The CIA has just invested in the woolly mammoth resurrection business

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.

The Dallas-based biotechnology company Colossal Biosciences has a vision: “To see the Woolly Mammoth thunder upon the tundra once again.” Founders George Church and Ben Lamm have already racked up an impressive list of high-profile funders and investors, including Peter Thiel, Tony Robbins, Paris Hilton, Winklevoss Capital — and, according to the public portfolio its venture capital arm released this month, the CIA. Colossal says it hopes to use advanced genetic sequencing to resurrect two extinct mammals — not just the giant, ice age mammoth, but also a mid-sized marsupial known as the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, that died out less than a century ago. On its website, the company vows: “Combining the science of genetics with the business of discovery, we endeavor to jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat.”

Otters are art history’s unsung muses

Though seals are probably the gateway to aquatic mammal fandom, connoisseurs of the genre all agree that otters are best in class. These furry powerhouses are not only capable of tender intimacy and novel tool usage, they often just seem to be having the best time ever. So it’s no wonder that they have been a recurring motif throughout art history. “The pose of raised paws signifies the otter’s adoration of the sun god when he rises in the morning,” reads the label on this Ancient Egyptian bronze statuette, dating to between 664 and 30 BCE. “In myth otters were attached to the goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt, whose cult was centered in Buto, in the northern Delta.”

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Always wanted to live in a cave? This house is for you

Zillow Gone Wild — one of my favourite Twitter accounts — posts some pretty amazing (and weird) homes, but this one really takes the cake: it is built into the side of a mountain, and is connected to a chain of caverns that the ad refers to as the “Cave of Chimes,” which appears to be part of Iron Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Most of the house is built into a wide opening in the rock face that looks out over a canyon.

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TikTok and Congress try to cut a deal

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

In June, BuzzFeed News published an investigative report based on leaked audio from more than 80 internal meetings at TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app. Emily Baker-White of BuzzFeed wrote that the recordings—along with fourteen statements from nine TikTok employees—showed that China-based employees of the company “repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US users of the video-sharing app between September 2021 and January 2022.” As Baker-White pointed out, this directly contradicted a senior TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing, in which the executive said that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who would have access to US customer data. The reality illustrated by BuzzFeed’s recordings, Baker-White wrote, was “exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.”

That proposed ban never materialized, although Trump did issue an executive order banning US corporations from doing business with ByteDance. Joe Biden struck down the order, but concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership remained. Biden asked the Commerce Department to launch national security reviews of apps with links to foreign adversaries, including China, and BuzzFeed’s reporting about TikTok’s access to US data fueled those concerns. According to the Times, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, last year, and expressed concern about China’s impact on US industrial policy, including Beijing’s influence over TikTok. Sullivan reportedly said he shared those concerns.

On Monday, the Times reported that the Biden administration and TikTok had drafted a preliminary agreement to resolve national security concerns posed by the app. The two sides have “more or less hammered out the foundations of a deal in which TikTok would make changes to its data security and governance without requiring its owner, ByteDance, to sell it,” the Times wrote, while adding that the Biden government and TikTok’s owners were “still wrangling over the potential agreement.” According to the Times, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has concerns that the terms of the deal are not tough enough on China, and the Treasury Department is skeptical that the proposed agreement can sufficiently resolve national security issues. The Biden administration’s policy towards Beijing, the Times wrote, “is not substantially different from the posture of the Trump White House, reflecting a suspicion of China.”

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The secret microscope that sparked a scientific revolution

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.

On September 7, 1674, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek sent a letter to London’s Royal Society detailing an astonishing discovery. While he was examining algae from a nearby lake through his homemade microscope, a creature “with green and very glittering little scales,” which he estimated to be a thousand times smaller than a mite, had darted across his vision. Two years later, he followed up with another report so extraordinary that microbiologists today refer to it simply as “Letter 18”: Van Leeuwenhoek had looked everywhere and found what he called animalcules (Latin for “little animals”) in everything. This monumental discovery was not made by one of the 17th century’s great scientific minds such as Galileo or Isaac Newton, but by a secretive, self-taught Dutchman, who did it by handcrafting a lens 10 times more powerful than anything built before it.

Ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson disappears while descending Manaslu

On Monday, American ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson and her partner Jim Morrison reached the summit of 26,781-foot Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world. Soon after the 49-year-old explorer began her descent on skis, she disappeared. On Wednesday, searchers recovered her body. Nelson, a National Geographic Explorer, had a distinctive sense of wanderlust that propelled her through more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries. Along the way, she explored some of the tallest mountains on the planet, often carrying her skis along with her for the ride down. In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Six years later, Nelson returned to Lhotse to become the first to ski from its summit.

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The social-media platforms and the Big Lie

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

In August, the major social-media platforms released statements about how they intended to handle misinformation in advance of the November 8 midterms, and for the most part Meta (the parent company of Facebook), Twitter, Google, and TikTok said it would be business as usual—in other words, that they weren’t planning to change much. As the midterms draw closer, however, a coalition of about 60 civil rights organizations say business as usual is not enough, and that the social platforms have not done nearly enough to stop continued misinformation about “the Big Lie”—that is, the unfounded claim that the 2020 election was somehow fraudulent. Jessica González, co-chief executive of the advocacy group Free Press, which is helping to lead the Change the Terms coalition, told the Washington Post: “There’s a question of: Are we going to have a democracy? And yet, I don’t think they are taking that question seriously. We can’t keep playing the same games over and over again, because the stakes are really high.”

González and other members of the coalition say they have spent months trying to convince the major platforms to do something to combat election-related disinformation, but their lobbying campaigns have had little or no impact. Naomi Nix reported for the Post last week that members of Change the Terms have sent multiple letters and emails, and raised their concerns through Zoom meetings with platform executives, but have seen little action as a result, apart from statements about how the companies plan to do their best to stop election misinformation. In April, the same 60 social-justice groups called on the platforms to “Fix the Feed” before the elections. Among their requests were that the companies change their algorithms in order to “stop promoting the most incendiary, hateful content”; that they “protect people equally,” regardless of what language they speak; and that they share details of their business models and moderation.

“The ‘big lie’ has become embedded in our political discourse, and it’s become a talking point for election-deniers to preemptively declare that the midterm elections are going to be stolen or filled with voter fraud,” Yosef Getachew, a media and democracy program director at the government watchdog Common Cause, told the Post in August. “What we’ve seen is that Facebook and Twitter aren’t really doing the best job, or any job, in terms of removing and combating disinformation that’s around the ‘big lie.’ ” According to an Associated Press report in August, Facebook “quietly curtailed” some of the internal safeguards designed to smother voting misinformation. “They’re not talking about it,” Katie Harbath, a former Facebook policy director who is now CEO of Anchor Change, a technology policy advisory firm, told the AP. “Best case scenario: They’re still doing a lot behind the scenes. Worst case scenario: They pull back, and we don’t know how that’s going to manifest itself for the midterms on the platforms.”

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NASA is going to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid

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.

A golf cart-sized spacecraft will intentionally smash into a tiny asteroid at about 14,000 miles per hour on September 26. It’s humanity’s first test of our ability to deflect dangerous incoming space rocks. NASA currently knows the location and orbit of roughly 28,000 nearby asteroids. Experts say that it’s a matter of when — not if — Earth finds itself on track to be hit by one. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in November 2021, to see whether a spacecraft could one day divert a rogue space rock headed for Earth. The $308 million spacecraft traveled 6.8 million miles from Earth to Dimorphos, a small asteroid orbiting the asteroid Didymos.

The Chicago heiress who created lifelike crime-scene miniatures

The tiny diorama shows a miniature husband and wife, lying in their bedroom, their baby in her crib in the adjacent nursery. A typical family on a typical morning, minus the red bloodstains on the beige bedroom carpet. All three family members have been shot to death. The diorama, called “Three-Room Dwelling,” was built in about 1944 by a 60-something Chicago heiress named Frances Glessner Lee. It was made to train police officers in the handling and processing of evidence. The blood behind the baby’s crib allows officers to study blood spatter patterns. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Lee created what came to be known as The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, her dioramas were seen as a revolutionary way to study crime scene investigation.

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The triumph of hope over experience

This is from a great piece by the always excellent Helena Fitzgerald, from her newsletter “Griefbacon”:

Somebody said second marriages represent “the triumph of hope over experience,” but everything is that, isn’t it? Every day any of us get up in the morning is the triumph of hope over experience, choosing not to know better, choosing to ignore the warnings, to do it anyway, despite the likelihoods, against the odds. “The triumph of hope over experience” figures love as willful stupidity, which is true, but it also says—also correctly—that there is no greater human miracle than second chances. A belief in change is stupid in a mathematical sense, but it is also a ladder to climb back up into the world. Here in this unlikely room the door is never closed. Love is impossible, but that means it is a place where there are no borders between worthy and unworthy, where there is no notion of worthiness at all. The harsh lines do not hold; they blur out into the green haze beyond the legible view.