come, or a warning that the Arctic waters are rarely kind. Regardless, the captains pressed on.

“This is a sketch, from the floes alongside the ship, of an unusually distinct Paraselena that appeared on 11th December, 1875″

In Shores of the Polar Sea, Edward L. Moss, an artist and esteemed Royal Navy Surgeon, records this journey from his first-hand seat in the belly of HMS Alert. A mixture of intimate journal entries, miscellaneous engravings, and sixteen chromolithographs, the book provides a unique, often surreal, retelling of life on the ice. Moss prefaces his work with a modest appeal: “Whatever may be the artistic value of the Sketches — and they lay claim to none — they are at least perfectly faithful efforts to represent the face of Nature in a part of the world that very few can ever see for themselves.”