Werner Herzog on the mysteries of Pittsburgh and his second family

Editor’s note: This is so full of amazing parts it’s hard to pick just one! Please read it, even if you don’t know who Werner Herzog is. The link should hopefully take you around the paywall.

From Werner Herzog in The New Yorker: “Pittsburgh turned out to be a bad idea. For a start, the steel industry was almost dead, and the shuttered plants were rusting away. Second, Duquesne University was an intellectually impoverished place. Quitting school would have meant losing my visa and having to leave the United States. So I kept my registration. I slept on the sofas of various acquaintances and of my original host, a professor, forty but terrified of his mother, who forbade contact with female students and perhaps with women in general. A freak encounter changed everything. One day, it started raining, and the car drew up beside me. The woman wound down her window. She could give me a lift, she said. It was a two-minute drive to Fox Chapel. She said I’d do better staying with her; she had a spare room in her attic. Her place was just a quarter of a mile from his. And so I found myself adopted by a family.”

How Syria tried to solve its drought problem in the 1930s by banning the Yo-Yo

Yo-yo champion pursues his passions at MIT | MIT News | Massachusetts  Institute of Technology

From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “In late 1932, Syria experienced a significant lack of rainfall, and the results were dramatic. As Time magazine reported at the time, a handful of Muslim priests believed that the start of the drought coincided with the introduction of the yo-yo into Syrian society, or at least, with the newfound popularity of the toy in Syrian communities. (It’s not exactly clear when the yo-yo first came to Syria, but according to the CBC, there’s evidence that the Greeks used them as early as 500 BCE, so they probably weren’t brand new to Syria at the time.) So, as Time Magazine reported at the time, the priests approached the government and argued that “the up-and-down movement of these infidel tops counteracts the prayers of the pious for rain. [ . . .]  Rain will never fall again in Syria while the wicked play with yo-yos.”

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Why yes, officer, that is a longhorn steer sitting in the passenger seat

From Michael Levenson for The New York Times: “Let this be a warning to those of you who long to hit the open road with a 2,200-pound steer riding shotgun: Observe all traffic laws, especially when passing through Norfolk, Neb. Lee Meyer, 63, a retired machinist, learned that lesson on Wednesday. For seven years, Mr. Meyer has been chauffeuring his 2,200-pound Watusi-longhorn mix (whose name is Howdy Doody) with its horns and head exposed to the open air in a customized Ford Crown Victoria with the license plate “Boy & Dog.” But he had never been stopped by the police, he said, until Wednesday morning as he drove Howdy Doody into Norfolk from his 15-acre ranch.”

Which freezes faster, hot water or cold water? Scientists still aren’t sure

From Adam Mann for Quanta magazine: “It sounds like one of the easiest experiments possible: Take two cups of water, one hot, one cold. Place both in a freezer and note which one freezes first. Common sense suggests that the colder water will. But luminaries including Aristotle, Rene Descartes and Sir Francis Bacon have all observed that hot water may actually cool more quickly. Yet for more than half a century, physicists have been arguing about whether something like this really occurs. The modern term for hot water freezing faster than cold water is the Mpemba effect, named after Erasto Mpemba, a Tanzanian teenager who, along with the physicist Denis Osborne, conducted the first scientific studies of it in the 1960s. While they were able to observe the effect, follow-up experiments have failed to consistently replicate that result.”

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He landed a plane on a New York street outside a bar – twice

From Corey Killgannon for the New York Times: “Thomas Fitzpatrick turned a barroom bet into a feat of aeronautic wonder by stealing a plane from a New Jersey airport and landing it on St. Nicholas Avenue in northern Manhattan, in front of the bar where he had been drinking. As if that were not stupefying enough, the man did nearly the exact same thing two years later. Both landings were pulled off in incredibly narrow landing areas, in the dark – and after a night of drinking in Washington Heights taverns and with a well-lubricated pilot at the controls. Both times ended with Mr. Fitzpatrick charged with wrongdoing. The first of his flights was around 3 a.m. on Sept. 30, 1956, when Mr. Fitzpatrick, then 26, borrowed a single-engine plane from the Teterboro School of Aeronautics in New Jersey and landed on St. Nicholas Avenue near 191st Street.”

Researchers say they can “see” people through walls using WiFi signals and AI

Sit Up Straight: Wi-Fi Signals Can Be Used to Detect Your Body Position |  PCMag

From Samantha Cole for Vice: “Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed a method for detecting the three dimensional shape and movements of human bodies in a room, using only WiFi routers. To do this, they used DensePose, a system for mapping all of the pixels on the surface of a human body in a photo. DensePose was developed by London-based researchers and Facebook’s AI researchers. From there, according to their recently-uploaded preprint paper published on arXiv, they developed a deep neural network that maps WiFi signals’ phase and amplitude sent and received by routers to coordinates on human bodies. The Carnegie Mellon researchers wrote that they believe WiFi signals “can serve as a ubiquitous substitute” for normal RGB cameras, when it comes to “sensing” people in a room. Using WiFi, they wrote, overcomes obstacles like poor lighting and occlusion that regular camera lenses face.”

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European regulatory vise tightens around digital platforms

In 2018, a new European law called the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, took effect. With the stroke of a pen, a host of common online practices—used by everyone, from big tech companies like Google to small web publishers, for everything, from showing popup ads to requiring an email address to enter a website—suddenly became illegal in the European Union, or at least heavily regulated. Consent was required before any personal information could be collected or used—and the EU’s definition of personal information was considerably broader than the US definition. Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner for the UK, called the GDPR “the biggest change to data protection law for a generation.” Others were less diplomatic: one critic described the law as a “clunky bureaucracy” and a regulatory minefield that shackled businesses with “unnecessary red tape.”

If tech platforms thought that the GDPR was the end of their problems in the EU, they were mistaken: the law was only the lip of a wave of European regulatory activity aimed at the online world, and specifically the behavior of digital giants like Meta, Google, and Apple. These new laws have targeted everything from alleged anti-competitive practices to the ways in which personal data is used to customize search results and news feeds. Brian Wieser, a technology analyst and former investment banker, told the Wall Street Journal recently that the laws are a “Glass-Steagall moment for big tech,” a reference to a Depression-era law that supporters believe was instrumental in reining in anti-competitive behavior by banks. As a result, Wieser said, tech platforms are going from “effectively no regulation to heavy regulation.”

Unlike the GDPR, which targeted all online activity, the new European laws are focused primarily on the largest digital platforms and services. Two of the most significant new regulations are the Digital Services Act, or DSA, and the Digital Markets Act, or DMA. Under the former, which governs everything from the removal of illegal or harmful content to the retention of personal user data, any time a service such as Facebook removes content, they have to file that decision with the EU, as part of a public database. Platforms with more than forty-five million users in the EU—a figure equivalent to roughly 10 percent of the bloc’s population—are subject to the highest level of regulation. (The EU has listed nineteen companies covered by the Act but there is still debate as to who should be included; according to the Associated Press, some EU insiders have pointed to notable omissions such as eBay, Airbnb, Netflix, and even PornHub.) TikTok, which is on the list, said earlier this month that users in the EU will soon be able to turn off the service’s recommendation algorithm, because, under the DSA, users have the right to refuse any feature that relies on personal data-tracking. Likewise, Meta has said that EU users of Facebook and Instagram will be allowed to opt out of their algorithmic news feeds.

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

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The real story behind the great Green Vault jewelery heist

From Jesse Hyde for Town and Country: “The heist had been planned for months. They had run through the scenarios, studied the streets and bridges and tunnels, scouted the escape routes, purchased the burner phones, and secured the getaway cars. Most important, they had uncovered secrets about the museum. It was November 25, 2019, in Dresden, Germany. The night was dark and cold, the air carrying the musky scent of the nearby Elbe River. Three centuries earlier, Augustus the Strong had built his palace on the banks of the river and stuffed it full of jewels: mother-of-pearl goblets, gilded ostrich eggs, coconuts inlaid with gemstones, and knives of gold etched with wild boars and the heads of lions. Rooms and rooms of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. By 1723, Augustus, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had turned part of his Dresden castle into a museum, one of the first in Europe. He named it the Green Vault.”

The key to moderating depression, obesity, and alcoholism could be the vagus nerve

What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation For? - Scientific American

From Linda Geddes for The Guardian: “Scientific interest in vagus nerve stimulation is exploding, with studies investigating it as a potential treatment for everything from obesity to depression, arthritis and Covid-related fatigue. So, what exactly is the vagus nerve, and is all this hype warranted? The vagus nerve is, in fact, a pair of nerves that serve as a two-way communication channel between the brain and the heart, lungs and abdominal organs, plus structures such as the oesophagus and voice box, helping to control involuntary processes, including breathing, heart rate, digestion and immune responses. They are also an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the “rest and digest” processes, and relaxes the body after periods of stress or danger that activate our sympathetic “fight or flight” responses.”

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The cheap radio hack that disrupted Poland’s railway system

From Andy Greenberg at Wired: “Since war first broke out broke out between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, Russian hackers have used some of the most sophisticated hacking techniques ever seen in the wild to destroy Ukrainian networks, disrupt the country’s satellite communications, and even trigger blackouts for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens. But the mysterious saboteurs who have, over the past two days, disrupted Poland’s railway system appear to have used a far less impressive form of technical mischief: Spoof a simple radio command to the trains that triggers their emergency stop function. On August 25 and 26, more than 20 of Poland’s trains carrying both freight and passengers were brought to a halt across the country. The saboteurs reportedly interspersed the commands they used to stop the trains with the Russian national anthem and parts of a speech by Vladimir Putin.

Dave the Potter made his mark on history while enslaved in the 19th century

Storage jar by Dave the Potter

From Sarah Dolezal for JSTOR Daily: “From the trenches of the Antebellum South, enslaved potter David Drake (ca. 1801-1874), otherwise known as “Dave the Potter,” constructed hundreds if not thousands of functional pots while working on plantations and in factories in Edgefield, South Carolina, a region now famous for its ceramics. Dave was heralded for his enormous storage jars and for writing on his pots. Most of the potters at this time, those who were enslaved as well as the white laborers who were not, did not inscribe or mark their work in any identifying way. Dave was different. He signed his name on the walls of his pots. He engraved markings, for example, such as forward slashes and circled X’s that may have been a way to keep inventory, or that hearkened to ancestral roots. Dave also wrote dates, the location where he fashioned the pots, lines of poetry, and Christian proverbs. All of these practices set him apart.”

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A doctor writes about failing to diagnose her husband’s cancer

From Bess Stillman: “Much of the skill in being an ER doctor simply comes from practice: identifying who’s sick and who’s probably okay to nurse themselves at home is really the risk stratification of patients. And sometimes—because this is the nature of being a human being doing a job in a messy, chaotic world—I notice a symptom, and I misunderstand what it means. Early on, I didn’t notice enough about what turned out to be Jake’s cancer. So I’m left wondering: if I’d asked him to let me examine his tongue, instead of suggesting he not chew so quickly when he bit it for what seemed like the third time in a week, would the outcome be different? Was there a window of opportunity in August 2022, before the tumor invaded local nerves, when his first surgery might have been curative? Not acting sooner and pressing Jake to act sooner is the biggest error of my life.”

These beekeepers say you shouldn’t buy any more bees

From David Segal for the New York Times: “Gorazd Trusnovec and other beekeepers, as well as a broad variety of leading conservationists, have come to the conclusion that the craze for honey bees now presents a genuine ecological challenge. “If you overcrowd any space with honey bees, there is a competition for natural resources, and since bees have the largest numbers, they push out other pollinators, which actually harms biodiversity,” he said, after a recent visit to the B&B bees. “I would say that the best thing you could do for honey bees right now is not take up beekeeping.” It’s like Johnny Appleseed announcing, “Enough with the apples.” That’s a jarring message, because there is a widespread and now deeply rooted belief that the global population of honey bees has been running dangerously low for more than a decade and needs to be restored.”

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Why the creator of Calvin and Hobbes suddenly disappeared

From Nic Rowan for The American Conservative: “When Bill Watterson walked away from Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, he was exhausted. The comic strip had consumed ten years of his life, the latter half of which were spent fighting his syndicate for creative control and warring with himself as he fitfully came to realize that he had nothing left to say about a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger. And the decision couldn’t have come at a worse time: Calvin and Hobbes was at the height of its popularity. To quit then seemed like career suicide. It was suicide, the intentional, ritualistic sort. Watterson wasn’t just done with daily newspaper cartoons; he was finished with public life.”

The serial killer and the Texas mom who stopped him

With her husband Bart and their children Noelle and Mills on Christmas just after the abduction.

From Julie Miller for Vanity Fair: “It was nearing eight o’clock in the evening on December 11, 1981, and the serial killer Stephen Morin was driving the SUV of his latest captive, Margy Palm, north out of San Antonio. Morin’s reign of terror was sputtering to a clumsy close after a rare mistake earlier that day. He was suspected of the murder, torture, and in some cases rape of more than 30 women in 9 or 10 states—and most of San Antonio now knew that he was on the loose. Morin had pulled a .38 revolver on Margy six hours earlier as she reached her Chevy Suburban in the parking lot of a Kmart. Palm tells me that she didn’t try to fight or fleet: “I’ve never felt that kind of fear.”

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Prison can be a hostile place. And then the birds came

Barn Swallow - eBird

From Christopher Blackwell for The Appeal: “Last month, a tiny, colorful barn swallow and her partner began building a nest outside a window at the prison where I am incarcerated. The brightly colored birds worked diligently, assembling their nest one beakful of mud at a time. All the guys in my unit were immediately entranced by the glimpse of nature we so rarely get to experience. In prison, guys act tough and move carefully within a highly segregated environment. But once those birds planted themselves outside our window, those barriers melted away. The dayroom was packed, with guys from different gangs and races squeezing in together to observe the swallows at work. We watched their every move, pointing, laughing, and yelling like we were close friends.”

What’s the world’s oldest language? Experts disagree

Miguel Civil, 'most fluent person in Sumerian since 3000 B.C.,' 1926-2019 |  University of Chicago News

From Lucy Tu for Scientific American: “The globe hums with thousands of languages. But when did humans first lay out a structured system to communicate, one that was distinct to a particular area? Scientists are aware of more than 7,100 languages in use today. Nearly 40 percent of them are considered endangered, meaning they have a declining number of speakers and are at risk of dying out. Some languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, while more than half of the world’s population uses one of just 23 tongues. Tracing the oldest language is “a deceptively complicated task,” says Danny Hieber. One way to identify a language’s origins is to find the point at which a single tongue with different dialects became two entirely distinct languages, such that people speaking those dialects could no longer understand each other.”

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Research shows that inflammation can lead to social media use

From Bert Gambini at the University of Buffalo: “Across three studies involving more than 1,800 participants, the findings — published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity — indicate that increased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which the liver makes in response to inflammation in the body, can promote social media use among middle-aged adults and college students. “It seems that inflammation not only increases social media use, but our results show preliminary evidence that it’s also associated with using social media to specifically interact with other users, like direct messaging and posting to people’s pages. Interestingly, inflammation did not lead people to use social media for other purposes—for example, entertainment purposes like watching funny videos,” says David Lee, PhD, the study’s first author.”

How an Anglican minister at the turn of the century became a leading butterfly researcher

The 2019 Butterfly Migration Could Bring More Monarchs To Mississippi

From Horatio Morpurgo for The London Magazine: “The Rev. Arthur Miles Moss may have been a minister of the faith, but his life was largely arranged around a consuming passion for the study of moths and butterflies. In Belém, north-eastern Brazil, shortly before the First World War, he grew ‘food plant’ for the caterpillars collected on his long-distance pastoral rounds. From 1912-45, Moss was vicar of the largest Anglican parish in the world, comprising most of the Amazon basin and sixty thousand miles of navigable waterway. He built an ‘experimental light station’ outside town, a 40ft tower from which lamps totalling 33,600 watts blazed at night into the surrounding countryside. A weather cock and thermometer enabled him to ‘take the wind & temperature on every occasion. He collected and recorded over 3,000 insects in this way.”

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