People in 1920s Berlin nightclubs flirted using pneumatic tubes

From Michael Waters for Atlas Obscura: “Beginning in the 1920s, nightclub-goers in Berlin who feared face-to-face encounters could communicate with beautiful strangers from across the room. All they needed to do? Turn to the nearest pneumatic tube. Two nightclubs in particular—the Resi and the Femina—pioneered the trend. At the Resi (also called the Residenz-Casino), a large nightclub with a live band and a dance floor that held 1,000 people, an elaborate system of table phones and pneumatic tubes allowed for anonymous, late-night flirtation between complete strangers. Phones were fixed to individual tables, and above many was a lighted number. Singles needed only to look around the room, note the number, and then direct a message to that table.”

Einstein and Oppenheimer’s relationship was complicated

The true story behind Oppenheimer and Einstein's relationship | British GQ

From Hillary Busis for Vanity Fair: “Though Einstein and Oppenheimer both lived and worked at Princeton after the war—specifically at its Institute for Advanced Study, where Oppenheimer served as director from 1947 to 1966—they were not particularly close friends. But they did enjoy each others’ company. In 1948, knowing Einstein’s love of classical music, and knowing that his radio could not receive New York broadcasts of concerts from Carnegie Hall, Oppenheimer arranged to have an antenna installed on the roof of Einstein’s modest home. This was done without Einstein’s knowledge—and then on his birthday, Robert showed up on his doorstep with a new radio and suggested that they listen to a scheduled concert. Einstein was delighted.”

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No one wants to see it coming

From the always excellent Welcome to Hell World by Luke O’Neill:

“I had this thought that when I grow sick I want you and the doctor and everyone to lie to me. To tell me I have way more time than I actually do. All the time in the world in fact. To tell me the results came in and the lab guy said it was basically no big deal at all and that I am free to go. A wrongly incarcerated man released and breathing in fresh air for the first time in a decade. The newspaper coming down to take a photo. And then when it’s your turn I’ll do likewise. Nobody wants to see it coming. Sensing it circling you and barking out helplessly like that from a place you thought was safe.”

The rent in this 500-year-old housing project is a dollar a year

From Luisa Rollenhagen for Deutsche Welle: “Imagine if your rent was 88 cents — a year. And it hadn’t changed for the past 500 years. Welcome to the Fuggerei. Located in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, the Fuggerei is considered to be the oldest social housing project in the world and continues to provide subsidized housing for Augsburg residents facing financial hardship. One of the Fuggerei’s most unique aspects is its unchanged yearly rent of one Rhenish guilder, which corresponds to less than €1. Today, about 150 people live in the Fuggerei, spread out across 140 apartments. The Fuggerei gets about 30 to 40 applicants a year, with a waiting list that’s currently 80 people long.”

In the 1800s there was an amusement park where LaGuardia Airport is now

Bowery Bay - North Beach, New York NY Postcard |

From Larry Margasak for the American Museum of Natural History: “From 1886 through the first two decades of the 20th century, New Yorkers escaping the summer heat flocked by boats and trolleys to North Beach, Queens. Their destination: one of the great beaches and amusement parks of that era. Its formal name, when it opened on the North Shore of Long Island on June 19, 1886, was Bowery Bay Beach. But many New Yorkers knew it as “The Coney Island of Queens.” The pristine recreation area was opened by William Steinway and a partner. Steinway was best known as a manufacturer of the world-famous Steinway pianos, but that wasn’t his only area of interest. Bowery Bay Beach was part of a grand business scheme in Queens. It included Steinway’s piano factory, a new village for Steinway employees and other working-class New Yorkers, an electric trolley system, hotels, a grand pier to receive steamboats, and a dock and pier.”

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An election in Cambodia exposes Facebook’s shortcomings, again

On Sunday, a few hours after polls closed in parliamentary elections in Cambodia, the Cambodian People’s Party declared a “landslide victory” under its leader, Hun Sen, who has ruled the country almost unopposed for decades, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. Hun Manet—Hun Sen’s forty-five-year-old son, who will reportedly soon take over as prime minister from his father—told crowds in Phnom Penh, the capital, that the election saw a turnout of over 80 percent, although observers noted that a large number of ballots were spoiled. (Hun Sen has since threatened those who spoiled their ballots with legal consequences.) Hun Manet argued that the landslide turnout was a result of the peoples’ love for both the CPP and Hun Sen, who, by his own account, rescued Cambodia from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge regime and turned the country into an economic success story.

To many, however, Hun Sen’s victory had more to do with the fact that he has spent years crippling and/or outlawing political opposition, as well as crippling media outlets that covered him critically. Some outlets have been shut down; others acquired by figures close to Hun Sen. In February, Hun Sen ordered the closure of Voice of Democracy, one of the few remaining independent news outlets in Cambodia, over its coverage of Hun Manet. On July 12, shortly ahead of the elections, Cambodia’s telecoms regulator ordered local internet service providers to block websites and social media accounts linked to Cambodia Daily, a newspaper;Radio Free Asia, a broadcaster that is funded by the US government; and Kamnotra, which the Committee to Protect Journalists describes as a “new independent public database,” according to a number of local news reports and Voice of America (which, like Radio Free Asia, is US-state-funded). The regulator said that the three outlets broadcast information intended to “make confusion [and] affect the government’s honor and prestige.” 

As a result of these and similar moves, many Cambodians have gotten information about Hun Sen’s policies, and their country’s economic performance and position on the world stage, from government press releases and media outlets owned or controlled by supporters of Hun Sen. Another source, which has grown in power in recent years, has been Hun Sen’s official account on Facebook, where he has more than fourteen million followers. (Cambodia has a population of seventeen million people.) There, Hun Sen likes to post a mix of family photos with his grandchildren, advice for Cambodian citizens, and calls for his supporters to commit violent acts against his enemies.

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

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How an infamous Greek bank robber became a folk hero

From the BBC: “A masked man drove a stolen van through the quiet streets of Aspra Spitia in central Greece. Parking outside a branch of the National Bank, he forced his way inside carrying an AK-47 rifle. He ordered staff to open the ATM, and snatched 150,000 euros. Then he took 100,000 euros from the cash boxes, and in moments he was gone. It was February 2010, and the Greek economy was in crisis caused, many believed, by greed and corruption in the banks. One man was making them pay. In October, he robbed two banks in the same day. In Eginio, near Thessaloniki, a robber smashed through the windows of the National Bank, then did the same at the Agricultural Bank just 100 yards down the street, escaping with 240,000 euros. In a crime spree spanning three decades, the man known to many as the Greek Robin Hood has taken millions from state-owned banks and kidnapped industrialists, while liberally distributing cash to the needy.”

Etidorhpa: One of the earliest works of psychedelic fiction by a US pharmacologist

John Uri Lloyd's *Etidorhpa* (1895) – The Public Domain Review

From Public Domain Review: “The book is Etidorhpa; or, the End of the Earth: the Strange History of a Mysterious Being and the Account of a Remarkable Journey. Imagine the progeny of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and an experiment in automatic writing by a member of Havelock Ellis’ peyote-munching cohort. Now steep that vision in Masonic paranoia, fringe geological theories, and a surprisingly earnest account of spiritual longing. Published by the Cincinnati-based pharmacologist John Uri Lloyd in 1895, the novel features psychonautical learning long before Albert Hofmann discovered LSD. Lloyd breezily describes evaluating “the alkaloidal salts of morphine, quinine, cocaine, etc.” The author dined with Mark Twain, fished with Grover Cleveland, was employed by the Smithsonian to survey the licorice yields of the Ottoman Empire, and left behind one of the most remarkable private libraries in the United States.”

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Two of the top freedivers went down, only one came back

From Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated: “Three weeks after they fell in love, they were freediving with dolphins off the coast of Honduras in front of cameras for his new Mexican TV series, then with sea lions off the Galapagos and with humpback whales off the Dominican Republic. Well, at least she was. He watched in astonishment as the 45-ton whales cavorted with her in a watery waltz. She shed the air tank, bubbles and noise. She became the mermaid. In a drawing she titled Pleasure Shared, she was naked, her hair fanning in the water, her back arched in abandon, her legs splayed beneath a shark. A cloud hung over her enchantment, a gnawing fear: He feared nothing Standard diving protocol? Rules made for others. At any moment the man she loved could die.”

Stories tell of an entrance to the Underworld in Mexico, and now experts think they found it

From Moira Ritter for the Fresno Bee: “Hundreds of years ago Francisco de Burgoa, a Dominican priest, shared the story of a group of Spanish missionaries who explored the ruins of an ancient church in Oaxaca, Mexico. Burgoa claimed that the missionaries had discovered an underground temple with a vast system of tunnels and four interconnected chambers. Three of the four chambers held the tombs of high priests and kings, but the fourth was more perplexing. Inside the last chamber was a door into a cavern that led deep underground — so deep, that the ancient Zapotec people believed it held an entrance to the Underworld, also known as Lyobaa. Burgoa said the missionaries sealed all entrances to the underground caverns. Since then, only the palaces and church have remained. That is until recently, when a group of archaeologists and experts conducted an extensive study of the site — and possibly discovered the legendary chamber.”

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There were reliable, easy-to-use electric cars a century ago

From Stewart Brand at Works In Progress: “At the very beginning of the auto industry, no less than three radically different design-for-maintenance philosophies fought it out. One lost, but not because of maintenance issues. The other two won big by rejecting each other’s approach to maintenance. Electric automobiles were the first to market, almost fully formed by the 1890s. The electric car appeared to have all of the good points of the horse and buggy with none of its drawbacks. It was noiseless, odorless, and very easy to start and drive. No other motor vehicle could match its comfort and cleanliness or its simplicity of construction and ease of maintenance. Gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were arriving at the same time, but they were a pain to run. Owners who could afford it hired a chauffeur to repair and drive the complex machines.”

A group of shipwrecked boys survived on a remote island for over a year

From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “In June of 1965, six Tongan boys — all between 15 and 17 years old — decided to skip school. They attended a Catholic boarding school at St. Andrew’s College in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, on the island of Tongatapu. For reasons unclear, the boys decided that it wasn’t enough to go into town for the day; they really wanted to escape the strict schooling environment. They hastily stole a small boat, measuring only about 24 feet long, and set out to sea. They anchored for the night a few miles offshore, probably expecting to return home the next day. But the weather had other ideas. A storm struck their ship, snapping the rope that tied them to the anchor, and for the next eight days, their tiny ship was tossed. The quickly-deteriorating ship crashed down on the shore of a barely-charted, deserted isle known as ‘Ata.”

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This is the hometown of San Francisco’s worst drug dealers

From Megan Cassidy and Gabrielle Lurie for the San Francisco Chronicle: “Thirty-five hundred miles southeast of San Francisco, a dirt road in Honduras shared by pickup trucks and oxcarts cuts through mostly abandoned farmland. On the outskirts of a small village, a jewel-toned mural appears like a mirage: the Bay Bridge, sparkling at night, stretching across a 10-foot-high wall. In a nearby town square, a skinny child in a Steph Curry T-shirt climbs a tree. A few blocks away, a three-wheeled mototaxi whizzes by, a San Francisco Giants sticker affixed to its bumper. More extravagant emblems of San Francisco appear unexpectedly and often, alongside crumbling adobe huts, stray roosters and heaps of singed garbage. Handsome new homes, some mansions by local standards, some mansions by any standard, rise behind customized iron gates emblazoned with San Francisco 49ers or Golden State Warriors logos.”

How I learned to be blind

From Andrew Leland for the New Yorker: “I first noticed something wrong with my eyes in New Mexico. I was a freshman in high school. We hung out at Hank’s house; he was our charismatic leader, and his mom was maximally permissive. One night, in Hank’s room, our friend Chad sat on a beanbag chair, packing a pipe with weed. After dark, we hiked up the hill behind the house to get a view of the city. The moon was bright, but I found myself tripping on roots and stones and wandering off track. At one point, I walked right into a piñon tree with prickly branches. My friends laughed, and I played up my intoxication for effect. Eventually, though, my mother brought me to see an eye doctor. After a series of tests, he sat us down and said that I had retinitis pigmentosa, or R.P., a rare disease affecting about a hundred thousand people in the U.S.”

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The battle of the blackest black versus the pinkest pink

From Dan Lewis: “The pink above is brighter than most computers can display. If you want to see just how bright the pinkest pink can get, you’ll have to see it with your own eyes. The good news is that you can buy some. For about $5, the maker of the pink, artist Stuart Semple, will sell you a 50-gram jar of it which you can turn into paint. Oh, but there’s a catch. Here’s the relevant text from the page: “*Note: By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.” To understand why, you need to know about something called Vantablack, which Wikipedia describes as “the blackest artificial substance known, absorbing up to 99.965% of radiation in the visible spectrum.”

Why the story of George Orwell’s forgotten first wife still matters

BBC Radio 4 - Great Lives, George Orwell

Amanda Hooten writes for the Sydney Morning Herald: “Eileen O’Shaughnessy married Orwell in 1936 and became Eileen Blair (George Orwell’s real name was, rather prosaically, Eric Blair). But Funder found she was virtually missing from Orwell’s own, often deeply personal, writing about his life. This was odd, Funder thought – especially since, as she dug deeper, she discovered a woman who was, according to seemingly everyone who knew her, a truly remarkable person. Eileen Blair was a woman who won a scholarship to and earned an English degree from the University of Oxford, at a time when women were barely admitted to higher education. She was a woman who not only performed every skerrick of the domestic work in her life with Orwell, but also supported him financially for at least two years of their nine-year marriage.”

Over the course of three decades, he turned his rented home into a work of art

From Max Olesker for Longreads: “When I walk into the room, it is the enormous minotaur head that first catches my eye—its vast gaping concrete mouth containing the grate of a fireplace, its wide eyes staring back at me. Above the minotaur, ancient Greek tragedians are painted on the wall—Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus. Surrounding the minotaur on one side is an array of handmade military paraphernalia: shields, tabards, helmets, and weapons. Dismembered human body parts sculpted from newspaper adorn the other, limbs, torsos, and heads all aimlessly scattered near the bay windows. Over the course of 33 years, Gittins painstakingly transformed almost every surface of this flat with a series of artworks in a variety of styles and mediums, from friezes on the walls of his living room to a Roman altar in his kitchen.”

During the Feast of Fools in the 14th century, bishops would wear costumes and drink

From Jonny Thomson for Big Think: “Carnivals were about the inversion of values, a way of turning the world upside down. Bishops would dress in lewd clothes, kings as jesters, and local lords as grotesque monsters. The Feast of Fools was an event celebrated in France around the New Year, and it was all about satire and frivolity. It involved role reversal (where the lower clergy would dress as bishops and vice versa) and mock ceremonies. There was crossdressing and drunkenness. Often, a “Lord of Misrule” or “Fool’s Pope” was elected for the day. In 1445, the Theology Faculty of Paris sent an angry letter to the bishops of France about the practice of “priests and clerks wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders [pimps], or minstrels. They sing wanton songs.”

At the age of 21, he became a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp

From Laurence Rees for Politico: “In 1942, Oskar Groening was posted to Auschwitz. He almost immediately witnessed a transport arriving at the ramp — the platform where the Jews disembarked. “I was standing at the ramp,” he says, “and my task was to be part of the group supervising the luggage from an incoming transport.” He watched while SS doctors first separated men from women and children, and then selected who was fit to work and who should be gassed immediately. “Sick people were lifted on to lorries,” says Groening. “Red Cross lorries — they always tried to create the impression that people had nothing to fear.” He estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of those on the first transport were selected to be murdered at once. Groening, according to his story, was so filled by “doubt and outrage” that he went to his superior officer.”

Why did Renaissance artists include fake Arabic script in their paintings?

From Sheehan Quirke, also known as The Cultural Tutor: “At first glance this probably looks like a more or less ordinary Early Renaissance painting of the Madonna and Child. This is, in some sense, true. But there’s more going on here. Look closer. What do you notice about the halo around Mary’s head, and about the hem of her robe? Both are decorated with what looks like Arabic script. But it isn’t; it’s gibberish. They are a garbled imitation of Arabic rather than the real thing. What’s going on here? It was common practice during the Italian Renaissance for artists to decorate the halos and robes of Mary and Jesus with something usually called “pseudo-Arabic.” But why? Well, scholars have speculated that painters wanted to evoke the Holy Land, Mary’s home and Christ’s birthplace, which was under Islamic dominion at the time. So it was, possibly, an atmospheric and narrative decision. This may be true, but we cannot know for sure. A better question, perhaps, is how these artists were familiar with Arabic at all.”

The strangler fig grows around its host until there’s nothing left

From Science Girl on Twitter: The strangler fig’s seeds have made their way into the canopy of a host tree and germinated. As the fig’s roots grow, they cascade down the trunk,
Once they are in the ground it competes for nutrients and water with the host. Then It gradually tightens its grip around the host tree. This process hinders the flow of water and nutrients, causing the host tree to weaken and eventually die. Over time, the strangler fig takes over completely, once the process is complete, the original tree decomposes, a hollow centre is all that remains.