The scientist who found out that whales could sing

From Patrick Whittle for AP: “Roger Payne, the scientist who spurred a worldwide environmental conservation movement with his discovery that whales could sing, has died. He was 88. Payne made the discovery in 1967 during a research trip to Bermuda in which a Navy engineer provided him with a recording of curious underwater sounds documented while listening for Russian submarines. Payne identified the haunting tones as songs whales sing to one another. He saw the discovery of whale song as a chance to spur interest in saving the giant animals, who were disappearing from the planet. Payne would produce the album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” in 1970. A surprise hit, the record galvanized a global movement to end whale hunting.”

If AI software creates a new episode of Seinfeld, is it copyright infringement?

Aharon Schreiber writes: “On December 14, 2022, a new season of Seinfeld debuted on the streaming site Twitch, airing continuously, 24 hours a day, every day for a few months. Ok, not really. The AI generated Seinfeld parody “Nothing, Forever,” did run 24 hours a day until February 6, 2023, but the show was completely procedurally generated via artificial intelligence. While the show was pretty well received, with even the official Seinfeld twitter account linking to the Twitch channel, “Nothing, Forever” opens up a series of new questions regarding the intersection of copyright law and artificial intelligence. Most importantly, does Seinfeld, Jerry, the actors, NBC, or any other person or entity with rights to Seinfeld the show have a copyright claim against “Nothing, Forever?”

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Boat captain says orcas know what they are doing

From Michelle Butterfield for Global News: “For weeks, the world has been watching with interest as groups of orcas, also known as killer whales, appear to be ambushing boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. A boat captain says that after his boat was attacked for a second time he now thinks these groups of orcas know “exactly what they’re doing.” Captain Dan Kriz, a sailor with Reliance Yacht Management, had his first orca encounter in 2020. “I was sailing with my delivery crew through the Strait of Gibraltar delivering a yacht when I was surrounded with a pack of eight orcas, pushing the boat around for about an hour,” Kriz said. “We were one of the first boats experiencing this very unusual behavior.”

Tea drinking was good for the rich in the 1800s, but bad for the poor

Livia Gershon for JSTOR Daily: “The practice of taking afternoon tea spread from fashionable Dublin to upper and middle classes around Ireland in the 1800s. Women could demonstrate their families’ status with tasteful tea parties governed by rules of etiquette imported from England. Among these were that the tea must be of good quality, refreshments should be placed on a silver tray, and nothing serious or controversial should be discussed. But when it came to the urban poor and farm laborers, popular discourse was very different. As early as 1745, a treatise on tea by British writer Simon Mason promoted afternoon tea drinking as a digestive aid for elites, but discouraged “an imprudent Use of Tea, by Persons of an inferior Rank, and mean Abilities.” When it came to women who “work hard and live low,” he argued, tea “makes them peevish and unkind to their husbands.”

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She was locked in her bedroom for 25 years for falling in love

Gina DeMuro writes for All That’s Interesting: “In May 1901, the attorney general of Paris received a strange letter declaring that a prominent family in the city was keeping a dirty secret. The wealthy family had a spotless reputation. Madam Monnier was known in Parisian society for her charitable works, and her son was a respectable lawyer. The Monniers had also had a beautiful young daughter, Blanche, but no one had seen her in close to 25 years. Described by acquaintances as “very gentle and good-natured,” the young socialite had simply vanished in the prime of her youth. The police made a search of the estate and did not come across anything out of the ordinary until they noticed an odor coming from one of the upstairs rooms.”

Nancy Grace Roman: The life and legacy of a NASA star

Known as the “mother of the Hubble,” Dr. Roman was the first chief of astronomy at NASA and the first woman to hold an executive position there. She was instrumental in making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In addition to her trailblazing accomplishments, Dr. Roman left a legacy for future generations. In 2019, AAUW received a generous bequest from Nancy’s estate to ensure more girls and women can pursue scientific careers, particularly in engineering and the physical sciences. “I was told by many people that a woman could not be an astronomer,” Dr. Roman said when she was honored at the 2016 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. “I’m glad I ignored them.”

This Dutch suburb boasts the world’s most unusual neighborhood design

From Tim Nelson at Architectural Digest: “As you wind your way through The Netherlands’ extensive network of canals, you’ll float by a whole lot of noteworthy buildings spanning from exemplars of low-country Renaissance style to architectural manifestations of modernism and the early 20th century’s De Stijl movement. Yet, for all the diversity that is Dutch design, few examples of it have inspired curiosity quite like an odd collection of concrete orbs found in one neighborhood of s-Hertogenbosch (colloquially known as Den Bosch). Though the buildings in the area may look like golf balls when viewed from the air, these Bolwoningen (“bulb houses”) are functional—albeit cramped—homes.”

Balloons in stratosphere record mysterious sounds of ‘completely unknown’ origin

From Vishwan Sankaram for The Independent: “Large 6-7-metre-long balloons were sent to the stratosphere – the relatively calm layer of Earth’s atmosphere which is rarely disturbed by planes or turbulence – by researchers, including Daniel Bowman of Sandia National Laboratories in the US. In this layer of the Earth’s outer atmosphere, scientific instruments on balloons can pick up a range of sounds that are unheard elsewhere, including the natural sounds of colliding ocean waves and thunder, as well as human-made ones like wind turbines or explosions. Researchers reported in a presentation at the Acoustical Society of America that they also managed to record strange sounds that could not be identified.“There are mysterious infrasound signals that occur a few times per hour on some flights, but the source of these is completely unknown,” Dr Bowman said.

The untold story of the boldest supply-chain hack ever

By Kim Zetter for Wired magazine: “Steve Adair wasn’t too rattled at first. It was late 2019, and Adair, the president of the security firm Volexity, was investigating a digital security breach at an American think tank. Adair figured he and his team would rout the attackers quickly and be done with the case—until they noticed something strange. A second group of hackers was active in the think tank’s network. They were going after email, making copies and sending them to an outside server. Adair and his colleagues dubbed the second gang of thieves “Dark Halo” and booted them from the network. But soon they were back. As it turned out, the hackers had planted a backdoor on the network three years earlier—code that opened a secret portal, allowing them to enter whenever they wished.”

How much is a smidgen?

From Claire Cock-Starkey for Lapham’s Quarterly: “In evidence given to Parliament’s 1862 Select Committee on Weights and Measures, a Mr. Greenall remarked on the extraordinary number of different historical weights and measures in use at that time across Britain, listing the grain, dram, drop, ounce, pound, stone, score, ton; the wool measure of clove, tod, wey, pack, sack or last; the straw measure of truss and load; the draper’s measure of inch, nail, ell and yard; the long measure and land measure of line, size, hand, foot, palm, span, pace, step, link, knot, rood, hide, rod, pole or perch, fall, chain, mile and league; plus various other scales of measurement including the strike, peck, pot, gill, pint, quart, tierce, boll, coomb, pipe, butt, tun, and score. This impressive array of measurements not only shows the plethora of competing and coexisting weights and measures in Britain but also reveals the innate human desire to create order.”

How Steve Jobs replied to a request for his autograph

via Jon Erlichman on Twitter

The tech platforms have surrendered in the fight over election-related misinformation

Last week YouTube announced that it will no longer remove videos that say the presidential election in 2020 was fraudulent, stolen, or otherwise illegitimate. The Google-owned video platform wrote in a blog post that it keeps two goals in mind when it develops policies around content, one of which is to protect users, and the other to provide “a home for open discussion and debate.” Finding a balance between the two is difficult when political speech is involved, YouTube added, and in the end, the company decided that “the ability to openly debate political ideas, even those that are controversial or based on disproven assumptions, is core to a functioning democratic society.” While removing election-denying content might curb some misinformation, the company said, it could also “curtail political speech without meaningfully reducing the risk of real-world harm.”

YouTube didn’t say in its blog post, or in any of its other public comments about the change, why it chose to make such a policy decision now, especially when the US is heading into another presidential election in which Donald Trump, the man who almost single-handedly made such policies necessary, is a candidate. All the company would say is that it “carefully deliberated” about the change. It’s not the only platform to decide that the misinformation guardrails it erected after the Capitol riots in 2021 are no longer required. Twitter and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, dismantled most of their restrictions related to election denial some time ago.

Twitter announced in January of 2022 that it would no longer take action against false claims about the legitimacy of the election. At the time, a spokesperson told CNN that Twitter had not been enforcing its “civic integrity misleading information” policy, under which users could be suspended or even banned for such claims, since March of 2021. The spokesperson said the policy was no longer being applied to election denial because it was intended to be used during an election or campaign, and Joe Biden had already been president for over a year at that point. Twitter added that it was still enforcing its rules related to misleading information about “when, where, or how to participate in a civic process.”

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

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The KGB bugged American typewriters during the Cold War

Kyle Mizokami writes for Popular Mechanics: “Charles Gandy, an electrical engineer with the National Security Agency, was charged with figuring out if the U.S. embassy in Moscow had been compromised. Counterintelligence had reason to believe that somehow, information was getting out that compromised American intelligence agents. It had to be something inside the embassy. The NSA eventually shipped all of the electronics located at the embassy back to the U.S. for study. They struck gold: parts inside an IBM Selectric typewriter had been cleverly duplicated but rigged to transmit the typist’s keystrokes. The typewriter still worked, but it also quietly broadcast the keystrokes, using over-the-air TV signals as a form of electronic camouflage.”

A man won a French world Scrabble title without knowing how to speak French

From Bill Chappel for NPR: “Nigel Richards, a New Zealand native, has won several English-language Scrabble titles over the years, but he took it to the next level in 2015 when he won the French-language Scrabble World Championships after spending a single week memorizing a French dictionary. “He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words,” his friend and former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association told the New Zealand Herald. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French, I wouldn’t think.” It was only in late May that Richards began his quest to win the French world title. “Nigel Richards is the best Scrabble player all-time, hands down,” said Scrabble expert Stefan Fatsis, who has written a book about the game.”

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The fugitive Brazilian heiress who lived next door

From Manuel Roig-Franzia for the Washington Post: “They strain on tiptoes, squinting through gaps in the metal sheets and iron fencing that buttress the wall. They hope to catch even the most fleeting glimpse of the last remaining inhabitant of this creaky relic of a bygone era’s upper classes, a figure who sometimes appears, almost like an illusion, behind stained-glass windows that depict idyllic seascapes and pastoral vistas. They call her “a bruxa”— the witch. For more than two decades she has been an object of curiosity in this enclave called Higienópolis. She has ambled for years along its tree-cradled streets, walking her dogs (Ebony and Ivory), with her face obscured by viscous white cream.”

These psychedelic cryptography videos have hidden messages

Psilocybin, the 'God molecule,' and the quest to revolutionize mental  health care | Wisconsin Public Radio

Becky Ferreira writes for Vice: “A new competition focused on Psychedelic Cryptography has awarded cash prizes to artists who made videos encoded with hidden messages that can be most easily deciphered by a person who is tripping on psychedelic substances, such as LSD, ayahuasca, or psilocybin mushrooms. Qualia Research Institute (QRI), a California-based nonprofit group that researches consciousness, announced the winners of its Psychedelic Cryptography contest last week. The goal of the exercise was “to create encodings of sensory information that are only meaningful when experienced on psychedelics in order to show the specific information-processing advantages of those states,” according to the original contest page.”

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A former U.S. intelligence officer says aliens have visited Earth

From Marina Koren for The Atlantic: “A website called The Debrief—which says it specializes in ‘frontier science’ and describes itself as self-funded—reported this week that a former intelligence official named David Grusch said that the U.S. government has spent decades secretly recovering ‘intact vehicles’ and ‘partial fragments’ that weren’t made by humans. Officials, Grusch said, sought to avoid congressional oversight while reverse-engineering these materials for the government’s own purposes. In a separate interview with NewsNation, which has advertised itself as an alternative to major cable networks, Grusch said the military had even discovered the ‘dead pilots’ of these craft. ‘Believe it or not, as fantastical as that sounds, it’s true,’ he said.”

The inventor of the Segway bought an island and tried to make it an independent nation

From Atlas Obscura: “Dean Kamen is mostly known as the eccentric inventor of the Segway. When he bought a two acre island off the coast of Connecticut, and local governments prohibited him from building a wind turbine, he thought the next logical step would be to secede North Dumpling Island from the United States of America. Though the half-joking secession is not officially recognized by the U.S., he signed a non-aggression pact with friend and then-President George H.W. Bush, issued his own money, designed a flag, and wrote a national anthem. There is even a lighthouse, a replica of Stonehenge, and a “navy” consisting of one amphibious vehicle. The official vehicle of this island nation? The Segway.”

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Man finally wins a prize from Bazooka Joe 60 years later

From Dan Lewis: “On Friday, July 19, 1957, the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Giants, 3-1, and the Baltimore Orioles topped the Kansas City Athletics, 4-2. Today — more than sixty years later — you can look that up pretty quickly. But on July 11, 1957, predicting those two scores would have been a longshot. That’s what Bazooka bubble gum was betting on. Before the 1957 season, Bazooka ran a contest using a baseball card, and the deadline to enter was July 11. But Bazooka made a tiny mistake. The deadline to enter didn’t include the year. For more than half a century, that error didn’t matter at all — there are no reports of anyone trying to take advantage of that loophole. That changed in 2016.”

In the West, a clown motel and a cemetery tell a haunting story of kitsch and carnage

In the American West, a Clown Motel and a Cemetery Tell a Story of Kitsch and Carnage

From Andrew Chamings in New Line magazine: “In the desert of central Nevada, somewhere between a shuttered brothel and a nuclear test site, lies the tiny town of Tonopah. The settlement’s main strip is a mix of dusty casinos, mining museums and old-timey shops. Faded missing-persons posters peer from store windows. A sign warns against entering the abandoned mineshafts. A smattering of tourists stroll the otherwise barren streets. Many of the visitors who do venture here stay at one of the few lodgings in town: the World Famous Clown Motel. It’s hard to miss. A pair of 20-foot-tall wooden clowns surveil the parking lot. A pink and powder-blue post topped with a brightly lit juggling clown beckons motorists in. Known as “the scariest motel in America,” it’s said to be haunted.”

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No Believer

A poem by W.S. Merwin, via Matthew Ogle’s Pome

Still not believing in age I wake
to find myself older than I can understand
with most of my life in a fragment
that only I remember
some of the old colors are still there
but not the voices or what they are saying
how can it be old when it is now
with the sky taking itself for granted
there was no beginning I was there

How the U.S. almost became a nation of hippo ranchers

From Shoshi Parks for the Smithsonian magazine: “In 1884, the water hyacinth delighted audiences when it made its North American debut in New Orleans. But beneath its pretty exterior, the hyacinth hid its true nature as a malevolent marauder. The plant spread like a virus first in Louisiana and then in Florida. Within 20 years, it had overtaken waterways across the South. Meanwhile, a second crisis was brewing: around the turn of the 20th century, inexpensive meat was suddenly in short supply. Meatpackers blamed grain prices and cattle shortages, butchers blamed the meatpackers, and most everyone else blamed the Beef Trust, a nickname for the nation’s largest meatpacking companies. The only one way to solve both problems at once, argued Louisiana Rep. Robert F. Broussard, was to embrace hippopotamus ranching.”

Tár director Todd Field invented Big League Chew candy when he was teenager

From Lindsay Adler and Ben Cohen at the Wall Street Journal: “Before Todd Field made the movie Tár, he made Big League Chew. And that makes Field the only person at the Academy Awards on Sunday who can say that a movie that might win him an Oscar owes its existence to baseball’s most beloved bubble gum. Field became the inspiration for and forgotten inventor of Big League Chew as a teenage bat boy in the 1970s for the minor-league Portland Mavericks. One summer, while trying to find an age-appropriate imitation of the chewing tobacco favored by the players and coaches, Field ripped up strings of licorice and stuffed them in a tobacco pouch to make it look like he was dipping.”

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