DNA tests reveal the true prevalence of incest

From The Atlantic: “In 1975, a psychiatric textbook put the frequency of incest at one in a million. But this number is almost certainly a dramatic underestimate. The stigma around openly discussing incest, which often involves child sexual abuse, has long made the subject difficult to study. But widespread genetic testing is uncovering case after secret case of children born to close biological relatives—providing an unprecedented accounting of incest in modern society. The geneticist Jim Wilson, at the University of Edinburgh, was shocked by the frequency he found in the U.K. Biobank, an anonymized research database: One in 7,000 people, according to his unpublished analysis, was born to parents who were first-degree relatives—a brother and a sister or a parent and a child.”

When sword fighting with rapiers led to a moral panic in Elizabethan London

From JSTOR Daily: “Rocco Bonetti, founder of a highly controversial sword-fighting school in Elizabethan London, was detested by the local English fencing masters. He was challenged outside his school by a local named Austin Bagger, who not only stabbed him in the hands and feet, but trod on him afterward to show his contempt. Bonetti died of the wounds. At the time, London was swept up in the moral panic surrounding the adoption of the rapier. Long, slender, and razor-sharp, the rapier was usually paired with a second weapon, a small, left-handed parrying dagger, rather than a shield. The dagger evolved into striking, creative forms—sawtoothed blades that could be used to capture and control the opponent’s sword, or “trident” daggers that split into three at the press of a spring.”

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In the 1930s she sailed around the world solo in a tiny wooden boat

From Atlas Obscura: “It was the spring of 1938, and a woman sailing on the Bay of Bengal was dreaming of snow. Maybe it was the burn blisters on her skin or the escape from the Indian Imperial Police that had made the adventurer Aina Cederblom sentimental. After two and a half years of sailing solo through Asia, she was ready to head home to Sweden—at least that was the 39-year-old’s plan. Fate had other ideas. During the early 20th century, Aina Cederblom kept popping up in unexpected corners of the world, from Greenland to India to the Philippines. By the 1930s, Cederblom and her solo sailing adventures were well-known throughout Europe. Newspapers reported about how she went missing in Greenland’s glacier-filled waters, hid from the police in Tibet, and was shot at in the Black Sea. Yet, the memory of her achievements has almost disappeared.”

The longest bus route in the world used to run from London to Calcutta and took 50 days

From Vintages: “The bus service from London, England to Calcutta, India is considered to be the longest bus route in the world. The service, which was started in 1957, was routed to India via Belgium, Yugoslavia and West Pakistan – a route known as the Hippie Route. According to reports, it took about 50 days for the bus to reach Calcutta from London. The voyage was 32, 669 km long and was in service until 1976. The cost of the trip was £85 and this included food, travel and accommodation. The trip was equipped with reading facilities, separate sleeping bunks for everyone, and fan-operated heaters. There was a kitchen with all equipment and amenities. There was a forward observation lounge on the upper deck of the bus, and it took time to spend at major tourist destinations along the way, including the Taj Mahal on the banks of the Ganges. Shopping was also allowed in Tehran, Salzburg, Kabul, Istanbul and Vienna.”

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Shock therapy helps depression but scientists don’t know why

From Quanta: “Electroconvulsive therapy has a public relations problem. The treatment, which sends electric currents through the brain to induce a brief seizure, has barbaric, inhumane connotations — for example, it was portrayed as a sadistic punishment in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But for patients with depression that does not improve with medications, electroconvulsive therapy can be highly effective. Studies have found that some 50% to 70% of patients with major depressive disorder see their symptoms improve after a course of ECT. In comparison, medications aimed at altering brain chemistry help only 10% to 40% of depression patients. Still, even after many decades of use, scientists don’t know how ECT alters the brain’s underlying biology.”

How birdwatching’s biggest record threw its online community into chaos

From The Guardian: “In late 2023, 70-year-old birder Peter Kaestner was within striking distance of a goal that had never been accomplished: seeing more than 10,000 different species of birds in the wild. Such a record had previously been unthinkable, but with new technology facilitating rare bird sightings, improved DNA testing identifying a growing number of bird species, and public listing platforms making it easier to keep track of and share findings, more super-birders are inching towards the five digits. Just as Kaestner approached the finish line for his record 10,000 birds, though, a previously unknown competitor by the name Jason Mann flew in out of nowhere to snatch the record out from under him. The mystery birder seemed to have uploaded a backlog of thousands of species he had seen over several decades, listing more than 9,000 birds.”

This ancient Japanese tradition of female freediving is dying out

From Nautilus: “On the last day of fishing season, Ayami Nakata starts her morning by lighting a small fire in her hut beside the harbor. The temperature outside hovers around freezing and she changes into a wetsuit. For an hour and a half, Nakata takes minute-long plunges into the frigid water, free-diving 20 feet down to the rocky seabed and kelpy shore, and picking up any abalone, sea cucumbers, and turban shells. Nakata, 44 years old and a mother of five, is an ama diver: a freediving fisherwoman harvesting shellfish and seaweed according to an ancient Japanese technique. She’s been diving for seven years, but her profession is slowly dying: Climate change has depleted the shellfish along Japan’s coasts, and younger generations have lost interest in the craft, abandoning coastal villages to pursue careers in big cities. Women like Nakata are left to question whether they’ll be the last to embody this way of life.”

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When the Eiffel Tower was first built many Parisians hated it

From JSTOR Daily: When construction of the now-iconic Eiffel Tower began in 1887, many Parisians were less than enamored by the project-in-progress. In fact, some were outright hostile towards it. But perhaps the Eiffel Tower’s greatest rejection came from the people who held the most authority on what worked aesthetically for the city and what didn’t: Parisian artists and writers. To them, the Eiffel Tower, spindly and bare like a skeleton, posed an unforgivable threat to the city’s sacred reputation as a lush, beatific urban ideal for nurturing creative minds. Unlike the Lost Generation of the 1920s, their spiritual descendants, the late-nineteenth-century intellectuals didn’t feel “inspired” by the looming presence over their city. The unusual structure hadn’t yet achieved its modern status, which William Thompson describes as “the acknowledged foremost universal symbol of Paris and France.”

Driving with Mr. Gil: A retiree teaches Afghan women the rules of the road

From The New York Times: Bibifatima Akhundzada wove a white Chevy Spark through downtown Modesto, Calif., on a recent morning, practicing turns, braking and navigating intersections. “Go, go, go,” said her driving instructor, as she slowed down through an open intersection. “Don’t stop. Don’t stop.” Her teacher was Gil Howard, an 82-year-old retired professor who happened upon a second career as a driving instructor. And no ordinary instructor. In Modesto, he is the go-to teacher for women from Afghanistan, where driving is off limits for virtually all of them. In recent years, Mr. Howard has taught some 400 women in the 5,000-strong Afghan community in this part of California’s Central Valley. According to local lore, thanks to “Mr. Gil,” as he is known in Modesto, more Afghan women likely drive in and around the city of about 220,000 than in all Afghanistan.

This kind of elevator has no doors and never stops moving

From Why Is This Interesting: “A cyclic elevator runs on a continuous loop, with two columns of small, doorless, closet-sized chambers in constant motion, one going up and one going down. A rider steps into a moving chamber to ride the elevator, and steps carefully off when the desired floor is reached. It doesn’t require much more dexterity than riding an escalator, but the consequences of failure are gruesome to imagine. Cyclic elevators are commonly called “paternosters,” a name that reflects their resemblance to a string of rosary beads. When praying a rosary, one recites the “Our Father” prayer, or “Paternoster” in Latin. The development of the paternoster elevator roughly coincided with the conventional elevator in the second half of the 19th century. Paternosters never became as ubiquitous as conventional elevators, and as the public became more familiar with conventional elevators, many paternosters succumbed to disrepair, disuse, or were converted into normal elevators.”

He built a fantasy castle in his backyard without plans because he felt like it

Acknowledgements: I find a lot of these links myself, but I also get some from other newsletters that I rely on as “serendipity engines,” such as The Morning News from Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack, Jodi Ettenberg’s Curious About Everything, Dan Lewis’s Now I Know, Robert Cottrell and Caroline Crampton’s The Browser, Clive Thompson’s Linkfest, Noah Brier and Colin Nagy’s Why Is This Interesting, Maria Popova’s The Marginalian, Sheehan Quirke AKA The Cultural Tutor, the Smithsonian magazine, and JSTOR Daily. If you come across something interesting that you think should be included here, please feel free to email me.

Donald Trump throws a hail mary pass with Truth Social

Last week, Donald Trump looked to be in dire straits, both legally and financially. He owed four hundred and fifty million dollars in legal penalties after a New York judge found that he fraudulently inflated the value of his assets in order to get bank loans, on top of the eighty-three million dollars he owed after losing a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused Trump of sexual assault. (He also faces several smaller judgments for defying a subpoena, disparaging a law clerk, and contempt of court.) Despite Trump’s repeated claims to be a billionaire, his legal team told the court that he didn’t have enough cash on hand to resolve the first judgment, and that he had been unable to find anyone to lend him the money or finance a bond until he could pay. In the end, the court allowed him to post a smaller bond, but only gave him ten days to come up with the full amount. If he does not, then Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, will be able to start seizing his assets.

This week, though, Trump appeared to be handed a lifeline: Trump Media and Technology Group—the social media company through which he owns Truth Social, a Trumpian clone of X—merged with Digital World Acquisition Corporation, a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. (A SPAC is an investment vehicle created for the purpose of buying other companies and taking them public.) The combined entity, now known as Trump Media and Technology Group, went public on Tuesday and quickly hit a market value of around eight billion dollars. Since Trump owns about 60 percent of the shares, his net worth has suddenly risen by more than four billion dollars. 

So, is Trump on easy street now, with such vast resources that he no longer needs to worry about his legal penalties? Not exactly. Both he and Trump Media must clear a number of roadblocks before that happens. Success is by no means assured. And either way, business appears to be tied up here, to an unusual extent, with politics.

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

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How our first contact with whales might unfold

From The Atlantic: “One night last winter, over drinks in downtown Los Angeles, the biologist David Gruber told me that human beings might someday talk to sperm whales. In 2020, Gruber founded Project CETI with some of the world’s leading artificial-intelligence researchers, and they have so far raised $33 million for a high-tech effort to learn the whales’ language. Gruber said that they hope to record billions of the animals’ clicking sounds with floating hydrophones, and then to decipher the sounds’ meaning using neural networks. Sperm whales are the planet’s largest-brained animals, and their nested social structures are immense. About 10 whales swim together full-time as a unit. They will sometimes meet up with others in groups of hundreds. All of the whales in these larger groups belong to clans that can contain as many as 10,000 animals, or perhaps more.”

I thought my father was killed by a teenage gang but the truth was very different

From The Guardian: “I was 12, only a year from being a teenager, and the holidays stretched out before us. Such an atmosphere called for celebration. For us, a real treat meant a takeaway – we usually couldn’t afford them. My dad, Mike, was going to drive to the town centre: there was a chip shop Emily was keen on and it was her special day. A little later, Jackie was in the living room watching TV when the phone rang. It was Mike. He said the queue at the chip shop in town was too long so he’d driven back to our council estate and was calling from the public phone box at the local shops. There was a loud knock at the front door. “There’s been an accident, Mrs King. Your husband has collapsed.” Then later, the newspaper reported that police had arrested a gang, first four, then a fifth young man, on suspicion of murder.”

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She was a real-life version of the heroine from Queen’s Gambit

From Slate: “When Bobby Fischer was still a brash wunderkind, Lane was a bona fide grown-up media star. In 1961 alone, she was interviewed on the Today show, was profiled in the New York Times Magazine, and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She was touted as a great American hope against the scary Russians. Lane marketed herself and, in the process, elevated chess’s profile in America. Disgusted by the game’s latent sexism, she criticized its leadership and advocated for equal pay. Then, as quickly as she’d arrived, she all but disappeared from the game. There were many similarities between the fictional Beth Harmon (played in the adaptation by Anya Taylor-Joy) and the real-life Lane. Both were tempestuous, driven, talented, and unafraid to take on men, the chess establishment, or the Soviets. And both endured turbulent childhoods.”

An Ohio man who hid his identity for 30 years is accused of genocide in Rwanda

Exclusive: Rwanda Revisited – Foreign Policy

From CantonRep: “The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday arrested a Stark County man, accusing him of rape and genocide in Rwanda in 1994, an event that left about 800,000 dead. Eric Tabaro Nshimiye faces various federal charges that include obstruction of justice and offering false testimony in the 2019 Boston trial of his former classmate and now-convicted Rwandan genocide perpetrator Jean Leonard Teganya. Neighbors who live on his street expressed shock, describing a man who invited his neighbors to his house for graduation parties for his sons and served them African food. Children played soccer in the Nshimiyes’ yard and he was known to mow the grass of his elderly next-door neighbor. Nshimiye said he was a victim during the genocide, but prosecutors say he was among the notorious perpetrators of crimes during the Rwanda genocide.”

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