Researchers find rare space diamonds from ancient planet

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.

Billions of years ago, an asteroid smashed into a dwarf planet in a cataclysmic collision that blasted the insides of the planet into outer space. Over time, remnants of the dwarf planet’s mantle have fortuitously fallen to Earth as diamond-rich meteorites, called ureilites, that reveal an unprecedented glimpse into the subterranean layers of a doomed ancient world. For years, scientists have puzzled over the fallen remains of the long-lost planet and the mysterious presence of its abundant diamonds, which include hints of lonsdaleite, an ultra-rare type of diamond named after the pioneering crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale. Now, scientists led by Andrew Tomkins, a professor of geosciences at Monash University, have found the largest lonsdaleite diamonds ever seen.

A buyer thought he was buying a painting by Lucian Freud — but is that what he got?

A businessman who liked to acquire furniture and art at competitive prices — let’s call him Omar — bought a rare painting by Sigmund Freud’s grandson in 1997, for a hundred thousand Swiss francs, or about seventy thousand dollars, several times lower than its appraised value. He thought he had gotten a steal, and tried to lure some potential buyers by putting it on eBay. Then he got a call from someone claiming to be Freud himself, who said he wanted the painting back, and offered Omar a hundred thousand Swiss francs. Omar refused. The caller doubled his offer. “Sorry,” Omar said. “I am loving this painting.” The voice responded: “Fuck you. You will not sell the painting all your life.” When Omar tried to have the painting authenticated, Freud claimed it wasn’t his.

Experts say the number of lakes on Mars has been drastically underestimated

Billions of years ago, Mars was speckled with murky lakes that may have been home to microbial life, raising the tantalizing possibility that Martian fossils might be buried in the dessicated remains of these ancient waters, which are known as “paleolakes.” Scientists even speculate that briny liquid lakes may still flow under the red planet’s ice caps, perhaps providing a final refuge for microbial Martians—though the odds of extant life on Mars are hotly debated. Some 500 paleolakes have been identified on Mars, but scientists believe that hundreds or thousands more are waiting to be discovered in this “new era of Martian limnology,” meaning the study of freshwater ecosystems, according to a study published on Thursday in Nature Astronomy.

An AI used medical notes to teach itself to spot disease on chest x-rays

After crunching through thousands of chest x-rays and the clinical reports that accompany them, an AI has learned to spot diseases in those scans as accurately as a human radiologist. The majority of current diagnostic AI models are trained on scans labeled by humans, but that labeling is a time-consuming process. The new model, called CheXzero, can instead “learn” on its own from existing medical reports that specialists have written in natural language. The findings suggest that labeling x-rays for the purpose of training AI models to interpret medical images isn’t necessary, which could save both time and money. A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School trained the model on a publicly available data set of more than 377,000 chest x-rays and more than 227,000 clinical reports.

The number of ants on Earth is such a large number it’s almost unimaginable

A new estimate for the total number of ants on Earth comes to a mind-boggling total of nearly 20 quadrillion – or about 20,000 trillion. In a paper released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists from the University of Hong Kong analyzed 489 studies and concluded that the total mass of ants on Earth weighs in at about 12 megatons of dry carbon. Put another way: If all the ants were plucked from the ground and put on a scale, they would outweigh all the wild birds and mammals put together. So for every person who is alive on the planet right now, there are about 2.5 million ants. “It’s unimaginable,” Patrick Schultheiss, a lead author on the study who is now a researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, told the Washington Post in a Zoom interview.

The mysterious and fascinating search for the secrets of eel migration

The European eel and the American eel—both considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—make this extraordinary migration. The Sargasso is the only place on Earth where they breed. The slithery creatures, some as long as 1.5 meters, arrive from Europe, North America, including parts of the Caribbean, and North Africa, including the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers study them in the hope of solving mysteries that have long flummoxed marine biologists, anatomists, philosophers, and conservationists: What happens when these eels spawn in the wild? And what can be done to help the species recover from the impacts of habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and hydropower? Scientists say that the answers could improve conservation. But, thus far, eels have kept most of their secrets to themselves.

We dry out as we age

Could “obesogens” contained in plastic be making us fat?

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.

According to a recent Bloomberg piece, in the US, roughly 40% of today’s high school students were overweight by the time they started high school. Globally, the incidence of obesity has tripled since the 1970s, with fully one billion people expected to be obese by 2030. An emerging view among scientists is that one major overlooked component in obesity is almost certainly our environment — in particular, the pervasive presence within it of chemicals which, even at very low doses, act to disturb the normal functioning of human metabolism. Some of these chemicals, known as “obesogens,” directly boost the production of specific cell types and fatty tissues associated with obesity. Unfortunately, these chemicals are used in many of the most basic products of modern life including packaging, clothes and furniture, cosmetics, and food additives.

This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it

Those cool AI-generated images you’ve seen across the internet? There’s a good chance they are based on the works of Greg Rutkowski, according to MIT’s Technology Review. Rutkowski is a Polish digital artist who uses classical painting styles to create dreamy fantasy landscapes. He has made illustrations for games such as Sony’s Horizon Forbidden West, Ubisoft’s Anno, Dungeons & Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering. And he’s become a sudden hit in the new world of text-to-image AI generation. His distinctive style is now one of the most commonly used prompts in the new open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion, which was launched late last month. The tool, along with other popular image-generation AI models, allows anyone to create images based on text prompts.

Continue reading “Could “obesogens” contained in plastic be making us fat?”

My media diet and I are featured in the “Why Is This Interesting?” newsletter

I’ve been a fan of Noah Brier and Colin Nagy’s great “Why Is This Interesting?” newsletter for quite awhile now, so I was honoured to be asked to submit an interview as part of their regular “media diet” feature. You can check it out at their site, or you can read it below:

Tell us about yourself.

I’m the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, which is published by Columbia University, but I live in Canada (in a secret location known only as “The Meadows”). I write about the intersection of media and the internet, which means basically everything from Facebook and Twitter to 4chan and QAnon. Before I joined CJR, I wrote about media for Fortune magazine and, before that, for a blog network called GigaOm that was started by my friend Om Malik. Prior to that, I spent about 15 years as a reporter, columnist, and editor at a national newspaper in Toronto called the Globe and Mail. While I was a business reporter there in 1995, I started a stock index that included some early internet giants, including Netscape, and that was the beginning of my fascination with the web. I started the paper’s first blog, and then at one point around 2008, they put me in charge of social media — I’m pretty sure I was the first social-media editor at any major newspaper in North America, as far as I know. I started the paper’s first Twitter and Facebook accounts (imagine trying to describe “tweeting” to senior executives in 2007) and introduced things like live-blogging to reporters and editors, and also helped launch and moderate reader comments. That was back when the internet and I were both still young and naive 🙂

Describe your media diet.

I read everything I can get my hands on, from the backs of cereal boxes to old magazines at the dentist’s office and everything in between. Most of my hard news content comes either through Twitter lists that I’ve created over the last decade or so, or through newsletters I subscribe to (like this one!), but I also subscribe to and read (or skim at least) most of the major news publishers like the NYT, Washington Post, etc. as well as the New Yorker and The Atlantic. I like the BBC’s international coverage, and I also read some other sources like Al Jazeera to get a different perspective on world events. In my spare time, I like to read old-school blogs like Kottke.org and Metafilter, and I like to browse Tumblr and Reddit — Reddit’s “Today I Learned” and “Explain It Like I’m Five” in particular are great, but there are also sub-Reddits that do an amazing job of covering news, like the one that has been reporting on the war in Syria.

Continue reading “My media diet and I are featured in the “Why Is This Interesting?” newsletter”

TikTok has fueled a debate over sleep training for babies

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.

Both sides of the sleep-training debate come with their own experts; whatever you decide to do, you’re going to be able to find a person with some type of credential to back you up. Parents who find the “cry in crib” approach abhorrent can cite the work of British attachment-parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith, whose Gentle Sleep Book includes sentences like “It is indeed true that sleep deprivation is a form of torture.” Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program, argues that we should worry less about the crying. “I find the argument that crying harms your child ludicrous.” He recalled when his 5-year-old cried because there was an ant on his doughnut: “I wasn’t worried about him being brain-damaged afterward.”

Fifth Circuit court decision pretends the First Amendment doesn’t exist

Mike Masnick of Techdirt (which you should read if you aren’t already) looks at what he says is an extremely stupid court decision that just came down on platform moderation: “As far as I can tell, in the area the 5th Circuit appeals court has jurisdiction, websites no longer have any 1st Amendment editorial rights,” says Masnick. “That’s the result of what appears to me to be the single dumbest court ruling I’ve seen in a long, long time, and I know we’ve seen some crazy rulings of late. However, thanks to judge Andy Oldham, internet companies no longer have 1st Amendment rights regarding their editorial decision making.”

Continue reading “TikTok has fueled a debate over sleep training for babies”

A kayak trip up Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park

If you’ve ever been to Algonquin Park in Ontario, you know it’s one of the largest parks in Canada, if not the world. It’s about 7,600 square kilometres in size — that’s about one-quarter the size of Belgium — and it has about 2,400 lakes and 1,200 kilometres of rivers. Most people who go to Algonquin camp or canoe on the west side, or just off Highway 60, which runs right through the park. But there is a jewel on the far eastern side of the park that is worth visiting, and that is Barron Canyon.

Barron Canyon is a massive, narrow canyon with walls that are about 300 feet high in spots — almost twice as high as Niagara Falls. After the end of the last ice age, the Barron River carried the entire outflow from Lake Aggasiz (the precursor of today’s Great Lakes), and carved the canyon out like a huge knife. It is less than 50 feet wide in spots, which makes the massive granite walls seem even more impressive. There’s a great hiking trail along the top of the canyon that is definitely worth it, but it’s a great day paddle as well.

Continue reading “A kayak trip up Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park”

Twitter whistleblower, Congress, and social media

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

On August 23rd, the Washington Post and CNN published stories about alleged security failures at Twitter, based on documents provided by Peiter Zatko, the company’s former head of security. Among Zatko’s more serious allegations were that Twitter executives, including Parag Agrawal, its CEO, deliberately misled both the company’s board of directors and federal regulators about Twitter’s security procedures, and that the company gave agents of foreign governments access to “sensitive user data.” The document that Zatko gave to the Post and CNN was also shared with several members of Congress as well as the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Tuesday, Zatko appeared before a hearing of the Senate Justice Committee to discuss the document, and spent more than two-and-a half hours providing more detail on his accusations.

Some of the most serious allegations came during Zatko’s testimony about foreign agents he said were on Twitter’s payroll. Zatko told the committee that just a week before he was fired by Twitter, the FBI notified the company that “there was at least one agent” of China’s Ministry of State Security “on the payroll inside Twitter.” Zatko also alleged that Twitter was incapable of tracking when and where its own employees accessed its systems, and this made it impossible for Twitter to find foreign agents who might be gaining access to internal data. According to Zatko, the company was only able to find these agents when informed of their presence by external entities such as the FBI. In one case, Zatko said he told a Twitter executive he was “confident” there was a foreign agent inside the company. “Their response was: ‘Well, since we already have one, what does it matter if we have more. Let’s keep growing the office,’” Zatko told the committee.

In 2019, the New York Times reported that two former Twitter employees were charged with acting as agents of the government of Saudi Arabia and using their positions to get access to information about users who were critical of the Saudi government (one of the individuals was convicted last month by a court in California, and the other left the country before he could be arrested). Zatko also told the committee that , the Chinese government could easily have gotten information about Twitter users who clicked on ads, including the locations of those users. “Twitter’s unsafe handling of the data of its users and its inability or unwillingness to truthfully represent issues to its board of directors and regulators have created real risk to tens of millions of Americans, the American democratic process, and America’s national security,” Zatko told the committee.

Continue reading “Twitter whistleblower, Congress, and social media”

The man who had to tell the bees the Queen was dead

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.

The official beekeeper to the Royal Family, John Chapple, 79, told MailOnline how he travelled to Buckingham Palace and Clarence House on Friday following news of The Queen’s death to inform the bees of the monarch’s passing. The ritual, which dates back hundreds of years, involves notifying honey bees of major events such as a death or marriage. While the traditions varied, “telling the bees” always involved notifying the insects of a death in the family—so that the bees could share in the mourning. This generally entailed draping each hive with black crepe. It was required that the sad news be delivered to each hive, by knocking once and then verbally relaying the tale of sorrow.

This man can identify any image from Google Maps in less than a second

Trevor Rainbolt has a special talent for being able to look at any image on Google Maps and pinpoint where it was taken with astonishing speed and accuracy. He can do so after only looking at the image for 0.1 seconds, five times in a row, and even if he is looking at images from two separate countries at once. Rainbolt can identify a country using only half of a distorted image, or an image that has been scrambled into pieces. He can look at only the trees. Or only the grass. Or only the sky. Sometimes, he can even name a country while blindfolded, just by having someone else describe the dirt.

Continue reading “The man who had to tell the bees the Queen was dead”

The woman who is bringing India’s forests back to life

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.

Tulsi Gowind Gowda has spent most of her more than 80 years planting and nurturing trees in southern India. “I like them more than anything else in my life,” she said. She has walked for miles, deep into tropical rainforests, carefully cutting healthy branches from hundreds of trees and replanting and grafting them. Her eyes light up when she talks about rare seeds or a sapling. And when she dies, she would like to be reborn, she says, as a big tree. Gowda — who doesn’t know the year of her birth but believes she is more than 80 — has devoted her life to transforming vast swaths of barren land in her native state of Karnataka, in southern India, into dense forests.

Chess player Hans Niemann hits back over ‘cheating’ controversy in St Louis

Chess master Magnus Carlsen’s shock withdrawal from the $350,000 Sinquefield Cup in St Louis following his third-round defeat to the newcomer Hans Niemann has triggered a variety of “cheating” claims. It is potentially the most serious such case for international chess since the 2005 Toiletgate world championship match, when Veselin Topalov accused Vlad Kramnik of analysing games in the lavatory. Carlsen’s loss to Niemann, 19, was his first for several years with White to a much lower rated opponent, and it was the first withdrawal of the Norwegian’s entire career. His only explanation was a cryptic video clip of José Morinho saying “If I speak I am in big trouble,” during a press conference about referees.

Continue reading “The woman who is bringing India’s forests back to life”

Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold

from The Gift of India by Sarojini Naidu, via Stacy-Marie Ishmael’s newsletter

Is there aught you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of duty, the sabres of doom.

Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.

No one can explain exactly how planes stay in the air

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.

In December 2003, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first flight of the Wright brothers, the New York Times ran a story entitled “Staying Aloft; What Does Keep Them Up There?” The point of the piece was a simple question: What keeps planes in the air? To answer it, the Times turned to John D. Anderson, Jr., curator of aerodynamics at the National Air and Space Museum and author of several textbooks in the field. What Anderson said, however, is that there is actually no agreement on what generates the aerodynamic force known as lift. “There is no simple one-liner answer to this,” he told the Times. People give different answers to the question, some with “religious fervor.”

Hidden items found in Vermeer’s famed ‘Milkmaid’ painting

The discoveries in the work painted some 350 years ago shed new light on the technique of the enigmatic artist, ahead of the largest ever exhibition of Vermeer’s work starting at the museum in 2023. Advanced scanning techniques revealed that beneath the plain white wall that makes the milkmaid’s bright yellow and blue clothes stand out, Vermeer had originally painted extra details. “This reveals a new unexpected Vermeer, it’s astonishing,” Gregor Weber, head of fine arts and at the Rijksmuseum, told a news conference.

Continue reading “No one can explain exactly how planes stay in the air”