We hiccup because we’ve forgotten that we aren’t fish

A professor of evolutionary biology explains: “We inherited the major nerves we use in breathing from fish. We became heir to this design from fishy ancestors with gills closer to the neck, not a diaphragm well below it. The characteristic pattern of muscle and nerve activity of hiccups occurs naturally in other creatures – more specifically, they turn up in tadpoles that use both lungs and gills to breathe. When tadpoles use their gills, they have a problem—they need to pump water into their mouth and throat and then across the gills, but they need to keep this water from entering their lungs. So what do they do? They shut the glottis to close off the breathing tube, while sharply inspiring. In essence, they breathe with their gills using an extended form of hiccup.”

When COVID scrambles your sense of smell

Ryan McManus writes about how COVID caused “parosmia” or a screwed up sense of smell: “When you smell something, anything, the olfactory nerves capture the scent molecules as encoded data, and pass that data signal along to your brain, which decodes it and matches it to a known scent, like chocolate or feet. With parosmia, the data of the coffee smell gets garbled and turns up in the brain as something totally unknown, like scrambling a QR code. And, at a survival level, a good default for “this smell is unknown to us and confusing” is “stay the hell away from this”. This was unpleasant for me but downright crippling for others, who find not only food but their romantic partners or their own bodies smelling repellent, and no amount of hygiene will cover the smell.”

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Nick Cave responds to ChatGPT song written in his style

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Singer Nick Cave has dissected a song produced by the viral chatbot software ChatGPT that was supposedly written in the style of Nick Cave, calling it “bullshit” and “a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.” Writing in his newsletter the Red Hand Files on Monday, Cave responded to a fan of his called Mark in New Zealand, who had sent him a song written by the ChatGPT software. The artificial intelligence, which can be directed to impersonate the style of specific individuals or forms of writing, was used by Mark to create a song “in the style of Nick Cave”. Filled with dark biblical imagery, ChatGPT’s song included the chorus: “I am the sinner, I am the saint / I am the darkness, I am the light / I am the hunter, I am the prey / I am the devil, I am the savior.”

His forged documents saved thousands of Jews

Adolfo Kaminsky’s talent was as banal as could be: He knew how to remove supposedly indelible blue ink from paper. But it was a skill that helped save the lives of thousands of Jews in France during World War II. He had learned how to remove such stains as a teenager working for a clothes dyer and dry cleaner in his Normandy town. When he joined the anti-Nazi resistance at 18, his expertise enabled him to erase Jewish-sounding names like Abraham or Isaac that were officially inscribed on French ID and food ration cards, and substitute them with typically gentile-sounding ones. The forged documents allowed Jewish children, their parents and others to escape deportation to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, and in many cases to flee Nazi-occupied territory.

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This artist did his best work while in an insane asylum

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Richard Dadd was a young British painter of huge promise who fell into mental illness while touring the Mediterranean in the early 1840s. Among the symptoms of Dadd’s illness were delusions of persecution and the receipt of messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. He spent over forty years in lunatic asylums, dying at Broadmoor in 1886, but never gave up his calling, producing mesmerisingly detailed watercolours and oil paintings of which The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is now the most well known. The picture’s history encapsulates the peculiar rise and fall of its maker’s reputation, and indeed begs the question of what happens to any long-dead forgotten genius after they’ve been rediscovered.

What it’s like to travel to Switzerland for your mother’s assisted suicide

Robin Williamson writes about going to Switzerland so her mother could end her life there: “We could do this together because assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland. We could do this together because my father had worked as an executive for an oil company and his retirement income allowed him to shoulder the costs: of the suicide itself, of the air ambulance (effectively a private jet rental), of jumping through all the legal hoops along the way. We could do this together because my mother had spent years thinking it through, had come to an unwavering and conclusive decision, and had the presence of mind to prove her resolve to mental health professionals along the way; and because my father, my brothers, and I all supported her decision.

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Writer gets a glimpse into what it’s like to be paralyzed

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Just after Christmas, the writer Hanif Kureishi was taking a long walk in Rome, where he and his wife, Isabella D’Amico, were spending the holiday, when he suddenly collapsed onto the sidewalk. He fell awkwardly, twisting his neck and grievously injuring the top of his spine. Taken to the Gemelli Hospital, Kureishi spent the next several days “profoundly traumatized, altered and unrecognizable to myself,” he said on Twitter. Since then, Kureishi, 68, a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and director best known for “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “The Buddha of Suburbia,” has been dictating daily dispatches from his hospital bed. In vivid, poignant prose, he is narrating his ongoing drama but also musing about writing and art and describing the transcendent profundity of being dependent on the love and patience of others.

What it’s like to have a job pretending to be an AI-powered online assistant

Laura Preston writes about providing backup for an AI-driven online assistant: “The recruiter was a chipper woman with a master’s degree in English. Previously she had worked as an independent bookseller. “Your experience as an English grad student is ideal for this role,” she told me. The position was at a company that made artificial intelligence for real estate. They had developed a product called Brenda, a conversational AI that could answer questions about apartment listings. Brenda, the recruiter told me, was a sophisticated conversationalist, so fluent that most people who encountered her took her to be human. But like all conversational AIs, she had some shortcomings. To compensate for these flaws, the company was recruiting employees they called the operators.”

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Why olive oil costs more, and the quality is lower

Via a recent edition of the Why Is This Interesting newsletter comes this from Eurof Uppington, a reformed finance guy turned olive-oil merchant:

“It’s a boom time for small farmers in the eastern Mediterranean, like Greece, Albania, and Turkey, who are seeing bumper harvests and sky-high prices. However, it’s a disaster in Spain, the biggest producer nation, where unseasonal heat early in the year killed the crop. The harvest is down by half. Spain makes 50% of the world’s olive oil. This is a big deal. No one remembers it being like this before. We might think this is just bad news for Andalucian olive farmers and shrug. But this harvest season is going to affect us all in ways we might not notice. Firstly, the price we pay for our olive oil is going to go up. This is on top of price rises for other cooking oils, like sunflower and canola, as Ukraine and Russia are key producers.

Because olive oil brands lack market power, they won’t be able to pass on the full cost increase. What they’re more likely to do is lower the quality of shop-bought olive oil. A dirty secret of the industry is that the amount of extra virgin olive oil produced in the world is less than the amount consumed. The big brands make “more” EVOO by diluting it. The magic number is 0.8%—that’s the maximum amount of free fatty acid (FFA) content an olive oil can have to be extra virgin. Brands will blend 250ml of an excellent EVOO of 0.2% FFA with 750ml of an oil of 1% FFA—a much cheaper “virgin” grade: hey presto! One liter of EVOO with a 0.79% FFA! This practice is likely to increase, but it’s not technically illegal.”

How to endure winter when you are serving a life sentence

“The air is crisp in Pennsylvania now. With the recent winter solstice ushering in the New Year, the cold season is in full swing. Prisoners in general population have swapped short sleeves and baseball caps for winter coats and wool hats, the same cocoa brown as the rest of our state-issued apparel. The trees have shed their leaves, and a gray haze hangs over the State Correctional Institution at Fayette, a 2,170-bed maximum security prison south of Pittsburgh, where I am serving a life sentence. I am one of the fortunate ones. I have a view through a small window in my prison cell and can see the naked pines standing tall on a hill, beyond the razor-wire and chain-link fences. Nearby, smokestacks climb into the sky.” (via When The Going Gets Weird)

Eyes Fastened With Pins

by Charles Simic

Found this one via a recent edition of Luke O’Neill’s excellent newsletter Welcome to Hell World, which you should all subscribe to. This isn’t the whole poem, just the part I liked the most:

Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can’t figure it out
Among all the locked doors…
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death’s side of the bed.

Remembering the Mesh conference

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Toronto once hosted a groundbreaking (if I do say so myself) technology conference known as Mesh, a place were people came by the thousands to listen to speakers and take part in discussions about a whole range of exciting new tools like “blogs” and “RSS” and live video. My four cofounders and I set out to create a place where people could learn about what was then called “Web 2.0” or what we now call “social media.” It was a simpler time, in a lot of ways — there was the occasional troll, but the idea that a Russian “troll farm” would try to influence a U.S. election would have seemed like science fiction (and bad science fiction at that).

Twitter didn’t even exist at the first Mesh conference, which was held in 2006 at the MaRS Centre in Toronto, a combination convention centre and tech incubator. Facebook was in its infancy (it went from being available mostly to university students to open access that year) and YouTube was only a year old. QAnon and other terrible things that social media would help to exacerbate had yet to be born. The main thing we talked about at the first one was blogging, which was still fairly new; we talked about how you should do it, what tools you should use, whether companies should do it, and what kinds of ethical, psychological, technical and business-related challenges blogging presented.

Speaking of blogs, one of my favourite moments from the original Mesh was sitting around a table with Om Malik (then a writer at Business 2.0 magazine), Paul Kedrosky (a Canadian-born technology investor), Jason Fried of 37Signals, Mark Evans and Rob Hyndman — two of the other Mesh co-founders — and a young guy named Matt Mullenweg, who had built a great blogging tool known as WordPress. Matt was 22 at the time I believe, but he looked like he was about 18 (he’s almost 40 now, and the company that owns WordPress is worth about $7.5 billion or so). We were talking about blog software, and Elliot Noss of Tucows was there, and his company had some terrible blog software (sorry Elliot) called Blogware.

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I think my face was deepfaked into a Chinese ad

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Amanda Florian writes about coming across an ad that seemed to have her face in it: “I woke up to a text from a friend in Shanghai, China. “Hey, Amanda—is this you?” he wrote via WeChat. I hadn’t even had my morning coffee yet. I pulled my phone closer to get a better look. “Yes, it’s me,” I typed back. “But … how?” While scrolling through Taobao, a Chinese marketplace owned by Alibaba, my friend came across an ad for a camping stove. It was like looking in a mirror—I saw my Puerto Rican mother’s long eyelashes and distinct jawline, my father’s prominent Austrian nose, and my abuela’s long hands. “Is it Photoshop?” “Was I hacked?” “Or perhaps one of my photo apps is to blame?”

A DIY coder created a virtual AI ‘wife’ using the ChatGP program

A coder created a virtual “wife” from ChatGPT and other recently-released machine learning systems that could see, respond, and react to him. The programmer, who goes by Bryce and claims to be an intern at a major tech firm, posted demonstrations of “ChatGPT-Chan” to TikTok. In one video, he asks ChatGPT-chan to go to Burger King, and the bot responds with a generated image of her eating a burger and says out loud, “no way, it smells like old french fries and they never refill their Coke.” The A.I. waifu is an amalgamation of all of these technologies—a language generator, image generator, text-to-speech, and computer vision tools—in ways he finds amusing, he said.

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