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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What I remember from Anne Frank’s birthday party

From a memoir by Anne Frank’s childhood friend Hannah Pick-Goslar, excerpted in Time magazine: “One morning in early June 1942, I was standing on the street whistling our usual whistle under the window of Anne’s apartment. Anne was running a bit late and I was anxious to get started on our walk. I whistled again, more urgently this time, but mid-whistle I stopped and smiled, as I saw Anne flying out of the door. She pressed an envelope into my hands with my name on it. “What’s this?” I asked, as we started walking quickly towards school. She smiled and watched me open it. An invitation to her 13th birthday party on Sunday, just two days after her actual birthday on June 12.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger talks with Danny DeVito about life and death

From Interview magazine: “A few days after an in-depth conversation with Danny DeVito in his Bel-Air home, Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself in a Culver City studio, puffing on a Cuban cigar while getting his portrait taken. The occasion is the launch of FUBAR, a family-friendly Netflix spy series that marks the legendary movie star’s first leading role on TV. While he extols the virtues of weightlifting and charms some of the girls on set, the 75-year-old former governor can’t quite shake the conversation with his Twins costar. “Did the interview make sense?” he asks. “There were so many questions about my upbringing… I don’t think we’ve ever talked about all that kind of stuff.”

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The band that got paid for not making any sound at all

From Dan Lewis: “You’ve almost certainly never heard of the band Vulfpeck. They’re a Los Angeles-based funk band. It’s hard to make a living releasing songs (or any media) to a small audience, since Spotify pays about $0.007 per song play to independent artists. So if your song gets 100,000 plays in a year? That’ll earn $700 or about two bucks a day. But in the early part of 2014, Vulfpeck came up with a plan, starting with a brand new album. The album, called Sleepify, is ten songs in total and each song is just over 30 seconds. And each track is silent. The band realized that Spotify paid out that seven-tenths of a cent every time a listener played one of the band’s songs, so long as the listener played at least 30 seconds of the song. The song itself didn’t matter.”

What it’s like to have synesthesia, where numbers and letters are different colours

From Meera Khare at Open Mind magazine: “My consciousness is a constant stream of color. Whether I’m reading, texting a friend, or doing math homework, every letter or number I see comes swathed in its own characteristic hue. My 7’s are forest green, L’s are orange, and both A’s and 4’s are hot pink. Growing up, I did not realize my experience was atypical until I read A Mango Shaped Space. The book tells the story of 13-year old Mia Winchell, who experiences synesthesia, a mingling of the senses. The book described my experience perfectly except for one thing – my colors were different. Since then, I’ve wondered what gives every synesthete their own unique associations; why does the K look lavender to me, but blue for someone else? (Editorial note: This one interested me in particular because my wife has synesthesia)

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Why Mythbusters destroyed the tapes of one episode

Michael Walsh writes for Nerdist: “At Silicon Valley Comic Con in 2016, Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage was asked by a fan about the biggest behind-the-scenes disaster the show ever had. Savage didn’t share some lighthearted tale about an argument or fight the cast had, but instead told the frightening story about how they were investigating a material and its supposed explosive properties. According to Savage, what they found out was so explosive that they actually destroyed the footage of what they made and everyone involved agreed never to discuss it again. It was so dangerous that Savage contacted DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to warn them about the material.”

Maryland license plates now direct people to an online casino in the Philippines

From Jason Koebler at Vice: “Roughly 800,000 Maryland drivers with license plates designed to commemorate the War of 1812 are now inadvertently advertising a website for an online casino based in the Philippines. In 2012, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, Maryland redesigned its standard license plate to read “MARYLAND WAR OF 1812.” The license plates, which were the default between 2012 and 2016, have the URL printed at the bottom. Sometime within the last year, stopped telling people about how Marylander Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” after watching British ships bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812 and started instead redirecting to a site called, in which a blinking, bikini-clad woman advertises “Philippines Best Betting Site, Deposit 100 Receive 250.”

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A catatonic who woke after 20 years could change psychiatry

Richard Sima writes for the Washington Post: “The young woman was catatonic—unmoving, unblinking and unknowing where or who she was. Her name was April Burrell. Before she became a patient, April had been an outgoing, straight-A student majoring in accounting at the University of Maryland. But after a traumatic event when she was 21, April suddenly developed psychosis and became lost in a constant state of visual and auditory hallucinations. The former high school valedictorian could no longer communicate, bathe or take care of herself, and was diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia. Then recently, doctors discovered that she also had lupus, an underlying and treatable autoimmune condition that was attacking her brain. After months of targeted treatments and more than two decades trapped in her mind — April woke up.”

Was mass hysteria behind the mysterious case of 227 middle school students fainting?

From Lillian Perlmutter for Insider: “On September 23, 2022, 12-year-old Esmeralda walked out of the girls’ bathroom at her middle school in Tapachula, Mexico, and fainted. Her best friend Diala came out behind her and also fainted. Over the next hour, nine other girls and one boy at the Federal 1 public secondary school would spontaneously collapse in their classrooms, in the bathroom, and in the school’s courtyard. Another 22 students would report other unusual symptoms like vomiting and headaches. Esmeralda’s mom, Gladys, got a text message from her niece, Esmeralda’s cousin, telling her to come to the school immediately. She found Esmeralda lying on the pavement in the school’s central courtyard, unable to speak or stand. Diala was slumped beside her.”

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When Alec Baldwin tried to take down a Nobel-winning lab

Robert Crease writes for the MIT Press: “In the summer of 1997, an environmental activist and sport fishing boat captain named Bill Smith called actor Alec Baldwin. He wanted to meet him at a diner in Amagansett, where Baldwin had a house, to talk about the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. Smith was absolutely convinced that Brookhaven was contaminating the Peconic River and killing people. After the meeting, Baldwin wrote a letter to the East Hampton Star: “Shut down B.N.L.’s reactors immediately,” he demanded, for citizens have the right to “live free from a reckless toxifying government energy policy.” No matter that the High Flux Beam Reactor was unrelated to energy policy and devoted to materials research and medical isotope production. That summer, Baldwin helped crystallize an organization called Standing for Truth About Radiation.”

The horseshoe crab isn’t a crab, its blood is blue, and it predates the dinosaurs

From the Smithsonian Biological Institute: “Scientists have discovered fossils of ancient ancestors of the horseshoe crab that lived 445 million years ago; dinosaurs first appeared about 200 million years later. Horseshoe crabs are arthropods, but they are more closely related to scorpions and spiders, and are the only living members of the Xiphosura order. Unlike human blood, which is red because it contains the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin, horseshoe crab blood is blue, because it has a different oxygen protein called hemocyanin. In addition to being blue, horseshoe crab blood contains a unique enzyme that causes it to coagulate when exposed to bacterial endotoxins, and so it is used by biomedical companies to test medicines, vaccines, implants for toxins.”

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Can the shingles vaccine prevent dementia?

From Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution:”A new paper provides good evidence that the shingles vaccine can prevent dementia, which strongly suggests that some forms of dementia are caused by the varicella zoster virus, the virus that on initial infection causes chickenpox. The data come from Wales where the herpes zoster vaccine first became available on September 1 2013 and was rolled out by age. At that time, however, it was decided that the vaccine would only be available to people born on or after September 2 1933. The cutoff date for vaccine eligibility means that people born within a week of one another have very different vaccine uptakes. Individuals who were just young enough to be vaccinated are less likely to get dementia compared to the individuals who were slightly too old to be vaccinated, especially among women.”

There is evidence that Mormon leader Brigham Young helped cover up a massacre

From Caroline Fraser at the New York Review of Books: “On September 11, 1857, one hundred and twenty men, women, and children—members of a wagon train party traveling west from Arkansas—were slaughtered in a valley in southwestern Utah, an event now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the events of September 11, 2001, the Mountain Meadows Massacre stood as one of the worst mass murders of civilians in US history. the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been part of a long and purposeful campaign orchestrated by the institution whose leaders provoked and whose members largely carried out the massacre: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which  organized a cover-up of its culpability that continues to this day.”

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In Warsaw, clams help protect the city’s water supply

From Judita at Bored Panda: “While most people probably think of clams and mussels as a part of some fancy dinner, it appears they have a much higher significance in some places. For example, the water quality in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, is monitored by… well, yes, clams. The city of Warsaw gets its water from a river and the main water pump has 8 clams that have triggers attached to their shells. If the water gets too toxic, they close, and the triggers shut off the city’s water supply automatically. Apparently, the mollusks first undergo an acclimatization process after being caught and brought to the laboratory. During that time, scientists also determine the natural opening of their shell—clams leave a slight opening and feed by filtrating water. Within one hour, one clam can filter and thus analyze the quality of 1.5 liters of water.”

The story behind the Chicago newspaper that bought a bar

From Andy Wright at “By 1976, reporter Pam Zekman was well-acquainted with the everyday corruption that permeated Chicago. Zekman was part of a four-person Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team at the Chicago Tribune, where she had gone undercover in a nursing home, for a collections agency, in a hospital, and at a precinct polling place, exposing wrongdoings ranging from medical malpractice to election fraud. When Zekman was poached by a rival paper, the feisty Chicago Sun-Times, she proposed a daring project that would go down in the annals of journalism history as both a feat of reporting and a focal point for ethics debates still raging today.”

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The life and death of the last Hawaiian princess

From Kathryn Armstrong for the BBC: “Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa, Hawaii’s so-called ‘last princess,’ passed away in 2022 at the age of 96. Known to her friends as Kekau, was one of the last living links to the royal family and was celebrated for her philanthropic support of traditional Hawaiian culture. She died peacefully at home in Honolulu on Sunday with her wife by her side, according to a statement released by Iolani Palace, America’s only royal residence. Abigail was born in Honolulu in 1926 and attended school in Shanghai and California. Her wealth, estimated to be $215m, came from her great-grandfather, an Irish businessman who owned a sugar plantation. His daughter married Prince David Kawānanakoa, who was third in line for the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii when the royal family was overthrown by American businessmen in 1893.”

Celine Dion says she suffers from “stiff-person syndrome.” What is it?

Nicole Stock writes for The New York Times: “Pop superstar Celine Dion has cancelled tour dates after being diagnosed with stiff person syndrome, a rare neurological condition. The syndrome, which causes progressive stiffness in the body and severe muscle spasms, is “exquisitely rare” and affects perhaps one in a million people, according to the medical director of comprehensive pain recovery at Cleveland Clinic. Stiff person syndrome is a rare autoimmune neurological condition that affects the central nervous system and can cause rigidity throughout the body and painful muscle spasms. It was first coined in the 1920s (as “stiff man syndrome”) after doctors described patients falling over like “a wooden man.” The exact cause of the condition is not clear.”

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Why a Georgia man’s grave has a bell installed in it

From Atlas Obscura: “Taphophobia—the fear of being buried alive—was at a zenith in the 19th century. The horror of premature burial was magnified in southern port cities like Savannah, Georgia, that experienced periodic yellow fever epidemics. Inventors and entrepreneurs capitalized on this phobia by marketing a variety of solutions to facilitate the resurrection of those buried before actually dead. Many of these solutions involved alarms that could be triggered by the entombed if they were buried alive. The remnants of one such device can be seen at the grave of Charles F. Mills at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. Mills was a prominent and wealthy Savannah businessman in the 19th century.” Note: Contrary to popular belief, this is not where the term “saved by the bell” originated; it likely came from boxing.

Inside the great Canadian multi-million-dollar maple syrup heist

Rich Cohen writes for Vanity Fair: “Maple syrup is more expensive than oil. Is it Arab sheikhs who did this, Russian oligarchs? No. It’s Canadians, who, organized into an ironfisted cartel, have established a stranglehold on that honey-flavored elixir. In short, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers is OPEC. Formed in 1966, the federation was tasked with taking a business in which few could make a decent living and turning it into a respectable trade. This was accomplished in the classic way: quotas, rules. You control supply, you control price. Thus was born the Canadian Maple Syrup Reserve, And then in 2012, nearly 540,000 gallons of syrup was stolen—12.5 percent of the Reserve—with a street value of $13.4 million. It was the Great Maple Syrup Heist.”

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