Volunteering for cranial surgery in medieval Italy

Sometime in the period from the 6th to the 8th century, a woman willingly underwent surgery to scrape a hole into the top of her skull. The procedure must have gone well, at least well enough for her to survive and to try it several more times. A multinational group of researchers from the U.K., Spain, France, Italy and the U.S. discovered the unusual bone modifications while conducting detailed observations on remains excavated from the Longobard cemetery of Castel Trosino in central Italy. Tests showed she was a female, around age 50. Microscopic and CT scan analyses further revealed signs of at least two sets of scraping marks. Both healed and unhealed defects in the bone indicate that the woman received multiple distinct rounds of skull modification.

Why Laura Ingalls Wilder stopped writing

When Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, didn’t start writing books until she was in her 60s, when she began writing down stories from her past with a pencil. With the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, she ended up publishing nine books between 1932 and 1971. In the years since, there have been more than 60 million copies of her books sold. In a profile of the improbable author written for the Kansas City Star in 1949, she discussed the genesis of her late-to-the-game book series and what stopped her from writing even more. “The more I wrote the bigger my income tax got, so I stopped. Why should I go on at my age? Why, we don’t need it here anyway.”

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The meteoric rise and rapid fall of an American war hero

Ian Fishback once seemed to be the embodiment of martial ideals. Intellectually driven, impressively fit, a West Point graduate and Arabist with one combat tour to Afghanistan and three to Iraq, he was heralded as morally inquisitive and ethically rigorous, qualities that earned him international praise after he went public with accounts that fellow paratroopers had humiliated, beat and tortured Iraqi men in 2003. Two tours in the Special Forces followed, then a promotion to major. After earning a pair of master’s degrees, he transferred to West Point in 2012 to teach courses about war and morality to cadets, before resigning his commission in 2015 for a career as a philosopher. But then Fishback struggled with a mercilessly advancing mental illness, never consistently diagnosed, that scrambled his sense of reality and altered his behavior. By the time the university awarded Fishback a doctorate in April 2021, he was the subject of multiple campus police reports, had no fixed address and was unemployed, twice divorced and broke.

Medieval shame masks were used for gossips, drunks, and narcissists

Extravagance was not well tolerated in medieval Germany. Wealthy citizens and members of nobility could wear sumptuous garments and drape their homes in finery but not those of lower socio-economic status. The size of a man’s collar, the fabric used to make his cloak, even the colors in which he dressed, were regulated by law. Commoners who dared to wear the symbols of the upper class were fined for their chutzpah. Restoring the social order, though, required more than a monetary payoff. The punishment for such a violation was public shaming, and in 17th-century Germany, as well as elsewhere in central Europe, England and Scotland, not much was more humiliating than the schandmaske, or shame mask. Peacocking proletariats were sentenced to wear the rooster, a pounded metal schandmaske with a fleshy comb and elaborately wrought feathers.

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Daughter of the BTK killer says “I knew right away it was my dad”

Late one February evening in 2005, Kerri Rawson went online and listened to a recording of the BTK killer from 1977. It was a 911 call, a chilling dispatch in which the caller casually reported a homicide he had just committed to the police. “I knew right away it was my dad,” she says. But earlier that day, when an FBI agent had knocked on her door and informed her that her father had been identified as the BTK killer and arrested for murder, Rawson insisted it was all a mistake. She knew her father, Dennis Rader, as normal, law-abiding, kind: a 59-year-old compliance officer in Park City, Kansas. He had even risen to become president of his church council. It was not a mistake. Rader had murdered 10 people in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991. By the time Rawson was born in 1978, her father had already committed seven murders.

Long-lost letter hints at George Washington’s financial struggles

The Raab Collection, an auction house specializing in historical documents, announced the discovery of the letter in a news release Sunday. The letter was previously “unknown to scholars” and was kept in a small private collection in rural West Virginia, according to the news release. In the 1787 letter, the early politician writes of his need to sell land and raise money. He began corresponding with Israel Shreve, a retired colonel, who wanted to use a form of credit to buy a plot of land in western Pennsylvania. But Washington insisted on selling the land for cash. Washington wrote the letter just months before he would arrive in Philadelphia as chairman of the Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the creation of the American Constitution. He was inaugurated as the nation’s first president two years later in 1789.

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The mysterious death of Michael Rockefeller

He was 23 years old, the privileged son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, seven months into the adventure of a lifetime that had transformed him from clean-cut student to bearded photographer and art collector. One moment his boat was being tossed by the waves, just as ours was, and the next he and his Dutch companion were clinging to an overturned hull. And then Rockefeller had swum for shore and vanished. No trace of him was ever found, despite a two-week search involving ships, airplanes, helicopters and thousands of locals prowling the coasts and jungle swamps. The official cause of Michael’s death was drowning, but there had long been a multitude of rumors.

No coach, no agent, no ego: The Lionel Messi of cliff diving

Gary Hunt is an enigma. He trains with the intensity of a modern athlete, but relaxes like a sportsman of a bygone era. He is fiercely competitive but unbelievably laid-back. How did he become the greatest cliff diver of all time? Since his inaugural season in 2009, when he finished second, Hunt has been on a run of dominance that would be extraordinary in any sport, winning 42 of 82 Red Bull cliff diving events, and nine of 11 world series titles.He is, unquestionably, the greatest cliff diver of all time, “the Michael Jordan, the Muhammad Ali, the Tiger Woods” of the sport, as Steven LoBue, an American diver who had the misfortune of competing against Hunt for many years, put it in 2021.

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US faces new threat from Canadian ‘super pig’

For decades, wild pigs have been antagonizing flora and fauna in the US: gobbling up crops, spreading disease and even killing deer and elk. Now, as fears over the potential of the pig impact in the US grow, North America is also facing a new swine-related threat, as a Canadian “super pig”, a giant, “incredibly intelligent, highly elusive” beast capable of surviving cold climates by tunneling under snow, is poised to infiltrate the north of the country. The emergence of the so-called super pig, a result of cross-breeding domestic pigs with wild boars, only adds to the problems the US faces from the swine invasion.

The time 20,000 Americans packed Madison Square Garden for a Nazi rally

Six and a half months before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosted a rally to celebrate the rise of Nazism in Germany. Inside, more than 20,000 attendees raised Nazi salutes toward a 30-foot-tall portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas. Outside, police and some 100,000 protestors gathered. The organization behind the  1939 event was the German American Society, an anti-semitic organization that held Nazi summer camps for youth and their families during the 1930s. Youth members were present that night, as were the Ordnungsdienst, the group’s vigilante police.

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A poem by Jack Gilbert:

I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmatian. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.

I was wide awake during my brain surgery for Parkinson’s

Harry Forestell, host of CBC News in New Brunswick, writes about undergoing surgery to help ameliorate his Parkinson’s disease: “The surgeons and I kept up an amiable conversation as I asked questions about what was happening. In the background, a steady staccato, like the noise of a Geiger counter, attested to the continuing activity in my brain. Clicks coming through a loudspeaker amplified the activity of each busy cell. It was a strange experience to have someone rooting through your brain. As the probes slid into place, there were tell-tale signs that gave away what was happening as the surgeons carefully threaded the electrodes through my brain to reach the basal ganglia.”

The solution to the “Monty Hall” problem isn’t what you think it is

Here’s the problem: Imagine that you’re on a television game show and the host presents you with three closed doors. Behind one of them, sits a sparkling, brand-new Lincoln Continental; behind the other two, are smelly old goats. The host implores you to pick a door, and you select door #1. Then, the host, who is well-aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, opens door #3, revealing one of the goats. “Now,” he says, turning toward you, “do you want to keep door #1, or do you want to switch to door #2?” Statistically, which choice gets you the car: keeping your original door, or switching? If you, like most people, think that your odds are 50-50, you’re 100 percent wrong.

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Section 230 gets its day in court

For a law whose central clause contains just twenty-six words, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has generated vast amounts of debate over the past few years, thanks in part to criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservative politicians say the law—which shields online services from liability for the content they host—allows social networks like Twitter and Facebook to censor right-wing voices, while liberals say Section 230 gives the social platforms an excuse not to remove offensive speech and disinformation. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both spoken out against the law, and promised to change it. This week, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in two cases that could alter or even dismantle Section 230.

On Tuesday, the court’s nine justices heard arguments in the first case, Gonzalez v Google. The family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a US citizen who was killed in an Isis attack in Paris in 2015, claim that YouTube violated the federal Anti-Terrorism Act by recommending videos featuring terrorist groups, and thereby helped cause Gonzalez’s death. On Wednesday, the court heard arguments in the second case, which also involves a terrorism-related death: in that case, the family of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in a terrorist attack in 2017, claim that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube recommend content related to terrorism, and thus contributed to his death. After a lower court ruled the companies could be liable, Twitter asked the Supreme Court to say whether Section 230 applies.

The clause at the heart of Section 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In practice, this has meant that services such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are not held liable for things their users post, whether it’s links or videos or any other content (unless the content is illegal). The question before the Supreme Court is whether that protection extends to content these services recommend, or promote to users via their algorithms. Section 230, the plaintiffs argue in Gonzalez, “does not contain specific language regarding recommendations, and does not provide a distinct legal standard governing recommendations.”

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What time is it on the Moon?

The Moon doesn’t currently have an independent time. Each lunar mission uses its own timescale that is linked, through its handlers on Earth, to coordinated universal time, or UTc — the standard against which the planet’s clocks are set. But this method is relatively imprecise and spacecraft exploring the Moon don’t synchronize the time with each other. The approach works when the Moon hosts a handful of independent missions, but it will be a problem when there are multiple craft working together. Space agencies will also want to track them using satellite navigation, which relies on precise timing signals. It’s not obvious what form a universal lunar time would take. Clocks on Earth and the Moon naturally tick at different speeds, because of the differing gravitational fields of the two bodies. Official lunar time could be based on a clock system designed to synchronize with UTC, or it could be independent of Earth time.

Napoleon and his traveling library

From a Sacramento newspaper in 1885 (via Austin Kleon’s blog): “Many of Napoleon’s biographers have mentioned that he used to carry a number of favorite books wherever he went, but it is not generally known that he made several plans for the construction of portable libraries. Some interesting information on this is given us by M. Louis Barbier of the Louvre Library, who bases his information upon memoirs left by his father, who was Napoleon’s librarian. Napoleon used to carry about the books he required in several boxes holding about sixty volumes each. These volumes, which were supplied by a well-known cabinetmaker. They were made of mahogany at first, but as it was found that this was not strong enough for the knocking about they had to sustain, M. Barbier had them made of oak and covered with leather. The inside was lined with green leather or velvet, and the books were bound in morocco.”

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The only good coffee is bad coffee

In a recent version of her excellent newsletter Griefbacon (which is the literal translation of a German term for eating because you’re sad), Helena Fitzgerald writes about her favourite kinds of terrible coffee, including:

“Gas Station Coffee: You’re driving somewhere you’ve never been before. The country is so much larger than anything should be. No matter how many times you think how is there this much of it, how is there still so much of it, there is always more, a room further inside the house, opening into other rooms. Highways spool out like the surface of an unknown planet. It’s lonely but most things are lonely; that’s why it matters so much when anything doesn’t feel lonely, even for five minutes. It’s lonely, but a lot of us like being lonely a lot more than we think we do.

You’re going to meet someone’s parents. You’re going somewhere for Thanksgiving; you have homemade food in the back of the car in big dishes covered over with foil. You’re going to see the friend who moved out of the city. It’s not all that far away but it’s more fun to pretend that it is. You’re going to someone’s wedding; a dry cleaning bag is hanging off that uncertain hook in the backseat like a ghostly passenger. You’re holding a cup of gas station coffee. It’s maybe the worst coffee you’ve ever had. It’s maybe the worst coffee anyone’s ever had.

You stopped at a gas station because you needed gas or because you needed to pee. You got out of the car and the air smelled just slightly wild, in that way the air near a gas station always does. You went inside and bought a coffee and the coffee came in one of the those horrible hyper-insulated styrofoam cups with the treacherous little flip-top tab. You took it back to the car and took a sip and burned your tongue and then you drove away. Or, really, someone else drove away. Gas station coffee is the glory of the passenger seat, the dissociative blur of houses and highway, the crackle of untrustworthy radio stations, every conversation interrupted at its crisis point or punchline by the google maps lady’s polite warnings.”