“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).”

Continue reading “A bomb cyclone, or windy with a chance of hyperbole?”

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.

Continue reading “On Russian bots and Twitter’s influence”

We hiccup because we’ve forgotten that we aren’t fish

A professor of evolutionary biology explains: “We inherited the major nerves we use in breathing from fish. We became heir to this design from fishy ancestors with gills closer to the neck, not a diaphragm well below it. The characteristic pattern of muscle and nerve activity of hiccups occurs naturally in other creatures – more specifically, they turn up in tadpoles that use both lungs and gills to breathe. When tadpoles use their gills, they have a problem—they need to pump water into their mouth and throat and then across the gills, but they need to keep this water from entering their lungs. So what do they do? They shut the glottis to close off the breathing tube, while sharply inspiring. In essence, they breathe with their gills using an extended form of hiccup.”

When COVID scrambles your sense of smell

Ryan McManus writes about how COVID caused “parosmia” or a screwed up sense of smell: “When you smell something, anything, the olfactory nerves capture the scent molecules as encoded data, and pass that data signal along to your brain, which decodes it and matches it to a known scent, like chocolate or feet. With parosmia, the data of the coffee smell gets garbled and turns up in the brain as something totally unknown, like scrambling a QR code. And, at a survival level, a good default for “this smell is unknown to us and confusing” is “stay the hell away from this”. This was unpleasant for me but downright crippling for others, who find not only food but their romantic partners or their own bodies smelling repellent, and no amount of hygiene will cover the smell.”

Continue reading “We hiccup because we’ve forgotten that we aren’t fish”

Nick Cave responds to ChatGPT song written in his style

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.

Singer Nick Cave has dissected a song produced by the viral chatbot software ChatGPT that was supposedly written in the style of Nick Cave, calling it “bullshit” and “a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.” Writing in his newsletter the Red Hand Files on Monday, Cave responded to a fan of his called Mark in New Zealand, who had sent him a song written by the ChatGPT software. The artificial intelligence, which can be directed to impersonate the style of specific individuals or forms of writing, was used by Mark to create a song “in the style of Nick Cave”. Filled with dark biblical imagery, ChatGPT’s song included the chorus: “I am the sinner, I am the saint / I am the darkness, I am the light / I am the hunter, I am the prey / I am the devil, I am the savior.”

His forged documents saved thousands of Jews

Adolfo Kaminsky’s talent was as banal as could be: He knew how to remove supposedly indelible blue ink from paper. But it was a skill that helped save the lives of thousands of Jews in France during World War II. He had learned how to remove such stains as a teenager working for a clothes dyer and dry cleaner in his Normandy town. When he joined the anti-Nazi resistance at 18, his expertise enabled him to erase Jewish-sounding names like Abraham or Isaac that were officially inscribed on French ID and food ration cards, and substitute them with typically gentile-sounding ones. The forged documents allowed Jewish children, their parents and others to escape deportation to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, and in many cases to flee Nazi-occupied territory.

Continue reading “Nick Cave responds to ChatGPT song written in his style”

This artist did his best work while in an insane asylum

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.

Richard Dadd was a young British painter of huge promise who fell into mental illness while touring the Mediterranean in the early 1840s. Among the symptoms of Dadd’s illness were delusions of persecution and the receipt of messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. He spent over forty years in lunatic asylums, dying at Broadmoor in 1886, but never gave up his calling, producing mesmerisingly detailed watercolours and oil paintings of which The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is now the most well known. The picture’s history encapsulates the peculiar rise and fall of its maker’s reputation, and indeed begs the question of what happens to any long-dead forgotten genius after they’ve been rediscovered.

What it’s like to travel to Switzerland for your mother’s assisted suicide

Robin Williamson writes about going to Switzerland so her mother could end her life there: “We could do this together because assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland. We could do this together because my father had worked as an executive for an oil company and his retirement income allowed him to shoulder the costs: of the suicide itself, of the air ambulance (effectively a private jet rental), of jumping through all the legal hoops along the way. We could do this together because my mother had spent years thinking it through, had come to an unwavering and conclusive decision, and had the presence of mind to prove her resolve to mental health professionals along the way; and because my father, my brothers, and I all supported her decision.

Continue reading “This artist did his best work while in an insane asylum”

Writer gets a glimpse into what it’s like to be paralyzed

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.

Just after Christmas, the writer Hanif Kureishi was taking a long walk in Rome, where he and his wife, Isabella D’Amico, were spending the holiday, when he suddenly collapsed onto the sidewalk. He fell awkwardly, twisting his neck and grievously injuring the top of his spine. Taken to the Gemelli Hospital, Kureishi spent the next several days “profoundly traumatized, altered and unrecognizable to myself,” he said on Twitter. Since then, Kureishi, 68, a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and director best known for “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Buddha of Suburbia,” has been dictating daily dispatches from his hospital bed. In vivid, poignant prose, he is narrating his ongoing drama but also musing about writing and art and describing the transcendent profundity of being dependent on the love and patience of others.

What it’s like to have a job pretending to be an AI-powered online assistant

Laura Preston writes about providing backup for an AI-driven online assistant: “The recruiter was a chipper woman with a master’s degree in English. Previously she had worked as an independent bookseller. “Your experience as an English grad student is ideal for this role,” she told me. The position was at a company that made artificial intelligence for real estate. They had developed a product called Brenda, a conversational AI that could answer questions about apartment listings. Brenda, the recruiter told me, was a sophisticated conversationalist, so fluent that most people who encountered her took her to be human. But like all conversational AIs, she had some shortcomings. To compensate for these flaws, the company was recruiting employees they called the operators.”

Continue reading “Writer gets a glimpse into what it’s like to be paralyzed”

Why olive oil costs more, and the quality is lower

Via a recent edition of the Why Is This Interesting newsletter comes this from Eurof Uppington, a reformed finance guy turned olive-oil merchant:

“It’s a boom time for small farmers in the eastern Mediterranean, like Greece, Albania, and Turkey, who are seeing bumper harvests and sky-high prices. However, it’s a disaster in Spain, the biggest producer nation, where unseasonal heat early in the year killed the crop. The harvest is down by half. Spain makes 50% of the world’s olive oil. This is a big deal. No one remembers it being like this before. We might think this is just bad news for Andalucian olive farmers and shrug. But this harvest season is going to affect us all in ways we might not notice. Firstly, the price we pay for our olive oil is going to go up. This is on top of price rises for other cooking oils, like sunflower and canola, as Ukraine and Russia are key producers.

Because olive oil brands lack market power, they won’t be able to pass on the full cost increase. What they’re more likely to do is lower the quality of shop-bought olive oil. A dirty secret of the industry is that the amount of extra virgin olive oil produced in the world is less than the amount consumed. The big brands make “more” EVOO by diluting it. The magic number is 0.8%—that’s the maximum amount of free fatty acid (FFA) content an olive oil can have to be extra virgin. Brands will blend 250ml of an excellent EVOO of 0.2% FFA with 750ml of an oil of 1% FFA—a much cheaper “virgin” grade: hey presto! One liter of EVOO with a 0.79% FFA! This practice is likely to increase, but it’s not technically illegal.”