The children born as part of Nazi genetic research projects

From Valentine Faure for The Atlantic: “At the small elementary school in France, Gisèle Marc knew the rumor about her: that her parents were not her real parents. It was the late 1940s, a time when whispered stories like this one passed from parents to children. Women who were said to have slept with occupying soldiers had their heads shaved and were publicly shamed by angry crowds. At the age of 10, she gathered her courage and confronted her mother, who told her she was adopted when she was 4. Later, she found her adoption file, but it contained little information. As an adult, she wrote wrote to the Arolsen Archives, the international center on Nazi persecution, in Germany, to ask if there was any mention of her in the records. They told her she was born in Belgium, in a Nazi maternity home that had been set up by the SS, through which the regime sought to encourage the birth of babies of “good blood.”

When Shakespeare’s First Folio disappeared from the Bodleian Library

From the London Review of Books: “The chance meetings, narrow escapes and spooky coincidences that fill Shakespeare’s romances are also a feature of the histories and provenances of the 235 surviving copies of the First Folio of his work. One such tale concerns the copy of the First Folio that was sent to the Bodleian Library in 1624, shortly after it was published, and later disappeared. In 1905, an undergraduate named G.M.R. Turbutt brought his battered family Folio to Oxford to be dated by the experts; his great-great-great-grandfather had bought it c.1750. The librarians soon realised that what they held in their hands was the lost copy, still in its original bindings. A case of Jacobean theft was the initial assumption, but it was later discovered that the library felt the Third Folio from 1663 offered even better value, so it sold the copy of the First Folio.”

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How three teenaged hackers broke the internet

From Andy Greenberg: “Early in the morning on October 21, 2016, Scott Shapiro got out of bed, opened his Dell laptop to read the day’s news, and found that the internet was broken. Users cataloged an alarming number of other digital services that were victims of the outage: Amazon, Spotify, Reddit, PayPal, and Netflix were crippled for most of the East Coast of the United States and other patches of the country. Meanwhile, a little less than 500 miles west of Shapiro’s Connecticut home, 19-year-old Josiah White sat staring at the three flatscreen monitors he’d set up on a workbench in a messy basement storage area connected to the bedroom he shared with his brother in their parents’ house.”

Johannes Kepler’s vision of the solar system got his mother tried for witchcraft

From Maria Popova at The Marginalian: “In The Dream, a young traveler lands on the Moon to find that lunar beings believe Earth revolves around them — an allegory to society’s certitude in Kepler’s time about the solar system revolving around the Earth. The narrator is a young astronomer who describes himself as having apprenticed with the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe, just as Kepler himself did. Some immediately took the story to be not fiction but autobiography – and the narrator’s mother was an herb doctor who conjures up spirits to assist her son in his lunar voyage. Kepler’s own mother was also an herb doctor, and a local barber seized upon the chance to cast Katharina Kepler as a witch.” 

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Inside the vast network of tunnels underneath Gaza

From Marco Hernandez at the New York Times: “Hamas militants have built a maze of hidden tunnels some believe extend across most if not all of Gaza, the territory they control. And they are not mere tunnels. Snaking beneath dense residential areas, the passageways allow fighters to move around free from the eye of the enemy. There are also bunkers for stockpiling weapons, food and water, and even command centers and tunnels wide enough for vehicles, researchers believe. Ordinary-looking doors and hatches serve as disguised access points, letting Hamas fighters dart out on missions and then slip back out of sight. No outsider has an exact map of the network, and few Israelis have seen it firsthand. But photos and video and reports from people who have been in the tunnels suggest the basic outlines of the system and how it is used.”

How a ‘refund fraud’ ring stole almost a million dollars from Amazon

How a 'Refund Fraud' Gang Stole $700,000 From Amazon

From Joseph Cox for 404 Media: “The U.S. government has indicted alleged members of a criminal group that uses insiders at Walmart and other techniques to commit ‘refund fraud’ on a massive scale, according to recently unsealed court records. In short, the scam involves someone ordering an item from, say, Amazon—which in this case says it lost $700,000—receiving the item, and then using one of various tricks to get their money back from the retailer. The person is then free to sell the item online, and the criminal group takes a fee. The indictment reveals a professionalized ecosystem of sellers and people providing various services as part of the wide-reaching scam. As well as malicious insiders, refund scammers take advantage of customer service representatives and online retailers’ lax refund policies to get expensive items for free. “

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Proof the CIA lied about Lee Harvey Oswald and Cuba

From Scott Sayare at New York magazine: “The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 mandated that “all Government records related to the assassination” be provided to the National Archives and made available to the public. Among the first visitors to the JFK Assassination Records Collection was Jefferson Morley, then a 34-year-old editor from the Washington Post. Morley had made a name for himself in magazines in the 1980s. He helped break the Iran-Contra scandal for The New Republic.  “If you use what we’ve learned since the ’90s to evaluate the government’s case,” he told me, “the case disintegrates.” Morley, the author of three books on the CIA, has made a name for himself among assassination researchers by attempting to approach Kennedy’s murder as if it were any other subject.”

It’s time to recognize Sally Hemings as the First Lady of the United States

Sally Hemings Died in Charlottesville - LA Progressive

From Evelia Jones for the LA Times: “It is now widely understood that my ancestor Sally Hemings, an enslaved black woman, was the intimate companion of Thomas Jefferson for nearly four decades. Monticello, the Virginia plantation operated as a museum by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, acknowledged as much with a new exhibit of Hemings’ living quarters. The exhibit presents as fact that Hemings gave birth to at least six of Jefferson’s children. Mainstream historians and the White House have long designated Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson as our country’s third first lady. But Martha died in 1782, nearly two decades before Jefferson became president. Hemings was with Jefferson from the late 1780s until his death in 1826.”

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How much do Google and Meta owe news publishers? A new study says $12 billion

In the past two years, both Australia and Canada have passed laws aimed at forcing Google and Meta to pay news publishers for excerpts of their content that appear on the tech giants’ platforms. (Similar legislation has been proposed, but not enacted, in the US). The outcomes of the Canadian and Australian laws have, so far, been dramatically different: Google and Meta responded to the Australian legislation by signing content deals worth an estimated hundred and fifty million dollars with news outlets, but in Canada, they have pulled news content from their platforms completely (or promised to). If a user in Canada tries to post a link to a news story on Facebook, an error message pops up telling them that their post can’t be published. (Meta briefly blocked news from its platforms in Australia, before relenting.)

At the heart of such laws lies a question: what is the value of news content to the major platforms? And what they might owe the makers of that content as a result? Is it worth the hundreds of millions of dollars that Google and Meta have reportedly paid Australian publishers under that country’s law forcing them to cough up? Is it worth the three hundred million dollars that Google says it spent through its Google News Initiative, a program that has funded journalism startups and grants? What about the six hundred million dollars that Meta says it has spent doing the same since 2018? A study released two weeks ago by researchers at Columbia University argues that these sums are just a fraction of what Google and Meta should actually be paying for news. The researchers—led by Anya Schiffrin, director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs—put the figure around ten billion dollars per year for Google, and two billion for Meta. So twelve billion dollars, in total.

Putting a dollar amount on the value that news content brings to Google is tricky. The company doesn’t run ads on Google News pages, and therefore generates no direct ad revenue from them. Media companies say that this ignores the broader value for Google of being able to link out to news content, which, they argue, draws users to and keeps them on Google’s platform, where they can conduct non-news searches and interact with the company’s in-house products. Different studies have tried different ways of putting a number on this value. In 2019, the News Media Alliance, a lobby group for publishers, released a study claiming that Google makes nearly five billion dollars from news—though at the time, a number of critics noted that this number seemed to have been based on an offhand comment that Marissa Mayer, a former executive at Google, made more than a decade earlier.

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

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Inside the frat-boy crime ring that swept the South

From Max Marshall for Vanity Fair: “At a press conference held during the 2016 College of Charleston summer break, the police chief announced one of the largest drug busts in the city’s history, a collaboration between local police, state law enforcement, the DEA, the FBI, and the US Postal Service. The chief pointed to a row of tables to show what they’d seized: five pounds of marijuana, a pound and a half of cocaine, seven firearms, a Tac-D grenade launcher, $214,000 in cash, and forty-three thousand pills worth $150,000. He then switched the TV display from piles of money to rows of mug shots. Up on the screen, the suspects looked like guys who put in time at the gym, and maybe at the beach, and definitely at the putting green. Two of them belonged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon.”

Drinking radioactive water was once a popular health remedy

From Donald Papp at Hackaday: “Radithor was a quack medicine that was exactly what it said on the label: distilled water containing around 2 micrograms of radium in each bottle (yes, that’s a lot.) This product eventually helped lead to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. It took the horrifying death of Eben Byers, a wealthy and famous golfer, for radium’s dangers to take center stage. Byers had been drinking Radithor for years before he ultimately died of radium poisoning. At the time of his death, he was estimated to have consumed some 1,400 bottles. One record of his death states that the very air he exhaled was found to be radioactive. His jaw was literally falling apart.”

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The incredible life of Eugene Bullard, the “Black Swallow”

From Dave Burkey for Jax Examiner: “They called him the Black Swallow, and from the beginning of his life, all he wanted to do was get to France.He was born in Georgia, his father a former slave from Haiti, his mother full-blooded Cree. He ran away while still a child, determined to fulfill his destiny. He lived for a time with a group of English Romani, learning the art of horsemanship and working as a jockey. He kept traveling and working until he made his way to Norfolk, where he stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland.He wouldn’t see America again for thirty years. Towards the end of his life, he worked as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Square in New York City.”

The captain of Charles Darwin’s ship invented the idea of a weather forecast

From the BBC: “Admiral Robert FitzRoy is chiefly remembered as Charles Darwin’s taciturn captain on HMS Beagle, during the famous circumnavigation in the 1830s. But in his lifetime FitzRoy found celebrity not from his time at sea but from his pioneering daily weather predictions, which he called by a new name of his own invention – “forecasts”. There was no such thing as a weather forecast in 1854 when FitzRoy established what would later be called the Met Office. Instead the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade was founded as a chart depot, intended to reduce sailing times with better wind charts. But the idea that the weather could be predicted was widely ridiculed.”

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Is Threads winning the war with X, and if so is that a good thing?

On July 5th, Meta launched the company’s new social networking app, Threads, by giving users of Instagram, its photo and video-sharing service, first crack at the ability to set up a Threads account. The following week, I did a Q&A with my colleague Jon Allsop, in which we talked about whether Threads would be able to compete with X (formerly Twitter), and how useful it might be for journalists. Just four months later, Threads has arguably become a significant competitor for X, and has done so a lot faster than most people probably expected. The app hit thirty million sign-ups within twenty-four hours of its launch, and then fifty million, and in a conference call on October 25th, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s cofounder and CEO, said Threads now has almost 100 million monthly users, making it one of the fastest-growing apps in history.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s user metrics are down across the board, and that includes daily active users. Elon Musk, who controls the company, said earlier this year that the app shas somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred and thirty million monthly users, but that still means that Threads has managed to sign up almost one fifth as many monthly users as X, a social network that has been around since 2007. No doubt the turmoil that has continued at X since Musk acquired Twitter last year has helped push users towards Threads, but that’s not the only reason. Last month, Casey Newton wrote in his Platformer newsletter that the Israel-Hamas conflict also seems to have helped tip the scales in favor of Threads, and caused a minor exodus from X.

For more than a decade, Newton noted, people flocked to Twitter whenever calamity struck, attracted by a blend of first-person accounts, verified journalists sharing reporting, and a broad range of commentary on whatever was happening. That Twitter no longer exists, says Newton. There may still be first-person style accounts of the news, but Musk’s approach to verification makes it impossible to tell what is real and what is not, since the blue check that used to denote an official account can be purchased by anyone. And the desire for factual reporting and commentary about the Israel-Hamas conflict, Newton argues, created the latest instance of what Ezra Klein calls an “exodus shock” from X.

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

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He discovered dinosaurs but died penniless

From Vanessa Vaselka for the Smithsonian: “Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas, an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat born in 1877, was a notorious figure in his day. A wild genius with a flair for the dandyish and the dramatic, he was an explorer, spy, polyglot and master of disguise. He crossed the Albanian Alps on foot, and was nearly crowned King of Albania. Later in his life, he was known for chasing villagers from his estate with a pistol. But the baron was also one of the great scholars and scientific minds of his time. He was one of the first scientists to look at fossilized dinosaur bones and see a living creature. And he was a staunch believer in the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, decades before the idea became widely accepted among paleontologists.”

Why you might find a shoe hidden inside the walls of your house

Child's shoe discovered in a wall, probably put there to protect a child from evil spirits, Lancashire, 1704

From Katrina Gulliver for JSTOR Daily: “If you live in an old house, there may be more than you realize behind its walls or under its floors. For centuries, there was a custom in Great Britain (which spread to Britain’s colonies in the Americas) of ritual concealment, placing objects in different parts of the house as totems. The practice seems to have been widespread in Britain from the medieval period into the twentieth century. Often, the concealed object was a shoe. The oldest such hidden shoe was found at Winchester Cathedral and dated to 1308. Cases of hidden shoes also “abound” in New England. John Adams Birthplace, a house built by Joseph Penniman in 1681, contained an incredible forty-four shoes and boots, discovered during restoration.”

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A violent murder in Indiana and a child left on death row

From Alex Mar for The Guardian: “In the spring of 1985, Paula Cooper was 15 and on her lunch break at Lew Wallace high school in Indiana. She and her friends Karen and April decided to skip their afternoon classes and head over to Candyland Arcade around the corner. Karen was Paula’s best friend at school. At 16, Karen was a large girl, often out of breath; everyone called her Pooky, maybe because of her sweet face. She had a child, who was three, and he mostly stayed at home with her godmother. April, too, was pregnant – though she could still hide it. April mentioned an old woman who lived in the house just behind hers, the home of Ruth Pelke. April told them she was a Bible teacher, an elderly white woman, and that, since her husband’s death, she had lived alone.”

The mysterious death of Lord Kitchener

Convenient death of a great general | Register | The Times

From Jeremy Paxman at the Financial Times: “On a sunny day, Marwick Head is a glorious place to be. At the top of the headland stands a squat, crenellated tower. Almost 50ft high and visible for miles, it has no obvious function – too fat to be a lighthouse, too small to be a castle. A stone panel explains: “This tower was raised by the people of Orkney in memory of Field Marshall Earl Kitchener of Khartoum. He and his staff perished along with the officers and nearly all the men of HMS Hampshire on 5th June, 1916.” Though it is hardly remembered at all today, the wreck of the Hampshire was seen at the time as little short of a national disaster. Hundreds of men perished that night, among them the best-known soldier in the English-speaking world. The conspiracy theories began almost at once. How could such an important figure, in the full protection of the greatest navy in the world, be dead?”

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