Sometimes sending data by pigeon beats the internet

From Janice Kai Chen for the Washington Post: “Internet speeds have come a long way since the days of the dial-up modem, but sometimes you can’t beat the millennia-old method of carrier pigeon. Ancient Greeks used the so-called rats of the sky to spread results of the Olympic Games. In 1850, Reuters used a fleet of 45 pigeons to send news and stock prices 75 miles between Brussels and Aachen, Germany. The trip took two hours. (A train would have taken six.) Whether a pigeon can best the internet depends on three things: internet speed (check your own here), distance and data. It doesn’t make a difference online whether you’re sending a file across town or across the country. It’s the size of data that slows the internet down. The longer the journey, the bigger the data needs to be for the bird to out-fly broadband.” (Related: Jona on Mastodon pointed me towards a network standard proposed in 1990 for the transmission of data by pigeon, and Amazon offers large customers a service they call Snowmobile, which puts hundreds of petabytes of data on a truck)

How a 30-year-old cassette tape became a sudden musical sensation

From Kieron Tyler for The Arts Desk: “Moments into “Maker of me”, it’s evident that The Story of Valerie is special. A circular piano figure accompanies a disembodied female voice singing and speaking of a relationship that’s “greater than myself.” The album was recorded in 1990 and until 2018 had been heard by barely anyone. In 1987, the British-born Carola Baer was in San Francisco intending to stop-off there for a few days on her way from England to Australia. She stayed until 2007. The album contains solo recordings she circulated on cassette tapes in the hope of finding like-minded musicians. One of the cassettes was found in a Portland, Oregon charity shop last year and this discovery has led to The Story of Valerie being issued as a legitimate recording.”

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.

Continue reading “Sometimes sending data by pigeon beats the internet”

Using heavy metal music on killer whales doesn’t work

From Hilary Hanson for HuffPost: “In the wake of orcas attacking boats around Portugal and Spain, sailors are turning to unorthodox tactics in an attempt to deter them. One piece of advice going around is to blast heavy metal music underwater to keep orcas away. But a marine mammal researcher warns this is a bad idea ― and one crew seems to have learned this the hard way. Florian Rutsch, who was captaining a catamaran crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, said his crew tried to use a special “Metal for Orcas” playlist they hoped would keep the large predators away. But the orcas went for the vessel’s rudder, making it impossible to steer. All crew members were ultimately rescued, and Spanish authorities towed the catamaran back to shore.”

How Elizabeth Bigley became the high priestess of fraudulent finance

Credit: Cleveland Police Museum

From Karen Abbott for the Smithsonian: “Elizabeth “Betty” Bigley was born in October 1857, the fifth of eight children, and grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada. At the age of 13, Betty devised her first scheme, writing a letter saying an uncle had died and left her a small sum of money. This forged notification of inheritance looked authentic enough to dupe a local bank, which issued checks allowing her to spend the money in advance. At the age of 22, Betty launched what would become her trademark scam. She saved up for expensive letterhead and notified herself that a philanthropist had died and left her an inheritance of $15,000. Next, she had a printer create fancy-looking business cards that read: “Miss Bigley, Heiress to $15,000.”

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.

Continue reading “Using heavy metal music on killer whales doesn’t work”

Did a magician help defeat the Nazis in World War II?

From Lucy Davies for the BBC: “In the 1930s, Jasper Maskelyne was a superstar magician, performing to sell-out crowds at variety theatres all over Britain. A 1931 poster for his stint at the London Palladium billed him “England’s Greatest Illusionist”. Maskelyne’s greatest hoax was executed in a theatre of a very different kind – the desert near Cairo during World War Two, where he claimed to have led a team that mass-produced, as he described it in his tell-all 1949 memoir, “tricks and swindles and devices intended to bewilder and mislead the crop-headed Axis commanders”. The smoke-and-mirrors methods that Maskelyne and co employed for “Operation Bertram” are still studied by the military today, and a film telling Maskelyne’s story and starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role is set for production.”

There’s a small island in Puget Sound where the only residents are sex offenders

From Emily Gillespie for The Guardian: “A small island in the state of Washington houses a group of unlikely residents: they are all men the state considers its most dangerous sex offenders. McNeil Island, nestled in Puget Sound, is unpopulated except for the 214 people who live at the special commitment center, a facility for former prison inmates. All men have served their sentence and yet, due to a controversial legal mandate, they remain confined indefinitely. The only way on and off the small island is a passenger-only ferry, which makes the 15-minute trip every two hours. The ferry docks at a defunct prison on the island and a bus takes employees and visitors to the facility a few miles inland.”

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.

Continue reading “Did a magician help defeat the Nazis in World War II?”

Historian claims Richard III didn’t kill the princes after all

From Anita Singh for The Telegraph: “The Princes in the Tower were not murdered by Richard III but spirited to Europe and later tried to retake the crown, according to new research. Philippa Langley, the amateur historian credited with finding Richard’s remains under a Leicester car park, has presented a series of “extraordinary discoveries” to back-up her theory. She believes that a duo dismissed by history as pretenders to the throne – Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, who each launched failed bids to depose Henry VII in the late 15th century – were the real princes. The two boys, sons of Edward IV and nephews to Richard, disappeared from the record in 1483 after being taken to the Tower of London. A common theory is that they were murdered by their uncle.”

Who was behind the Great Cajun Alligator Snapping Turtle Heist?

The Great Cajun Turtle Heist

From Sonia Smith for Texas Monthly: “Bayou legend has it that there are seven kinds of meat on an alligator snapping turtle, including turkey, fish, pork, and veal. The way to cook one depends largely on what part of Louisiana you find yourself in. In New Orleans’s Creole cuisine, turtle is most often served in a hearty soup. Cajuns are fond of serving it in a “sauce picante,” a spicy, long-simmering, tomato-based stew. “The fastest way to get someone to a supper around here is to say ‘turtle,’ ” Jimmy Mistretta, a Lake Charles developer and restaurateur who bought Caesar and Brutus from Viola, told me on the back porch of his Lake Charles bar, Loggerheads. “If it’s a turtle supper, everybody’s coming. You just can’t imagine the effect it has on people.”

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.

Continue reading “Historian claims Richard III didn’t kill the princes after all”

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.”

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.

Continue reading “The children born as part of Nazi genetic research projects”

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.” 

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.

Continue reading “How three teenaged hackers broke the internet”

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. “

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.

Continue reading “Inside the vast network of tunnels underneath Gaza”

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.”

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.

Continue reading “Proof the CIA lied about Lee Harvey Oswald and Cuba”

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

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

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.”

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.

Continue reading “Inside the frat-boy crime ring that swept the South”