From Hannah Ghorashi for Air Mail: “My husband received a call from his acquaintance Amar Singh—a women’s-rights activist, art patron, film producer, and Indian prince—and said he a wild story to tell him. It concerned Amar’s relationship with a young Swedish woman named Liza-Johanna Holgersson, whom he had met online. They had broken up on August 6 when, he claimed, he had discovered she had been living a secret life. She had, he said, been a grifter, a con woman, taking him and multiple other men for a ride. But what I thought would be a cautionary tale of online dating among the 0.1 percent became something else: by the end of my research, I had twice been offered bribes to stop writing Amar’s story. Both times they had been offered to me by Amar.”
How many ghost sightings were due to carbon-monoxide poisoning?
From Jeanette Winterson for The Paris Review: “There’s a theory I like that suggests why the nineteenth century is so rich in ghost stories and hauntings. Carbon monoxide poisoning from gas lamps. Street lighting and indoor lighting burned coal gas, which is sooty and noxious. It gives off methane and carbon monoxide. Outdoors, the flickering flames of the gas lamps pumped carbon monoxide into the air—air that was often trapped low down in the narrow streets and cramped courtyards of industrial cities and towns. Indoors, windows closed against the chilly weather prevented fresh oxygen from reaching those sitting up late by lamplight. Low-level carbon monoxide poisoning produces symptoms of choking, dizziness, paranoia, including feelings of dread, and hallucinations. Where better to hallucinate than in the already dark and shadowy streets of Victorian London? Or in the stifling interiors?”
From Jon Schuppe for NBC: “Seven months of searching for her lost son brought Bettersten Wade to a dirt road leading into the woods, past an empty horse stable and a scrapyard. The last time she’d seen her middle child, Dexter Wade, 37, was on the night of March 5, as he left home with a friend. She reported him missing, and Jackson police told her they’d been unable to find him, she said. It wasn’t until 172 excruciating days after his disappearance that Bettersten learned the truth: Dexter had been killed less than an hour after he’d left home, struck by a Jackson police car as he crossed a nearby interstate highway. Police had known Dexter’s name, and hers, but failed to contact her, instead letting his body go unclaimed for months in the county morgue.”
Do you think your plastic is being recycled? A huge amount of it is not
From Douglas Main at MIT Technology Review: “To date, humans have created around 11 billion metric tons of plastic. This amount surpasses the biomass of all animals, both terrestrial and marine. About 430 million tons of plastic is produced yearly, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. One-third of this total takes the form of single-use plastics, which humans interact with for seconds or minutes before discarding. A total of 95% of the plastic used in packaging is disposed of after one use, a loss to the economy of up to $120 billion annually. One-third of this packaging is not collected. What doesn’t get reused or recycled does not chemically degrade but rather becomes a fixture of our world; it breaks apart to form microplastics.”
As artificial intelligence programs have become ubiquitous over the past year, so have lawsuits from authors and other creative professionals who argue that their work has been essential to that ubiquity—the “large language models” (or LLMs) that power text-generating AI tools are trained on content that has been scraped from the web, without its authors’ consent—and that they deserve to be paid for it. Last week, my colleague Yona Roberts Golding wrote about how media outlets, specifically, are weighing legal action against companies that offer AI products, including OpenAI, Meta, and Google. They may have a case: a 2021 analysis of a dataset used by many AI programs showed that half of its top ten sources were news outlets. As Roberts Golding noted, Karla Ortiz, a conceptual artist and one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against three AI services, recently told a roundtable hosted by the Federal Trade Commission that the creative economy only works “when the basic tenets of consent, credit, compensation, and transparency are followed.”
As Roberts Golding pointed out, however, AI companies maintain that their datasets are protected by the “fair use” doctrine in copyright law, which allows for copyrighted work to be repurposed under certain limited conditions. Matthew Butterick, Ortiz’s lawyer, told Roberts Golding that he is not convinced by this argument; LLMs are “being held out commercially as replacing authors,” he said, noting that AI-generated books have already been sold on Amazon, under real or fake names. Most copyright experts would probably agree that duplicating a book word for word isn’t fair use. But some observers believe that the scraping of books and other content to train LLMs likely is protected by the fair use exception—or, at least, that it should be. In any case, new debates around news content, copyright, and AI are building on similar debates around other types of creative content—debates that have been live throughout AI’s recent period of rapid development, and that build on much older legal concepts and arguments.
From Mike Baker for the New York Times: “Stacy Chapin walked into a conference ballroom at the annual CrimeCon gathering in Orlando, Fla., and let out a gasp. Nearly 3,000 people were packed inside, all to hear a college professor from Alabama conduct a “forensic analysis” of how Ms. Chapin’s son and three of his college friends had been brutally murdered in Idaho last year. Ms. Chapin backed herself into an alcove to observe the discussion, muttering as the speaker mispronounced the name of her son’s girlfriend, who was also one of the victims, then botched the description of the landscape around the crime scene. Within minutes Ms. Chapin was quietly pushing herself out a side door.”
Paving the way for female runners: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon
From Jen Miller for ESPN in 2016: “In 1966, women didn’t really run, certainly not long distances. At the time, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the national ruling body on amateur sports at the time, limited women’s races to 1.5 miles. The thought was that women were not physiologically able to run a marathon. And Bobbi Gibb wanted to change that. Even when the Boston Athletic Association rejected her application to run the Boston Marathon that year, she still showed up. She dressed in a black bathing suit, her brother’s Bermuda shorts and boys’ running shoes. She’d clipped her hair shorter than she usually wore it, pulled it back and covered her head with a blue hoodie. She hid in the bushes, and when half the pack went by, she stepped into the race.”
From Robert Kolker for the New York Times: “The beginning of the story was strangely familiar, like the opening scene in a shopworn police procedural: A woman runs screaming down a street in Oak Beach, a secluded gated community on Long Island’s South Shore, only to vanish, it seems, into thin air. It was almost dawn on May 1, 2010. None of this made the news, not at first. A missing sex worker rarely does. Not even when another woman advertising on Craigslist, Megan Waterman, was reported missing a month later. Then the police started finding human remains in the underbrush — 10 in all, including a man and a toddler. This summer, after more than 13 years, the police finally made an arrest in the Gilgo Beach murders. Rex Heuermann is a 59-year-old architect and married father of two who commuted to Manhattan from his home in Massapequa Park, a bustling bedroom community in central Long Island. Heuermann had been in plain sight the whole time in any number of ways.”
An artist who has struggled with mental illness reviews a book about madness
From Lorna Collins for The Polyphony: “I am not necessarily reading this book (only) to inform my own knowledge. I am reading it as someone who has experienced madness, from the perspective of being diagnosed or mis-diagnosed – depending on your perspective – as psychotic or schizophrenic, currently given the label of ‘organic hallucinosis’. As I am reading about the philosophy of psychiatry in Morgan’s book, I find myself (my hallucinations) reacting violently. I do not usually include my visionary perspectives in an academic review. But these experiences seem to show something valid about the field defined in this book, if not the book itself. I see words floating and trembling in front of me, becoming physical. They are separated from my mind, separated from sense, hanging in helium balloons, suspended, mid-air, in front of me.”
From Kate Yoder from Mother Jones: “One-third of American kitchens have gas stoves—and evidence is piling up that they’re polluting homes with toxic chemicals. A study this summer found that using a single gas stove burner on high can raise levels of cancer-causing benzene above what’s been observed from secondhand smoke. It turns out gas stoves have much more in common with cigarettes. A new investigation by NPR and the Climate Investigations Center found that the gas industry tried to downplay the health risks of gas stoves for decades, turning to many of the same public-relations tactics the tobacco industry used to cover up the risks of smoking. Gas utilities even hired some of the same PR firms and scientists that Big Tobacco did.”
A look at the underlying causes of the Salem witch trials in the 17th century
From Vicki Saxon for JSTOR Daily: “In February 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Salem Village found itself at the center of a notorious case of mass hysteria: eight young women accused their neighbors of witchcraft. Trials ensued and, when the episode concluded in May 1693, fourteen women, five men, and two dogs had been executed for their supposed supernatural crimes. But what caused the mass hysteria, false accusations, and lapses in due process? Emily Oster posits that the “little ice age” caused economic deterioration and food shortages that led to anti-witch fervor. But Linnda Caporael argues that the girls suffered from convulsive ergotism, a condition caused by a type of fungus found in rye and other grains. It produces hallucinatory, LSD-like effects and can cause victims to suffer from vertigo, crawling sensations on the skin, extremity tingling, headaches, hallucinations, and seizure-like muscle contractions.”
From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “Pop-up stores like Spirit Halloween or Halloween City start dotting suburban and urban landscapes starting in late August, making it rather easy for a parent who can’t sew (or who lacks the time and patience) to fork over $25 or so on a Batman, hot dog, Barbie, or inflatable alien abduction costume. But there’s one costume you won’t find for sale in any of those places, and that’s Smokey Bear. In 1944, forest fires became an increasing threat in the United States, for two reasons: first, many firefighters and would-be firefighters were called into military service, and second, Japan had launched a handful of incendiary balloon attacks against the U.S. mainland in an effort to start fires. In the 1950s, Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act, giving full authority to manage Smokey’s likeness to the Forest Service. The Forest Service strictly controls the official Smokey Bear costumes — you can sometimes rent one via the Service’s website, but it comes with many restrictions.”
How horror films became Hollywood’s best financial investment
From Daniel Parris at Stats Significant:”The Exorcist premiered in the winter of 1973 to overwhelming public interest, captivating audiences with its harrowing story of demonic possession. The film smashed box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of all time and a critical darling nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. To date, The Exorcist has grossed over $441M worldwide on an initial budget of $12M. The film’s immense box office success showcased the genre’s artistic and economic promise, demonstrating its potential for high returns and, more importantly, its relatively inexpensive production costs. Unlike big-budget action franchises, horror films are produced on meager budgets in hopes of achieving modest returns. When examining average ROI by genre, horror films stand out as a significant outlier, averaging a 173% return (i.e. profit) on production costs. The best investment in Hollywood history was The Blair Witch Project, which had a 124,220% return.”
From Cara Ocobock for Scientific American: “The theory of man as the hunter has dominated the study of human evolution for nearly half a century. It is represented in museum dioramas and textbook figures, Saturday morning cartoons and feature films. But mounting evidence from exercise science indicates that women are physiologically better suited than men to endurance efforts such as running marathons. This advantage bears on questions about hunting because a prominent hypothesis contends that early humans are thought to have pursued prey on foot over long distances. Furthermore, the fossil and archaeological records, as well as ethnographic studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers, indicate that women have a long history of hunting game.”
An easy way to get away with a crime: be an identical twin
From Dan Lewis at Now I Know: “After Harrod’s of London, Berlin’s Kaufhaus des Westen is the continent’s largest department store. On January 25, 2009, before the store opened its doors, three masked men climbed onto an awning overlooking the store’s second floor, pried open a window, lowered a rope ladder, and made their descent onto the store’s floor. They made their way through the jewelry department and helped themselves to a haul worth the equivalent of $6.8 million. They exited undetected, leaving behind only the rope ladder and a single latex glove. Inside that glove was a little bit of sweat, enough to run a DNA test. German investigators ran that DNA against a government database, but they didn’t get a match. They got two.”
From Sugandha Srivastav at The Conversation: “One argument put forward in defence of fossil fuels is that they were a historical necessity, because there was no other viable substitute for much of the 20th century. But what if I told you there was a viable alternative, and that it may have been sabotaged by fossil fuel interests from its very inception? While researching the economics of clean energy innovation, I came across a little-known story: that of Canadian inventor George Cove, one of the world’s first renewable energy entrepreneurs. Cove invented household solar panels that looked uncannily similar to the ones being installed in homes today – they even had a rudimentary battery to keep power running when the Sun wasn’t shining. Except this wasn’t in the 1970s. Or even the 1950s. This was in 1905.”
An American museum reconsiders how it handles human remains
From Zachary Small at the New York Times: “The American Museum of Natural History is planning to overhaul its stewardship of some 12,000 human remains, the painful legacy of collecting practices that saw the museum acquire the skeletons of Indigenous and enslaved people taken from their graves and the bodies of New Yorkers who died as recently as the 1940s. The new policy will include the removal of all human bones now on public display and improvements to its storage facilities. Anthropologists will also spend more time studying the collection to determine the origins and identities of remains, as the museum faces questions about the legality and the ethics of its acquisitions.”
On Tuesday, a blast hit the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, apparently killing hundreds of people including patients and other civilians who had been using the building as a shelter from Israeli missile attacks. Within minutes of the first news report on the story, accusations were flying on social media: some said that Israel was to blame, and in some cases said that they had video evidence to prove it; Israel said that the blast was the result of a failed missile launch by Islamic Jihad, a group allied with Hamas. Amid a firehose of outrage and takes, journalists worked to try and verify—in some cases publicly and in real time—what had actually happened, wading through testimony and images from sources of varying reliability that said wildly different things at different times.
An official Israeli account on X tweeted a video purporting to bolster its claims that Islamic Jihad was responsible, but took it down after users pointed out that its timestamp didn’t match the apparent time of the hospital bombing. Later, Israel said that its intelligence services had intercepted a conversation between two Hamas operatives referring to a failed Islamic Jihad strike, and released what it claimed was audio of the discussion. Yesterday morning, Shashank Joshi, defense editor at The Economist, said that the evidence he had seen so far was more consistent with the failed missile launch hypothesis than an Israeli strike, but cautioned that this was “NOT conclusive by any means.” (A user accused Joshi of relying on evidence provided by the Israel Defense Forces; Joshi replied that “the relevant image being analyzed, published this morning” was actually posted by an account “thought to be associated with Hamas.”) Other analysts reached a similar conclusion, as did the US government, the White House said. But other observers remained skeptical, pointing out, for example, that the IDF has wrongly blamed Islamic Jihad in the past. At time of writing, the online debate raged on.