Last member of uncontacted tribe dies in Brazil

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The last remaining member of an uncontacted indigenous group in Brazil has died, officials say. The man, whose name was not known, had lived in total isolation for the past 26 years. He was known as Man of the Hole because he dug deep holes, some of which he used to trap animals while others appear to be hiding spaces. His body was found on 23 August in a hammock outside his straw hut. There were no signs of violence. He is thought to have died of natural causes.

This Dutch city has the world’s smartest traffic lights

Hidden down at the southern end of the Netherlands lies a small city of 150,000 with, quite possibly, the world’s greatest traffic lights. Doesn’t sound like particularly high praise at first, but the more you learn about the traffic lights in the town of Hertogenbosch, the more you wish you had them. Because these signals go out of their way to make everyone’s lives better—from bus riders to bicyclists to automobile drivers.

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A medieval map has revealed the location of a lost ‘Atlantis’

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For centuries, rumors have circulated about an ancient kingdom called Cantre’r Gwaelod that once existed in Wales’ Cardigan Bay, before it sank beneath the waves to become the basis for a legendary “Welsh Atlantis.” Now, a pair of researchers present new evidence that two islands did once exist in the bay, based on an analysis of a medieval map, folkloric accounts, field studies, and geological surveys.

What the art of death masks can teach us about mourning

Nick Reynolds spent his childhood on the run in Mexico with his father, the infamous Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds, and now he is an artist who specializes in making death masks. He has been casting the faces of the dead for over twenty years, and is the only person doing it (commercially, anyway) in the UK.

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The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

by Wendell Berry

“Spanish Stonehenge” emerges from watery grave for second time

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Europe is once again in the midst of a historically severe drought. Now an ancient site known as the “Spanish Stonehenge”—submerged underwater by a reservoir for decades—has been fully exposed for the second time since 2019 due to low water levels. The site is also known as the Dolmen of Guadalperal, a circular grouping of 150 large vertical granite stones (called orthostats) dating back to between 2000 and 3000 BCE. A team led by German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier discovered it in 1926.

Suspects in Alabama Shooting Posted New Age Conspiracies

“2 Goddess and a starseed are stranded in Colorado,” Yasmine Hider wrote in a frantic Instagram post on May 23. “Went to go camping out in the mountains and got snowed in.” She posted a photo of a snowy mountain scene, and then a second image of herself alongside a woman named Krystal Pinkins and Pinkins’ five-year-old son. All three beam into the camera, the women grinning, the boy’s arms outstretched. Four months later, Hider and Pinkins are in custody in county jail in Ashland, Alabama, charged with murder, kidnapping, and robbery after a violent alleged attack on two college students in the woods of Alabama.

Booking photos of Krystal PINKINS, left, and Yasmine Hide, right
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Whistleblower’s allegations could mean trouble for Twitter

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

On Tuesday, the Washington Post and CNN simultaneously published stories alleging that Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter, and other senior executives deliberately misled federal regulators about how secure the company’s operations were, and also that these executives gave foreign agents access to the Twitter data of individual users. The allegations came from Peiter Zatko, the former head of security at Twitter, in a lengthy document that was shared with both the Post and CNN. The document was also sent to several members of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Post says the complaint “depicts Twitter as a chaotic and rudderless company beset by infighting, unable to properly protect its 238 million daily users, including government agencies, heads of state, and other influential public figures.”

Rebecca Hahn, a Twitter spokesperson, told the Post that Zatko was fired after 15 months, for “poor performance and leadership,” and that his allegations were “riddled with inaccuracies.” She added that Twitter has tightened up its security processes since 2020, and that it also has rules about who can access company systems and data. Hahn said that Twitter removes more than a million spam accounts every day, and that the company “fully stands by” its SEC filings. According to the Post‘s report, “a person familiar with Zatko’s tenure said the company investigated Zatko’s security claims during his time there and concluded they were sensationalistic and without merit.” Zatko is being represented by Whistleblower Aid, the same nonprofit legal organization that represented Frances Haugen, the former Facebook staffer turned whistleblower. In an interview with the Post, Zatko said he “felt ethically bound” to blow the whistle on Twitter because of the potential security implications of the company’s behavior.

According to CNN’s report, Zatko, 51, is a well-respected hacker and security expert who “led an influential cybersecurity grantmaking program at the Pentagon, worked at a Google division for developing cutting-edge technology, helped build the cybersecurity team at fintech firm Stripe, and advised US lawmakers and officials on how to plug security holes in the internet” before he joined Twitter. The Post says that by the time he was 30, Zatko had “written one of the most powerful tools for cracking passwords, testified to Congress under his hacker handle about the susceptibility of the internet to drastic hacks, and co-founded one of the first hacking consultancies backed by venture capital.” Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, hired Zatko in late 2020 after a hacker gained access to the Twitter accounts of famous users such as Barack Obama.

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Whistleblower says Twitter executives lied to regulators about security

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Twitter executives deceived federal regulators and the company’s own board of directors about “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in its defenses against hackers, as well as its meager efforts to fight spam, according to an explosive whistleblower complaint from its former security chief. The complaint from former head of security Peiter Zatko, a widely admired hacker known as “Mudge,” depicts Twitter as a chaotic and rudderless company beset by infighting.

The Hollow Core of Kevin Kelly’s “Thousand True Fans” Theory

Dave Karpf takes a look at the foundations of former Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s “thousand true fans” theory, and finds that it hasn’t aged very well. Niche artists can find audiences and make a living by doing so, he says, but: “As the network gets bigger, the platforms develop algorithms to help people discover what they are looking for/what they want but might not be looking for yet. It results in a power law/rich-get-richer phenomenon, driving attention and audiences toward the biggest successes and away from the niches.”

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The Hollow Core of Kevin Kelly’s “Thousand True Fans” Theory

Dave Karpf takes a look at the foundations of former Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s “thousand true fans” theory, and finds that it hasn’t aged very well:

A Thousand True Fans is a rallying cry for our current podcast/youtube/Substack economy. Kelly declares that the digital revolution has made it more possible than ever to find your audience, build a relationship with them, and make a good living doing something you love. Thousand True Fans tells us that a better world is possible if we just believe in ourselves, trust each other, and embrace the wonderful opportunities the internet provides. In Thousand True Fans, Kelly writes, “A fundamental virtue of a peer-to-peer network (like the web) is that the most obscure node is only one click away from the most popular node.”

In other words, the most obscure under-selling book, song, or idea, is only one click away from the best selling book, song or idea. However, Karpf notes that this is only true when the peer-to-peer networks are small. “As the network gets bigger, the platforms develop algorithms to help people discover what they are looking for/what they want but might not be looking for yet. It results in a power law/rich-get-richer phenomenon, driving attention and audiences toward the biggest successes and away from the niches.”

There are other problems with the theory, Karpf writes, including the fact that “We’re also less disintermediated than Kevin Kelly thought. Thousand True Fans is premised on the assumption that you can develop a direct relationship with your “true fans.” That rarely turns out to be the case, though — iTunes and other digital distributors take a 30% cut of everything sold on their platforms. Spotify replaced iTunes as the go-to music platform, and they pay in fractions of a penny per stream.)”

So is P equal to NP? Scientists disagree

From a recent edition of the great “Why Is This Interesting” newsletter:

P vs. NP is one of the great unsolved problems in cs/math and is one of the seven Clay Institute Millenium Problems with a million-dollar bounty. To get that million, all you have to do is prove that there’s a difference (or not) between problems that are easy for computers to solve (P) and those that are hard (NP). If that sounds a little crazy, it’s because it is. Nearly every person working on P vs. NP believes that P is not the same as NP—that there is some fundamental distinction between what is easy and hard for a computer to solve—but to this point, no one has proven this is true.

Most things we ask a computer to do are relatively straightforward: sorting a list of words alphabetically, for example, can happen nearly instantaneously even if that list is 20,000 words long. These are called “P” problems because a regular computer can solve them in polynomial time. Polynomial-time is most easily understood as the number of elements you’re processing—say words in a list that need to be sorted—raised to a fixed power like n^2 or n^5.

On the other hand, some problems are more challenging for computers to solve: cryptographic techniques like finding prime factors, playing games like sudoku, solving math/logic questions like the traveling salesman problem, and even finding the right configuration of packing boxes in your trunk, are all “hard” in CS terms. In other words, we don’t have an efficient algorithm to solve them.

The day a B-52 loaded with nukes crashed into a small town

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, a B-52 bomber disintegrated over a small Southern town, crashing with two 3.8-megaton thermonuclear bombs on board. An eyewitness recalls what happened next: “I was just getting ready for bed,” Reeves says, “and all of a sudden I’m thinking, ‘What in the world…?'” The 17-year-old ran out to the porch of his family’s farm house just in time to see a flaming B-52 bomber—one wing missing, fiery debris rocketing off in all directions—plunge from the sky and plow into a field barely a quarter-mile away. “Everything around here was on fire,” says Reeves, now 78.

Hacker group gets Doom to run on a tractor

The internet has shown us that Doom can run on everything from a cardboard box to a Roomba and even a single keyboard key, but now we can add a John Deere tractor to that list, says The Verge. Security researcher Sick Codes worked with Doom modder Skelegant to get the game running on a John Deere tractor display and showed off some gameplay at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas. In the video posted by Sick Codes, you can see how the game plays as a sort of transparent overlay on top of the John Deere user interface (UI). Sick Codes says the whole process took months and involved jailbreaking the Linux system used by the John Deere 4240 tractor. This version of Doom has, naturally, been modified to take place in a corn field, where the player mows down enemies on a tractor.

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TikTok’s ties to China still a source of controversy

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

In July of 2020, TikTok—the Chinese-owned video-sharing service that has become popular with young internet users—was deep in talks to sell itself to Microsoft, or possibly Oracle, after the Trump administration suggested that TikTok’s Chinese ownership represented a national security threat. The president was said to be considering an executive order forcing ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to divest itself of the app, so a number of options were on the table, including selling a controlling stake in the $100-billion company to a consortium of US investment companies. Trump eventually issued an executive order banning US corporations from doing business with ByteDance, because of the alleged security risk posed by Chinese access to the app’s data, as well as allegations that the Chinese government forced TikTok to censor mentions of Tianenmen Square and similar protests. Despite all the furor, ByteDance was never forced to sell, and the issue seemed to fade from view after Joe Biden became president.

Over the next two years, however, TikTok’s command of the social-media marketplace has only increased, to the point where it now has more than one billion users worldwide. According to a recent report from David McCabe at the New York Times, the subject of TikTok’s ties to China and the potential security risk never went away, and in fact has grown more urgent in recent months—at least for some in Congress, and in the Biden administration. The Times reported that last year, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, and discussed China’s impact on US industrial policy. During that discussion, the Times wrote, Rubio raised concerns about Beijing’s influence over TikTok, and Sullivan said he shared those concerns. Mark Warner, the Democratic senator from Virginia, told the Times he had also been in “active conversations” with the administration about the app.

Such concerns were undoubtedly fueled in part by a report from Emily Baker-White at BuzzFeed that said staffers at ByteDance routinely accessed data on US TikTok users. “For years, TikTok has responded to data privacy concerns by promising that information gathered about users in the US is stored in the US, rather than China,” Baker-White wrote. “But according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users.” BuzzFeed reported that this happened despite sworn testimony from a TikTok executive in a 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who could access such data. “Nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing,” Baker-White wrote.

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