Oldest known sentence discovered, on a lice comb

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It’s a simple sentence that captures the hopes and fears of modern-day parents as much as the bronze age Canaanite who owned the doubled-edged ivory comb on which the words appear. Believed to be the oldest known sentence written in the earliest alphabet, the inscription on the luxury item reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” It was unearthed in Lachish, a Canaanite city state in the second millennium BCE and the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah. Efforts to obtain an age for the comb from carbon dating proved futile, but researchers believe it was made around 1700 BCE.

How Ukraine blew up a key Russian bridge

Last month, a truck laden with explosives drove across the Kerch bridge, a critical artery connecting Russia with its troops fighting in southern Ukraine. A train traveled alongside. The truck detonated at a critically vulnerable spot — about halfway between a pair of reinforced concrete piers, maximizing damage to the roadway. The explosion was large enough to rupture fuel tanks in the passing train, setting it on fire. The detonation was also well placed to pull an even larger portion of the roadway off its joints and into the sea. The attack, which killed four people, was a critical moment in the war.

Continue reading “Oldest known sentence discovered, on a lice comb”

The introspective echoes of a journey

Blues come dressed like introspective echoes of a journey.
And yes, I have searched the rooms of the moon on cold summer nights.
And yes, I have refought those unfinished encounters.
      Still, they remain unfinished.
And yes, I have at times wished myself something different.

The tragedies are sung nightly at the funerals of the poet;
The revisited soul is wrapped in the aura of familiarity. 

— from I Have Folded My Sorrows by Bob Kaufman

Oldest known sentence discovered, on a lice comb

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.

It’s a simple sentence that captures the hopes and fears of modern-day parents as much as the bronze age Canaanite who owned the doubled-edged ivory comb on which the words appear. Believed to be the oldest known sentence written in the earliest alphabet, the inscription on the luxury item reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” It was unearthed in Lachish, a Canaanite city state in the second millennium BCE and the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah. Efforts to obtain an age for the comb from carbon dating proved futile, but researchers believe it was made around 1700 BCE.

How Ukraine blew up a key Russian bridge

Last month, a truck laden with explosives drove across the Kerch bridge, a critical artery connecting Russia with its troops fighting in southern Ukraine. A train traveled alongside. The truck detonated at a critically vulnerable spot — about halfway between a pair of reinforced concrete piers, maximizing damage to the roadway. The explosion was large enough to rupture fuel tanks in the passing train, setting it on fire. The detonation was also well placed to pull an even larger portion of the roadway off its joints and into the sea. The attack, which killed four people, was a critical moment in the war.

Continue reading “Oldest known sentence discovered, on a lice comb”

An investigation into the rise of what some call “Pretendians”

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 June of 2018, artist Gina Adams took the stage at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She talked nervously about being selected as summer artist-in-residence for the department of studio art, then greeted the audience in Anishinaabemowin, and talked about her Ojibwe grandfather. The following year, the Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver posted five positions, and Adams was hired for one of them. She was described as “a contemporary Indigenous hybrid artist of Ojibwa Anishinaabe and Lakota descent.” In March of 2021, however, a Twitter account called NoMoreRed­Face posted a tweet that read: “Would you FAKE a residential school survivor backstory to sell $35,000 quilts and land a tenure track professorship in Aboriginal art?” The tweet then named Gina Adams, saying that “research suggests” she did just that.

How China’s imperial palace, the Forbidden City, became a public museum

When Zhu Di, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, ordered a grand palace built in Beijing in 1406, he probably didn’t envision vast crowds of commoners lining up to enter every weekend. The palace, which became known as the Forbidden City, was the exclusive residence of 28 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It became a museum in 1925, and the story of how it got there is filled with intrigue and disaster — at one point, administrators decided to make an inventory of all the priceless artifacts in the palace’s collection, but many couldn’t be found. Hearing the news, many of the eunuchs who used to be employed in the city panicked, since they often smuggled treasures from the palace and sold them to antique dealers in the city. In order to cover their tracks, they set the palace on fire.

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The more things change…

“The earth is degenerating today. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer obey their parents, every man wants to write a book, and it is evident that the end of the world is fast approaching.” – Assyrian tablet, c. 2800 BC

Note: Although I mostly posted this because I think it’s funny, I feel compelled to point out that there is no evidence a tablet like this ever existed or says what it claims to say, according to the folks at Quote Investigator: “This popular tale of a tablet listing eerily familiar societal criticisms has been in circulation for more than one-hundred years, and many versions of the supposed inscription have been described. The earliest instance known to QI of this prototypical claim was printed in the August 1908 issue of a periodical for bicyclists called “Bassett’s Scrap Book”. Despite that, however, it appears to be one of the oldest memes I have ever come across, which has to count for something!

The silent-film star who laid the foundation for cellular networks

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.

If you’re a hard-core nerd, you probably already know this, but for those who don’t, it’s a fascinating story: In 1941, Hedy Lamarr, a famous silent-film star, patented the spread-spectrum, frequency-hopping technology that became the underpinnings of cellular telecommunications and WiFi. She got the idea by combining her knowledge of radio-guided torpedoes (which she learned about from her husband, a German arms dealer) with an art project that a musician friend was working on, using player-piano rolls. Lamarr put the two together and came up with a way of sending secure radio signals by skipping from channel to channel in a pre-programmed sequence that could be secretly encoded (like a player-piano roll). Much more than just a pretty face!

Jim Henson’s twisted commercials for a Washington coffee company

Muppet creator Jim Henson is known for his family-friendly puppet TV shows, but before he created the Muppets or joined Sesame Street, he used a very Kermit-like puppet to create some hilariously dark TV spots for a Baltimore/Washington-based company called Wilkins Coffee. The local stations only had ten seconds for station identification, so the Muppet commercials had to be lightning-fast — essentially, eight seconds for the commercial pitch and a two-second shot of the product.” Within those eight seconds, a coffee enthusiast named Wilkins (who bears a resemblance to Kermit the frog) manages to shoot, stab, bludgeon or otherwise do grave bodily harm to a coffee holdout named Wontkins. Henson provided the voices of both characters.

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The first compact nuclear weapon and an intern known only as Tommy

The Cleo I device, the first really compact nuclear weapon, was delivered to Nevada Test Site for the Teapot Tesla test (7 kilotons), 1955, in two large suitcases. The guy carrying them — and eating lunch on one of them — is known only as “summer intern Tommy.” According to two books on the nuclear tests (“From Berkeley to Berlin” and “Nuclear Weapons Technology 101 for Policy Wonks”), the Cleo was split into two parts, each placed into a reinforced Samsonite suitcase.

Walt Arnold, a mechanical engineer responsible for putting the device together in Nevada, was assisted by a young man named Tommy, an electrical-engineering student from San Jose State University hired as a summer intern. Arnold ordered Tommy to manhandle two hefty suitcases out of the Laboratory’s assembly building and put them into the back of a ‘woody’ station wagon.

Then he gave the intern an Army-issue .45-caliber pistol and told him to guard the suitcases. The intern sat in the back of the vehicle with the Cleo, and a priceless photograph shows Tommy eating a sandwich while using one of the suitcases as a lunch table.

Mastodon and journalism: An uneasy marriage?

Note: This was originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Ever since Elon Musk completed his problem-plagued $45 billion takeover of Twitter last month, there has been a steady stream of users, including a number of journalists, signing up for Mastodon, an open-source alternative to Twitter. Unlike Twitter, which is now 100-percent owned and controlled by Musk, no one controls Mastodon—or rather, everyone controls their own version of it. There are thousands of servers running the software, and each one chooses which servers it “federates” or exchanges information with. Don’t like the users who belong to a specific server? Just block them.

Unfortunately for some of the journalists who have joined the service, this mass blocking or “defederation” approach is now being applied to them. A server that caters specifically to journalists was set up recently by Adam Davidson, creator of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. At last count, the server, called journa.host, had about 1,300 users, including some prominent names in the US journalism community (Full disclosure: I have an account on Davidson’s server). Earlier this week, a Mastodon user pointed out that about 45 “instances” are blocking all content from members of journa.host (as of mid-November, that number is about 75).

Among the reasons given for blocking users from Davidson’s server are that it is allegedly populated by “click-bait/tabloid journalists” who “can be expected to collect, search through, and misinterpret anything you say with the goal to share this publicly to an as big audience as possible, enabling hate and harassment to any one as long as it gives them clicks.” Others who have blocked the server say that its members are likely to be “surveillance capitalists,” or “mainstream propagandists.”

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Most of our past theories about Egyptian mummies are wrong

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.

Egyptian mummies, long an object of modern fascination, seem to link us with the ancient past by preserving distinct human form. But this was not the true reason for the intricate process, according to a new British exhibition. The technique was instead a way of transforming dead dignitaries into a shape that the gods would accept. So, rather than ensuring the survival of individual features, mummification aimed to make the occupant of a tomb match a divine formula. “The idea that we inherited from the Victorians, that it was all done to keep a dead body just as it was in life, is not right,” said Campbell Price, a leading Egyptologist whose book will accompany the exhibition. “It is flawed, and we now believe it was intended to steer them towards divinity.”

We’ve hit an information-scaling threshhold

The internet has massively increased the complexity of our information environment, but hasn’t yet produced the tools to make sense of it. Old forms of social sensemaking—institutions, universities, democracy, tradition—all seem to be DDOS’d by the new information environment. They can’t keep up! We fractally fragment understandings, then algorithmically amplify the confusion to maximize engagement. The most effective coordination mechanisms left seem to be memes and conspiracy theories. Paul Tillich posits that when social sensemaking fails to keep up with reality, we experience it as a kind of mass neurosis. Everybody has a crisis of meaning at the same time. Life stops making sense. Anyone living through 2016 onward knows that feeling. The Permaweird.

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The inspiring story of an albino musician from Malawi

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.

I usually link to print articles here, but I’m making an exception for this short documentary, which was produced by Madonna and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s from 2019, but I only just came across it. It’s about a man from Malawi named Lazarus Chigwandali, who grew up as an albino in a country where albinos are often treated with fear and suspicion — and in some cases actually murdered or mutilated, since there is a belief that albino body parts have magic powers. As we learn about his life, we see Lazarus playing his homemade guitar/banjo — which is made out of a box, with some crude wooden pegs, a nail and some wire for strings. He has since recorded an album.

These three Canadian brothers stole $230 million from investors

Josh Cartu and his brothers collected race cars, hung out with celebrities and bounced between luxury villas in private jets. But behind that playboy façade was a dark secret: thousands of jilted investors and an army of investigators on their tail. While the money poured in, Josh described his lifestyle in lavish detail to Forbes and the Financial Times. He explained his fortune in half-truths: he said he made his money creating online gaming software, which he licensed to casinos around the world, and that he amplified his earnings by buying and selling real estate and investing in crypto. What he left out was that much of his income came from fleecing unsuspecting people of their savings.

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