The never-ending quest for the mythical Golden Owl

From Phil Hoad for Atlas Obscura: “Months after he buried it in darkness, Régis Hauser still dreamed of the hole he dug at 3:30 a.m. on April 24, 1993, three feet deep somewhere in France. How he lugged the hunk of metal from his car trunk and placed it in the dirt. When he told his tale to the French newspaper Libération, he made the entombment sound faintly gothic: “I hadn’t even finished, and my hands were bloody. When it was done, I went far away, to get breakfast. I looked at myself in the mirror at the cafe. I was barely recognizable, disheveled, covered in earth.” No one had seen him in the act, or so Hauser hoped. The object Hauser buried that night was a bronze sculpture of an owl. He had promised that whoever found it could exchange it for an identical owl cast in gold, silver, onyx, diamonds, and rubies, worth about one million francs. Its location could be divined by solving 11 puzzles, a combination of riddles and illustrations, published shortly afterward in a book he wrote called On the Trail of the Golden Owl.”

Airlines are really just banks with airplanes now, thanks to the rise of point programs

Why Is "Airplane" Also Spelled “Aeroplane"? The History of These Words

From Ganesh Sitaraman at The Atlantic: “Here’s how the system works now: Airlines create points out of nothing and sell them for real money to banks with co-branded credit cards. The banks award points to cardholders for spending, and both the banks and credit-card companies make money off the swipe fees from the use of the card. Cardholders can redeem points for flights, as well as other goods and services sold through the airlines’ proprietary e-commerce portals. For the airlines, this is a great deal. They incur no costs from points until they are redeemed—or ever, if the points are forgotten. This setup has made loyalty programs highly lucrative. A 2020 analysis found that Wall Street lenders valued the major airlines’ mileage programs more highly than the airlines themselves. United’s MileagePlus program, for example, was valued at $22 billion, while the company’s market cap at the time was only $10.6 billion.”

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The bizarre story behind the assassination of Shinzo Abe

From Robert Worth for The Atlantic: “On the last morning of his life, Shinzo Abe arrived in the Japanese city of Nara, famous for its ancient pagodas and sacred deer. His destination was more prosaic: a broad urban intersection across from the city’s main train station, where he would be giving a speech to endorse a lawmaker running for reelection to the National Diet, Japan’s parliament. Abe had retired two years earlier, but because he was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, his name carried enormous weight. No one seems to notice the youngish-looking man about 20 feet behind Abe, dressed in a gray polo shirt and cargo pants, a black strap across his shoulder. Unlike everyone else, the man is not clapping. Abe started to speak. Moments later, his remarks were interrupted by two loud reports, followed by a burst of white smoke. He collapsed to the ground. His security guards ran toward the man in the gray polo shirt, who held a homemade gun—two 16-inch metal pipes strapped together with black duct tape.”

In search of the legendary female eagle hunters of Mongolia

From Asha Tanna for Al Jazeera: “In 2013, Kazakh women in Mongolia captured global attention when a young eagle huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, became the subject of a viral photograph taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky. He returned to the country in 2014 with director Otto Bell, who made a documentary about the teenager. The storyline focused on her being an outlier in Kazakh culture in what Bell described as an isolated community with “a certain kind of ignorance about what woman can do”. These remarks were made during a press interview on CBS’s Mountain Morning Show in January 2016, where he also said she was the “first woman to eagle hunt in the 2,000-year-old male-dominated history”. But Kazakhs and historians say this is not true. “Eagle hunting always included women,” says Adrienne Mayor, a historian at Stanford University.”

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Why did sharks suddenly disappear from South Africa?

From David Shiffman at Hakai magazine: “Long before they started chomping on yachts, killer whales were making headlines for a rash of attacks on South African great white sharks. The killings were as gruesome as they were impressive. The killer whales were showing a deliberate sense of culinary preference, consuming the sharks’ oily, nutrient-rich livers but leaving the rest of the shark to sink or wash up on a nearby beach. From the initial news of the attacks, the situation only got weirder. Great white sharks started disappearing from some of their best-known habitat around South Africa’s False Bay. “The decline of white sharks was so dramatic, so fast, so unheard of that lots of theories began to circulate,” says Michelle Jewell, an ecologist at Michigan State University Museum.”

How the Underground Railroad got its name

From Scott Shane at The New York Times: “Thomas Smallwood was a busy man in the summer of 1842. Born into slavery outside Washington, D.C., in 1801, he had largely educated himself and bought his own freedom 11 years before. By day, he ran a shoemaking business from the little house he shared with his wife and four children a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. By night, he was organizing daring, dangerous escapes from slavery — not by ones and twos but by the wagonload — from Washington, Baltimore and the surrounding counties. Yet somehow he found time every week or two to write a new dispatch for an abolitionist newspaper in Albany, N.Y. His letters mercilessly mocked enslavers and celebrated those fleeing from them. One day early that August he took up his pen and made literary history, becoming the first to use a phrase that would resound through the decades of slavery and to the present day: underground railroad.”

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Who killed the 20th century’s greatest spy?

From Simon Parkin for The Guardian: “This much is certain: Ashraf Marwan, a man some describe as the 20th century’s greatest spy, was alive when he tumbled from the fifth-floor balcony of his £4.4m London flat. The Egyptian businessman landed, shortly after 1.30pm on 27 June 2007, in the private rose garden at number 24 Carlton House Terrace, a street whose former occupants include three prime ministers (Palmerston, Earl Grey and Gladstone) and which lies a few hundred metres from Piccadilly Circus. Overhead, the lunchtime sky was obnoxious with helicopters, swarming above Tony Blair’s Teflon-plated convoy as it carried the prime minister to Buckingham Palace, where he would hand in his resignation. A woman screamed. Someone called the police. The paramedics arrived too late. Marwan died from a ruptured aorta.”

What it’s like learning to live without a tongue

From Jake Seliger: “On May 25, I had a massive surgery that made me feel like I should be dead; the surgery left me without a tongue, without some teeth in the bottom of my jaw, and without important nerves in my neck. No sane person wants their tongue removed, but having it out and not being able to swallow has particularly awful resonances for me: I’ve been into food and cooking since I was a teenager, and “going out to dinner” was the most common form of going out for Bess and me. “Having friends over for dinner” was our most common form of socializing. I chronically experimented with new food and gadgets in the kitchen. What can I make with fish sauce? Is the sous vide machine worth it? Can an air fryer replace the oven for many dishes? Will the capers in cauliflower piccata alienate our guests?”

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When America was obsessed with the idea that aliens were creating crop circles

From James MacDonald at JSTOR Daily: “For a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s, much of the US was baffled by a mystery known as crop circles — areas in fields where crops had been flattened in circular, geometric patterns. These patterns would appear mysteriously out of nowhere, usually overnight, especially in the UK, but later in parts of the U.S., Japan, and a handful of other places. The phenomenon had no known cause, baffling experts but providing plenty of work for producers of TV specials. Researchers assumed the crop circles were caused by a weather event, such as a localized whirlwind, electrical phenomenon, or some combination of the two. But reality ended up being brutally embarrassing to the crop circle research community.”

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William Sidis was a child prodigy but later chose obscurity

From NPR’s All Things Considered: “Born in Boston in 1898, William James Sidis made the headlines in the early 20th century as a child prodigy with an amazing intellect. His IQ was estimated to be 50 to 100 points higher than Albert Einstein’s. He could read the New York Times before he was 2. At age 6, his language repertoire included English, Latin, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish and Armenian. Sidis was accepted to Harvard at age 9, but the school wanted him to wait until he was 11. Five years later, he graduated cum laude. But as an adult, he purposefully faded into the shadows. Sidis biographer Amy Wallace says he despised media attention. “He became a household name, and he hated it.” After a brief stint as a mathematics professor, Sidis went into hiding from public scrutiny, moving from city to city, job to job, often using an alias.”

I’m completely blind, but a lot more capable than most people think

causes of blindness

From Jeffry Ricker for Psyche magazine: “I have been completely blind for several years. After a series of eye surgeries and the development of glaucoma, I started to lose my vision in early 2017. The last time I saw my face was February 2019. By the end of that year, I could see nothing but some colour and a few specks of light. And I soon lost even that. I lived near a centre that taught the skills needed to live independently as a blind person. All I needed, I thought, was to learn the technology and skills that would allow me to function in everyday life. Especially disruptive were the sudden and striking changes in my interactions with others. Strangers often seemed anxious around me. Even people I had known for years sometimes avoided me. Other blind people told me of family members who were embarrassed by their blindness.”

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There’s a massive cavern underneath a plaza in South Korea, and no one knows why

From Rapael Rashid for The Guardian: “If you look in the right place, beneath the bustling streets in the heart of Seoul, you will come across something unexpected: stalactites. They hang ominously from the dank ceiling, a witness to the passage of time and decades of neglect. These mineral deposits have gathered under Seoul Plaza, probably one of South Korea’s most well-known spaces, famous for hosting everything from protests to concerts, in a vast mysterious underground tunnel the purpose of which even city officials are unsure of. The tunnel – which stretches on for 335 metres and covers an impressive 3,000 square metres – has remained hidden for decades, until now. After pulling on a dust mask, safety helmet, and protective shoe covers, we enter through the backdoor of a now-demolished toy library in an underground arcade, stepping into complete darkness.”

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The strange but true saga of a mutiny by Carmelite nuns

From Molly Olmstead at Slate: “There’s a strange saga unfolding in Texas. It involves allegations and accusations of illicit sexual relationships, drug use, theft, abuse, spying, planted evidence, and plots to steal a multimillion-dollar property. The people involved are Catholic priests, bishops, and some pretty fired-up nuns. What has become an open, bitter feud between the bishop of Fort Worth and 10 cloistered nuns in Arlington, Texas, has scandalized and thrilled American Catholics. The cops, the courts, and the Vatican are involved. Onlookers are taking sides. It’s still unclear who’s going to come out on top. And it all started with a startling confession from a devout nun. The series of events began in December 2020, shortly after Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, the 43-year-old prioress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, had a seizure. At some point during that month, she told a priest and her caregiver that she had committed some kind of sexual sin with another priest.”

When you have to make a momentous decision in your first day on the job

Critical US air traffic controller facilities face serious staffing  shortages, audit says | Reuters

From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “On September the 11th, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial jets with the intention of crashing them into buildings in both Washington, D.C., and New York City.  As we all know, the terrorists were successful in three of the four cases; the fourth plane’s assault on the US Capitol was thwarted by the heroic passengers on board.  While we now believe that no other planes were targeted, at the time, each of the other 4,000-plus flights scheduled to be in American air space at the time were at risk. But Ben Sliney, the Federal Aviation Commission’s National Operations Manager on duty that morning, prevented future harm. How? He made an unprecedented decision, making the call to ground every single commercial airplane in the country. But as incredible as his story is, one particular fact makes it even more jaw-dropping: September 11, 2001, was Ben Sliney’s first day on the job.”

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Afghanistan has seen thousands of cases of what appears to be mass delusion

From Lynzy Billing for Undark: “Anita was lying on a stained bed in the women’s room of the psychiatric ward in Herat Regional Hospital, a government-run facility in western Afghanistan. Stiff and covered in sweat, the 20-year-old was unresponsive. Before Anita was admitted to the hospital, she had gotten into a fight with her brother. After the fight, she fell unconscious. Then Anita started seizing. When she arrived at the hospital, though, doctors did not see any sign of a neurological condition or other physical cause that could explain the sudden collapse. Anita’s case was far from unique. According to hospital records, the women’s ward in Herat saw 900 such cases that April. In 2021, the facility recorded 12,678 cases, up from 10,800 cases in 2020. These mysterious ailments — often entailing loss of consciousness, convulsions, paralysis — have plagued women and girls in Afghanistan for more than a decade.”

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The secret life of the world’s best war-crimes investigator

From Ben Taub for The New Yorker: “For more than decade, a man named Mustafa quietly served as the deputy chief of Syria investigations for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a group that has captured more than a million pages of documents. Using these files, lawyers at the cija have prepared some of the most comprehensive war-crimes cases since the Nuremberg trials, targeting senior Syrian regime officers—including the President, Bashar al-Assad. For as long as Mustafa had been working, the group had kept his identity secret. According to one estimate, Mustafa either directly obtained or helped obtain more than two hundred thousand pages of internal Syrian regime documents, likely making him—by sheer volume of evidence collected—the most prolific war-crimes investigator in history.”

The wild quest to create a fake Indian cricket league was just the beginning

Thousands expected in Brampton to watch Pakistani cricket great Afridi |  Toronto Sun

From Sean Williams for Sports Illustrated: “Molipur, a village of 5,200 in India’s northwestern state of Gujarat, is not the kind of place where sporting dreams are made. Yet in May 2022, as temperatures soared above 110°, one Molipuri man toiled around the clock on a hangdog farming plot a five-minute walk outside the village. The man’s name was Shoeb Davda, a 35-year-old beanpole of a bangle merchant and a father of five. He’d recently returned from a two-month trip to Moscow, where he had become entangled with a group of shadowy but well-financed men. They had an idea, inspired by the rise of the Indian Premier League, a quick-fire, eight-week-long cricket tournament every spring watched by some half a billion people globally. Were Davda to establish his own, livestreamed cricket tournament, they suggested, wagers would follow, and he could cleave a slice of the sport’s newfound betting riches for himself.”

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What it’s like to work on a drug abuse hotline

Jessica Blanchard at home.

From Aymann Ismail and Mary Harris for Slate: “I met Jessica Blanchard on the front patio of her home in Albany, Georgia. I was about 15 minutes early, and she was still in her pajamas, poking only her head out from the front door to greet us. “I’m on a call now,” she told us, waving us inside. That call, and others like it, was why we came to this backwoods area of Southwest Georgia, the “trailer hood,” as Blanchard called it, about a three-hour drive from Atlanta. Blanchard, known by her friends as Jessie B., is an operator and education director for Never Use Alone, a safe-use hotline for drug users. It was conceived of four years ago by a “bunch a drug users sick of their friends dying,” as she put it. The hotline serves people who worry using alone makes them vulnerable to dying by overdose. Total overdose deaths have climbed to nearly 110,000 in 2022.”

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In 1859, a massive solar flare took out the global telegraph network

From Jasna Hodžić for JSTOR Daily: “A little after midnight in the late summer of 1859, campers dozing beneath the night sky in the Colorado Rockies woke to a display of auroral light so bright one could easily read a newspaper. In their account of the event, published in the Rocky Mountain News, the party recalled that some insisted it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast. Thousands of miles away, crowds gathered in the streets of San Francisco with eyes turned skyward. “The whole sky appeared to undulate something like a field of grain in a high wind,” wrote one journalist in the San Francisco Herald. The two-day celestial event did more than inspire poetic musings and temporarily confuse songbirds who began chirping in the night. Almost immediately, the world’s 100,000 miles of telegraph lines fell silent, victim to a wave of space-borne electric current strong enough to fry the systems.”

The time Eleanor Roosevelt disappeared for 10 days

At a South Pacific hospital, Eleanor speaks with a sailor from Fort Worth, Texas, who was injured while unloading a ship. US Admiral William F. Halsey recalled being awed by the expressions on the men’s faces as the First Lady leaned over them in hospital beds.

From Sarah Durn for Atlas Obscura: Soldiers nicknamed it “The Island of Death.” Hot, humid, and buzzing with mosquitoes, Guadalcanal was a tiny speck of land northeast of Australia in the Solomon Islands. American soldiers unlucky enough to be stationed there during World War II faced constant threats, from malnutrition to Japanese bombardment to tropical diseases. But none of that deterred First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from visiting the island—she wanted, as always, to see things for herself. In August 1943, she disappeared for 10 days, only to turn up in one of the world’s most dangerous war zones halfway around the globe. During her five weeks in the Pacific, she traveled to 11 islands, gave countless speeches, and met 400,000 soldiers. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, later said: “She alone had accomplished more good than any other person, or any group of civilians, who had passed through my area.”

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The long and tangled story of what happened to John Lennon’s Patek Philippe watch

From Anthony Traina for Hodinkee: “This photo is watch-collector catnip: John Lennon, one of the most famous people of all time, wearing a Patek Philippe ref. 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph, one of the most important watches ever. Patek made just 349 examples of the 2499 over its 35-year production run. It’s complicated, rare, and collectible. Yoko Ono bought the watch for Lennon’s 40th birthday, just two months before he was murdered in New York City outside his and Ono’s apartment. Just months after this photo, the former Beatle was murdered, and the watch hasn’t been seen since.  Thanks to an ongoing lawsuit in Geneva, new information about the mythical Patek’s history and whereabouts has surfaced. But the lawsuit is only the beginning of a story of extortion, theft, and a stolen Patek that traveled from New York to Turkey to Germany to Geneva and, perhaps, back home, as well as the legacy Lennon left behind.”

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Everything we know about the origins of barbecue is wrong

From Daniel Vaughn for Texas Monthly: “The origins of barbecue are murky. Both the transformation from the word “barbacoa” and the development of the cooking process are widely accepted as having come from the Taíno people Christoper Columbus first encountered in present-day Haiti. After much research, Joseph Haynes explains why we’ve got it all wrong in his new book. He contends that barbecue is a uniquely American invention, and he emphatically dismisses what he calls the Caribbean Origins Theory (COT). “Barbecue was born after enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619 from West Africa,” he writes. “Eventually, enslaved people of African descent, along with people of European descent, and others of American Indian descent combined their cooking traditions, and created what we today call southern barbecue.”

The showman immortalized by John Lennon was the first Black circus owner

Circuses through the years

From Mike Dash for Smithsonian magazine: “Anyone who has ever listened to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–and that’s a few hundred million people at the last estimate–will know the swirling melody and appealingly nonsensical lyrics of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” one of the most unusual tracks on that most eclectic of albums. The lyrics mention Pablo Fanque’s Fair, which was a real thing. During a break in the filming of Strawberry Fields Forever, Lennon wandered into a nearby antique shop and saw a gaudy Victorian playbill advertising a performance of Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal in February 1843. Fanque was more than an exceptional showman — he was a black man making his way in an almost uniformly white society, and doing it so successfully that he played to mostly capacity houses for the best part of 30 years.”

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Researchers believe that artificial intelligence may allow us to speak to other species

Sperm whale - Wikipedia

From Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker: “The world’s largest predators, sperm whales spend most of their lives hunting. To find their prey—generally squid—in the darkness of the depths, they rely on echolocation. By means of a specialized organ in their heads, they generate streams of clicks that bounce off any solid (or semi-solid) object. Sperm whales also produce quick bursts of clicks, known as codas, which they exchange with one another. The exchanges seem to have the structure of conversation. One day, Gruber was sitting in his office at the Radcliffe Institute, listening to a tape of sperm whales chatting, when another fellow at the institute, Shafi Goldwasser, happened by. At the time, she was organizing a seminar on machine learning. Perhaps, Goldwasser mused, machine learning could be used to discover the meaning of the whales’ exchanges.”

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Bach loved puzzles so much he worked them into his music

From Milton Mermikides for Aeon magazine: “Bach was crafty both in his music and life, and he adored puzzles, games and general inventive mischief. His monogram on his wax seal and his goblet was his own design, and at first glance it looks like an ornate decorative symmetrical crest of interlocking swirls. It is in fact built up from his initials JSB overlaid and mirrored, which is apt, as his music uses mirror-like reversals. Another example of Bach encoding information into decoration might be found in the title page of his 24 preludes and fugues for The Well-tempered Clavier – it was not until 2005, a quarter of a millennium after its composition, that the musicologist Bradley Lehman made an argument that the decorative symbol at the top of the page, which for generations had been dismissed as an ornamental ‘meaningless’ series of loops, contained coded instructions for how to construct the tempo, hidden in plain sight.”

The world’s oldest cat door has been around since the 14th century

From Madeleine Muzdakis for My Modern Met: “In medieval days, cathedrals would have been overrun with mice and rats without a feline prowling the premises. To keep vermin in check, the magnificent Exeter Cathedral—known formally as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter—has employed cats for centuries. In fact, they even added a cat flap to one of the structure’s doors, gouging a cat-sized opening into the wood. This led inside the cathedral, under the magnificent medieval astronomical clock, where the cat would be able to scamper about in pursuit of vermin. In return for its service, the cat was paid handsomely. From 1305 to 1467 its wages appear in cathedral records. Thirteen pence per quarter was given “to the custors and the cat” or “for” the cat, according to some notes. The cat’s wages, coming to one pence a week, were likely used by the custor to supplement its diet of rodents with other food.”

A young scientist tries to find a way to preserve a dying way of life

From Zhengyang Wang for Nautilus magazine: “In eastern Tibet, high in the Himalaya, Tenzin stopped at a cliff edge. He lit another cigarette. In front of us, Mt. Gongga dazzled in spring’s morning light, a dizzying 24,800 feet above sea level. Tenzin is not his real name. His perilous occupation—collecting and selling caterpillar fungus—is fraught with competition and secrecy, and I didn’t want to put him in jeopardy with the local authorities. Tenzin had reluctantly agreed to show me how to find the treasured fungus. But his growing dissatisfaction with my ability to keep up on the trek began to show. It was 2016, and I was a first-year doctoral student in search of a thesis. I, too, grew up in this part of the world. But I was naive enough to think that an elliptical machine was adequate preparation to hunt caterpillar fungus.”

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