She was taken in 1947 and no one knows why

From Strange Company: “On April 9, 1947, the town of Woodward, Oklahoma was slammed by a tornado. Hutchinson Croft was a successful sheep farmer who lived with his wife Cleta and their two children, Joan and Geri. The tornado flattened their home, killing Cleta, but four-year-old Joan and eight-year-old Geri were only slightly hurt and were brought to Woodward’s hospital. Later that night, as the Croft girls lay together on a cot, two men wearing khaki Army-style clothing came into the hospital basement announcing that they had come for Joan. The men told hospital staff that they were friends of the Croft family, and were taking Joan to Oklahoma City Hospital. But she never got there.”

This World War II plan would have buried soldiers alive in a cave on Gibraltar

From Now I Know: “The British Army dug a maze of defensive tunnels inside the Rock of Gibraltar during the Second World War, and part of that maze was something called the “Stay Behind Cave,” a two-story bunker. The first floor was a room with bare rock walls and a wooden floor, and up the stairs were two more rooms — a bathroom and a radio transmitting station. The plan was for six British soldiers stationed at Gibraltar to brick themselves into the Stay Behind Cave if Germany were to take over the Rock. The Cave was outfitted with enough supplies to last a year; after that, the soldiers were expected to bury each other in the floor — unless the army could save them beforehand.”

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.

Continue reading “She was taken in 1947 and no one knows why”

Walt Disney blamed himself for his mother’s death

From Vintage News: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs marked a turning point for Walt Disney. It was his first full-length cel-animated feature film, and it was astonishingly successful. The movie took in an unheard-of $1.5 million. Flush with success, Walt and his brother Roy bought their parents a house in North Hollywood, and Elias and Flora moved from Oregon. When Flora complained about a weird smell coming out of the furnace, Walt had repairmen come by to fix it, but they were apparently unsuccessful. Their housekeeper came in the next morning and found his mother and father unconscious and pulled them out on the front lawn. His father survived but Flora did not.”

How South America got conned into a concert tour by the fake Beatles

From the BBC: “Early in 1964, as Beatlemania swept the world, newspaper headlines announced that The Beatles would be travelling to South America later that year. Millions awaited their arrival with bated breath – and in July, when four young moptops descended into Buenos Aires Airport, it seemed that teenage dreams were about to come true. The Beatles were actually nowhere near Argentina at the time. The British group were back home in London, on a rare rest stop between concerts and recording. But without their knowledge, four young guys from Florida named Tom, Vic, Bill and Dave had taken their place. Previously a bar band called The Ardells, the quartet were now ‘The American Beetles’, or sometimes just ‘The Beetles’ for short.”

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.

Continue reading “Walt Disney blamed himself for his mother’s death”

Can Julian Assange appeal his extradition to the US? A British court will decide

In 2019, Ecuadorean authorities allowed British police to enter the country’s embassy in London and arrest Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, who had been living there for more than seven years. Ecuador granted asylum to Assange in 2012 on the grounds of political persecution, but reportedly grew irritated by his behavior. Since then, Assange has been incarcerated at Belmarsh prison and fighting attempts by the US Justice Department to extradite him to face close to twenty charges, including under the Espionage Act, related to his solicitation and publication of classified documents in 2010. In 2022, Priti Patel, then Britain’s home secretary, signed an extradition order. This week, the UK’s High Court held a two-day hearing to determine whether Assange will be allowed to appeal against it. While his personal freedom is clearly at stake, the case could also have significant repercussions for press freedom, too.

Patel’s was actually the second extradition order: in 2019, Sajid Javid, her predecessor, signed a similar one. Assange’s lawyers argued at the time that he could not be extradited to the US because he had been charged with political offenses (a 2003 treaty between the UK and US doesn’t allow prisoners to be extradited for these), and also that being incarcerated in a US prison could endanger Assange’s mental health and increase his risk of suicide. In 2021, a judge blocked this attempt at extradition based on the mental health argument—though the order was later reinstated after US authorities promised that he would be well treated. Assange’s lawyers say that if he is convicted, he could face up to a hundred and seventy-five years in prison in the US. The British court is expected to hand down a decision on Assange’s request for an appeal next month.

According to The Guardian, at the beginning of a hearing in Assange’s case on Tuesday, lawyers representing him told the court that he would not be attending the proceedings in person because he is unwell, but that he was expected to appear on a video link from Belmarsh. (In the end, he did not.) Kevin Gosztola, a journalist covering the case, said that Assange’s team told reporters that he had broken a rib due to excessive coughing. Other journalists in attendance suggested that the court did not seem to want to make it easy for the press to report on the case. Stefania Maurizi, a veteran Italian journalist, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that she and other reporters who tried to watch the hearing were forced to sit in a small Victorian gallery, from which they could barely hear the proceedings.

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

Continue reading “Can Julian Assange appeal his extradition to the US? A British court will decide”

Was he wrongfully convicted for killing his daughter?

From Esquire: “At around 7:00 a.m. on June 16, 1998, Barton McNeil, a thirty-nine-year-old divorced father, woke up on the couch after a muggy, stormy night. It was the beginning of one of those long summers in Bloomington, Illinois, the air so heavy you could chew it. McNeil traipsed to the bathroom and called out to wake Christina in the bedroom next door. It was time to get up and get dressed. She didn’t stir. So he took a shower, then checked his email again, and finally crept into the bedroom. There she lay, wrapped in the swirl of her flower-patterned sheets, a copy of Go, Dog. Go! beside her. Her eyes were open, her skin clammy and the color of slate.McNeil froze. His stomach churned. Panic took the wind out of his lungs.He scrambled for the phone and dialed 911.”

The Vatican classified the capybara as a fish so believers could eat it during Lent

A majestic capybara, posing on the grass in a very un-fishlike manner.

From IFLScience: “During the middle ages, eating the meat of certain animals was not allowed during Lent, the period commemorating when Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, according to the Bible. After the colonization of the Americas by European settlers, clergymen in Venezuela wrote to the Vatican to ask if this new creature – which spends a lot of time in the water, has webbed feet and reportedly has a fishy taste – could be classified as a fish, so that they could continue to eat it during the period of Lent. Those are 40 days of eating adorable rodents that you just can’t get back. The Vatican granted their request in 1784, and the rodent was given the status of fish. “

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.

Continue reading “Was he wrongfully convicted for killing his daughter?”

There’s no such thing as a fish

Stephen Jay Gould was an American geologist, paleontologist, biologist and popular-science author who spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. At some point (it’s not clear exactly when) Gould — who had spent a lifetime studying evolutionary biology — declared that “there’s no such thing as a fish.” This comment became the name of a popular podcast spun off from the QI TV series, in which the hosts discuss interesting facts. But what did Gould mean? Obviously there are things called fish. Was this some attempt to be funny, like the guy who tried to convince people that birds aren’t real?

Not exactly. What Gould meant was that the term “fish” doesn’t really have any scientific or categorical meaning per se. In other words, lots of things that are defined as fish — many of which even have the term “fish” in their name, like the hagfish — are not really similar enough to be considered part of the same category of living things. As the Wikipedia entry for the podcast notes, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than it is to a hagfish, for example. All the things that we might believe to be common to fish — living underwater, having gills, fins, giving birth via eggs, etc. — are not universally true for everything that is usually thought of as a fish (also, there are lots of things called fish that aren’t, including the cuttlefish, starfish, crayfish, and jellyfish).

Continue reading “There’s no such thing as a fish”

Where the names of colours came from

Some of these are quite amazing, and in some cases a little bizarre:

— Azure is a misspelling of the Latin word “lazur” which comes from the stone “lapis lazuli”

— Orchid is Greek for “testicle”

— Turquoise means “Turkish” in Old French because that’s where the mineral came from

— Magenta is named for a battle during the Second Italian War of Independence

— Porcelain comes from the Latin term for “young pig,” because the colour was supposedly similar to the colour of a young pig’s genitalia

— Vermillion comes from the Latin for “small worm” because that’s where the dye of that colour originally came from (similar for Crimson)

— Persimmon comes from a Powhatan word that means “he dries berries”

— Sepia comes from the Latin word for “cuttlefish” because the color originally came from cuttlefish secretions

She put $50,000 in a shoe box and gave it to a stranger

From The Cut: “On a Tuesday evening this past October, I put $50,000 in cash in a shoe box, taped it shut as instructed, and carried it to the sidewalk in front of my apartment, my phone clasped to my ear. “Don’t let anyone hurt me,” I told the man on the line, feeling pathetic.“You won’t be hurt,” he answered. “Just keep doing exactly as I say.” Three minutes later, a white Mercedes SUV pulled up to the curb. “The back window will open,” said the man on the phone. “Do not look at the driver or talk to him. Put the box through the window, say ‘thank you,’ and go back inside.” When I’ve told people this story, most of them say the same thing: You don’t seem like the type of person this would happen to. What they mean is that I’m not senile, or hysterical, or a rube.”

The Amber Room was coveted by the Tsars and the Nazis and then it disappeared

From Atlas Obscura: “The Nazis have reached Russia. They’ve taken the Catherine Palace and are waiting for orders from Berlin. Soldiers pull at the wall coverings. And suddenly, in the dimness, there is a glimmer, not gold, but deeper, richer: carved garlands of acanthus leaves, rosettes, mirrors, mosaics made of agate, onyx, and lapis, and panel upon panel of lustrous brown gems. Contemporaries named it the eighth wonder of the world. But today the Amber Room is lost in layers of time, obscured by the flames and political paperwork of a great war. It had a long, eventful existence, traveled further than most rooms do, and was last seen in Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, Russia, in 1944, just before the city was carpet-bombed into oblivion. Then it vanished.”

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.

Continue reading “She put $50,000 in a shoe box and gave it to a stranger”

A nuclear weapons lab cracked a serial killer case

From Undark: “Nuclear weapons laboratories don’t often help solve serial-killer cases. But in the investigation of Efren Saldivar, data from such a lab provided the clinching evidence that led to his conviction on six counts of murder. As a respiratory therapist at Glendale Adventist Medical Center in California, Saldivar helped care for terminally ill patients. The hospital got a tip that someone had “helped a patient die fast,” and Saldivar was questioned. He confessed to dozens of murders, stating that he poisoned patients with overdoses of the paralyzing chemicals pancuronium bromide, also known as Pavulon, and succinylcholine chloride. He was arrested immediately. But there was little physical evidence to back up his self-incriminating claims.”

The difficulty markings for ski hill runs were designed by Walt Disney

From Inside The Magic: “If you have ever visited a ski resort in the United States or Canada, a significant part of your experience is thanks to work done by Walt Disney and his team. And you probably had no idea. All ski resorts in North America grade their slopes and trails with either a green circle (easy), a blue square (intermediate), a black diamond (advanced), or a double black diamond (experts only). It was Walt Disney’s team that came up with that grading system. Before he passed away in 1966, Disney set out to build or buy his own ski resort. One of the proposed locations was in California’s Sequoia National Park, but environmentalists reportedly blocked it. But before the plan was shut down, Disney already established its proposed trail signage.”

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.

Continue reading “A nuclear weapons lab cracked a serial killer case”

Chernobyl wolves appear to be immune to radiation

From Sky News: “Dr Cara Love, an evolutionary biologist and ecotoxicologist at Princeton University, has been studying how the Chernobyl wolves survive despite generations of exposure to radioactive particles. Dr Love and a team of researchers visited the CEZ in 2014 and put radio collars on the wolves so that their movements could be monitored. They also took blood samples to understand how the wolves’ bodies respond to cancer-causing radiation. The researchers discovered that Chernobyl wolves are exposed to upwards of 11.28 millirem of radiation every day for their entire lives – which is more than six times the legal safety limit for a human.”

A Liverpool man who inherited $125,000 let 12 strangers decide what to do with it

From The Guardian: “A man who has been sitting on a £100,000 inheritance from his mother for more than 10 years has given the large sum to four charities in Liverpool, and that decision was down to 12 strangers. David Clarke, 34, said he wanted to tackle inequality as he felt he had enough money to live on. He wanted to give power to his neighbours and residents to decide what to do with his lump sum of money. So he sent letters randomly to 600 addresses in the L8 postcode, and then picked 12 to take part in the project. “During the first session, everyone thought it was a scam,” Clarke said, “but when the facilitator and I explained the cause and backstory, it was fine.” The only condition he gave to the group was not to spend the money on themselves.”

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.

Continue reading “Chernobyl wolves appear to be immune to radiation”