When is a library not a library? When it’s online, apparently

In March 2020, the Internet Archive, a nonprofit created by the entrepreneur Brewster Kahle, launched a new feature called the National Emergency Library. Restrictions linked to the spread of COVID-19 had made it difficult or impossible for people to buy books or visit libraries in person, and so the Archive removed limits on the digital borrowing of the books in its database—of which there were more than three million, most of them in turn borrowed from physical libraries and scanned—and made them all publicly available, for free. The project was supported by a number of universities, researchers, and librarians. But some of the authors and publishers who owned the copyright to these books saw it not as a public service, but as theft.

In June 2020, Four publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons, and Penguin Random House—filed a lawsuit. The Internet Archive shut down the project, and went back to its previous policy of “Controlled Digital Lending,” which only allowed one person to borrow a free digital copy of a book at any given time. But this didn’t stop the lawsuit—because the publishers argued that any digital lending by the Archive constituted illegal infringement of the publishers’ copyright.

Last week, Judge John G. Koeltl, of the Southern District of New York, came down in favor of the publishers and dismissed every aspect of the Archive’s defense, including the claim that its lending program is protected by the “fair use” exception in copyright law. Koeltl wrote that the concept of fair use protects transformative versions of copyrighted works—a copy of a famous photo used in an artistic collage, for example—and that the Archive’s copies of books don’t qualify; the Archive made the case that its lending program  is transformative because the practice “facilitates new and expanding interactions between library books and the web,” the judge noted, but he ruled that just because the Archive might be “making an invaluable contribution to the progress of science and cultivation of the arts” did not make the use transformative.

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The strange case of a Nazi who became an Israeli hitman

On September 11, 1962, a German scientist vanished. Heinz Krug had been at his office, and he never came home. He was one of dozens of Nazi rocket experts who had been hired by Egypt to develop advanced weapons for that country. Based on interviews with former Mossad officers and with Israelis who have access to the Mossad’s archived secrets from half a century ago, it appears that Krug was murdered as part of an Israeli espionage plot to intimidate the German scientists working for Egypt. Moreover, the most astounding revelation is the Mossad agent who fired the fatal gunshots: Otto Skorzeny, one of the Israeli spy agency’s most valuable assets, was a former lieutenant colonel in Germany’s Waffen-SS and one of Adolf Hitler’s personal favorites. The Führer, in fact, awarded Skorzeny the army’s most prestigious medal, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, for leading the operation that rescued his friend Benito Mussolini.

Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at Bush says his only regret is he “only had two shoes”

Two decades after the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq, one of the most memorable moments for many in the region remains the 2008 news conference in Baghdad when an Iraqi journalist stood up and hurled his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush. As the U.S. leader spoke alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he was forced to duck the flying shoes as the journalist shouted: “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” The man was quickly pounced on by security forces and removed from the room, and says he was subsequently jailed and beaten for his actions. “The only regret I have is that I only had two shoes,” Muntazer al-Zaidi, who expressed the feelings of many Iraqis at the time, told CBS News, 20 years after the beginning of the U.S.’s campaign of “shock and awe.”

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Navigating the ethics of ancient human DNA research

The 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine has brought fresh attention to paleogenomics, the sequencing of DNA of ancient specimens. Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo won the coveted prize “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.” In addition to sequencing the Neanderthal genome and identifying a previously unknown early human called Denisova, Pääbo also found that genetic material of these now extinct hominins had mixed with those of our own Homo sapiens after our ancestor migrated from Africa some 70,000 years ago. The study of ancient DNA has also shed light on other migrations, as well as the evolution of genes involved in regulating our immune system and the origin of our tolerance to lactose, among many other things. The research has also ignited ethical questions. Clinical research on living people requires the informed consent of participants and compliance with federal and institutional rules. But what do you do when you’re studying the DNA of people who died a long time ago? That gets complicated.

How the ‘Godfather of Cybercrime’ got his start

he internet has connected nearly everybody on the planet to a global network of information and influence, enabling humanity’s best and brightest minds unparalleled collaborative capabilities. At least that was the idea, more often than not these days, it serves as a popular medium for scamming your more terminally-online relatives out of large sums of money. Just ask Brett Johnson, a reformed scam artist who at his rube-bilking pinnacle, was good at separating fools from their cash that he founded an entire online learning forum to train a new generation of digital scam artist. Eventually, he branched out on his own. His first scam: in 1994, he faked his own car accident. Second scam: eBay fraud. He reached his peak in the mid-’90s, during the Beanie Baby heyday. The Royal Blue Peanut, essentially a cobalt stuffed elephant toy, sold for as much as $1,700. Brett was trying to earn some extra money. A Beanie Baby scam seemed easy and quick. He advertised on eBay that he was selling Royal Blue Peanut for $1,500. Except he was actually selling a gray Beanie Baby that he dipped in blue dye.

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Adam Sandler’s acceptance speech

Adam Sandler’s comedy isn’t for everyone — the broad, scatalogical, somewhat sophomoric humour in movies like Waterboy, Happy Gilmore, and Little Nicky — but there’s no question he has been hugely successful. And yet, he seems like such a genuinely nice and down-to-earth person, unlike the driven, succeed-at-all-costs type of person you might think might be behind that $4 billion in box office sales. Everyone who spoke during the tribute at the Kennedy Center when he got the Mark Twain Award for Humour seemed devoted to him, including many comedians you might expect would normally be competitors. How did this happen? I was struck by what Sandler said when he got up to give his acceptance speech, because it was a deceptively simple recipe for success, and yet it clearly worked:

“I’ll tell you what kind of led me to this night. Growing up, my parents did everything they could to give me crazy confidence at literally everything I did. School, sports, singing, joking, they acted like I was the best at all those things, even though other kids were way better than me. My sisters, Elizabeth and Valerie, they included me in everything they did. They would always tell me to sing, tell stories, they’d go to all my games, they’d root for me. They’d even take me on dates with their boyfriends. They just always made me feel like I was the star of the family. My older brother, Scott, I shared a bedroom with him my whole childhood, and he was always nice to me. He would tell me, I’m funny all the time. He’d say I was great on the guitar.

When it came time to pick my college major, my brother said, “You should be an actor. You’re as funny as Rodney Dangerfield and Eddie Murphy.” And I never thought that, but he sort of made me feel like I was. He’s the one who brought me to do a standup comedy at Stitches Comedy Club. He set it all up. He says, you’re gonna get on stage, you have five minutes to do jokes. So I went up there, I was terrible. I don’t even know what I said. I was like in a fog. Those weird fogs you get when you’re a standup sometimes where you lose your mind. I just kind of was babbling. Anyways, I left. For some reason on the way home, my brother made me feel like I had the best set of any comedian that night. And he’s like, you just gotta prepare next time. But they loved you. And in my head I was like, “They did?”

Imagine what we could accomplish if we all had that kind of constant love and support behind us!

Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses?

In the early days, CRISPR gene-editing technology was used to simply make cuts in DNA. Today, it’s being tested as a way to change existing genetic code, even by inserting all-new chunks of DNA or possibly entire genes into someone’s genome. These new techniques mean CRISPR could potentially help treat many more conditions—not all of them genetic. In July 2022, for example, Verve Therapeutics launched a trial of a CRISPR-based therapy that alters genetic code to permanently lower cholesterol levels. The first recipient—a volunteer in New Zealand—has an inherited risk for high cholesterol and already has heart disease. But Kiran Musunuru, cofounder and senior scientific advisor at Verve, thinks that the approach could help almost anyone. The treatment works by permanently switching off a gene that codes for a protein called PCSK9, which seems to play a role in maintaining cholesterol levels in the blood. While newer innovations are still being explored in lab dishes and research animals, CRISPR treatments have already entered human trials.

The man who invented the glass skyscraper

If you’ve always wondered how cities around the world came to have downtown cityscapes that consist mostly of glass and steel skyscrapers that look like vertical ice-cube trays, the man who pioneered this style is German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Sheehan Quirke, who runs a Twitter account called The Cultural Tutor, has more: “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, born on March 27th 1886 in Germany, was a talented architect who was influenced by his father’s craft and the Medieval architecture of Aachen. in 1908 he went to Berlin to join the workshop of Peter Behrens. Two other important Modernist architects, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, also worked for Behrens around the same time. Van der Rohe proposed a model for a skyscraper in Berlin that was never built, but his ideas of a steel frame and glass curtain wall were revolutionary. He was a key figure in the Modernist movement in Europe and the Bauhaus, and when he emigrated to America in 1938 he changed the look of skyscrapers forever.”

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What happens when a philosopher starts taking drugs

Justin Smith writes: “At a cultural moment when psychedelics are getting a second wind, and even someone as upstanding as Michael Pollan has moved from counseling us to eat our roughage to praising the benefits of microdosing, philosophers are conducting themselves as though it were still 1950, when we wore skinny ties to colloquia, got funding from the RAND Corporation to work on decision trees and other such narrow and straitlaced endeavors, and all knew that it is the unaltered and wakeful mind that has exclusive access to the forms and qualities of the external world. I am a philosopher who has taken an interest, of late, in psychedelic experimentation, and I find that my experiments have significantly widened the range of accounts of the nature of reality that I am disposed to take seriously. If you think you are in an emotional state to handle it, and in a legal jurisdiction that permits it, I would recommend that you try some.”

The sonnets of Michelangelo

Most famous for painting the Sistine Chapel and his sculpture of David, the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo was also a prolific poet, in his lifetime penning more than 300 sonnets and madrigals. It is in his poetry that many critics have seen present the clearest evidence of his homosexual leanings. The openly homoerotic nature of the poetry has been a source of discomfort to later generations. Michelangelo’s grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published them in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed, and it was not until John Addington Symonds translated them into English in 1878 that the original genders were restored – the book featured here is a later edition of this work which features the Symonds translations side-by-side with the original Italian (see here for the 1st edition, with no Italian). Even in modern times some scholars continue to insist that, despite the restoration of the pronouns, the sonnets represent “an emotionless and elegant re-imagining of Platonic dialogue, an expression of refined sensibilities.”

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This inventor made two of history’s biggest mistakes

In the fall of 1940, Thomas Midgley contracted polio, and the dashing, charismatic inventor soon found himself in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. He took on his disability with the same ingenuity that he applied to everything, and designed a mechanized harness with pulleys attached to his bed. On the morning of Nov. 2, 1944, Midgley was found dead in his bedroom. The public was told he had been accidentally strangled to death by his own invention. But the dark story line of Midgley’s demise would take an even darker turn in the decades that followed. While The Times praised him as “one of the nation’s outstanding chemists,” today Midgley is best known for the terrible consequences of that chemistry, thanks to the stretch of his career from 1922 to 1928, during which he managed to invent leaded gasoline and also develop the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons that would create a hole in the ozone layer. There may be no other single person in history who did as much damage to human health and the planet, all with the best of intentions.

The family behind Ferrero Roche and Nutella

Giovanni Ferrero is Italy’s richest person, with a net worth of $36B. The source of his wealth is Ferrero Group, the Italian confectionary giant which sold $14B of sweets last year (and is the world’s 2nd biggest candy maker). The private business employs 40k+ people and runs 30+ plants globally. Nutella — the hazelnut spread — accounts for 1/5th of total sales (~$3B) but Ferrero also owns Kinder Surprise, Mon Cheri, TicTac, Crunch Bar, Nerds, Thornton’s and many more. The OG Nutella was invented in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Italian chefs started using ground hazelnut to stretch their dwindling chocolate supplies. The product they created was called gianduja. Fast forward to 1946. Europe was dealing with yet another continent-wide shortage of cocoa following the end of World War II. An Italian pastry chef by the name of Pietro Ferrero whipped out the recipe for gianduja and created a snack aimed at regular folk working on tight purse strings.

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Bill Gates says GPT is the biggest revolution since the graphical user interface

Bill Gates writes: “In my lifetime, I’ve seen two demonstrations of technology that struck me as revolutionary. The first time was in 1980, when I was introduced to a graphical user interface—the forerunner of every modern operating system, including Windows. I sat with the person who had shown me the demo, a brilliant programmer named Charles Simonyi, and we immediately started brainstorming about all the things we could do with such a user-friendly approach to computing. Charles eventually joined Microsoft, Windows became the backbone of Microsoft, and the thinking we did after that demo helped set the company’s agenda for the next 15 years.

The second big surprise came just last year. I’d been meeting with the team from OpenAIsince 2016 and was impressed by their steady progress. In mid-2022, I was so excited about their work that I gave them a challenge: train an artificial intelligence to pass an Advanced Placement biology exam. Make it capable of answering questions that it hasn’t been specifically trained for. (I picked AP Bio because the test is more than a simple regurgitation of scientific facts—it asks you to think critically about biology.) If you can do that, I said, then you’ll have made a true breakthrough. I thought the challenge would keep them busy for two or three years. They finished it in just a few months.”