Was Chaucer a rapist? New research suggests he was not

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For nearly 150 years, a cloud has hung over the reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of “The Canterbury Tales,” long seen as the founder of the English literary canon. A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus”— a word commonly translated as rape. But this week, two scholars stunned the world of Chaucer studies with previously unknown documents that they say show that the “raptus” document was not in fact related to an accusation of rape against Chaucer at all. The new documents, the two scholars say, establish that the one that surfaced in the 1870s had been misinterpreted. Instead of stemming from a rape case, they argue, the document had been filed as part of a labor case, in which another man charged Chaumpaigne with leaving his household to work in Chaucer’s before her term of labor was over.

The original Tiger Kings

The last survivors of a lost empire live behind the Mirage, in Las Vegas, out back by the pool. On a good day, Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden will draw more than 1,000 visitors, the $25 adult admission fee justified mostly by the palm shade and tranquility it offers relative to the mania outside its walls. There are also long summer stretches when it’s 100 degrees and things get a little grim. During a recent visit, only a few families strolled through, surveying the five sleeping animals on display: three tigers, a lion, and a leopard. The Secret Garden ostensibly operates as an educational facility. “Look, a lion,” one young father said to his son, while pointing at a tiger.

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Santa Muerte

This is just one of many eye-catching pieces of art from Ravi Zupa, who says he is inspired by German Renaissance printmakers, Flemish primitives, abstract expressionists, Japanese woodblock artists, and Mughal painters. His work frequently incorporates religious iconography from Europe, Asia, and Pre-Columbian Latin America with revolutionary propaganda from around the world. (via my friend Michael Murray’s wonderful online magazine, Galaxy Brain).

The Wire and Meta point fingers

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

On Monday, Jahnavi Sen—deputy editor of The Wire, an independent news outlet in India—reported that Amit Malviya, the social-media manager for India’s ruling political party, was able to have any post removed from Instagram, regardless of the content, by flagging them through the service’s reporting system. An internal report The Wire saw a copy of “makes clear that the reported post was taken down immediately without any of the company’s moderators looking at it,” the site wrote. Any post flagged by Malviya was treated the same way, according to The Wire: “an immediate removal from the platform, no questions asked.” A source at Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, told The Wire that Malviya reported more than 700 posts in September, and all were removed.

According to The Wire, these takedowns were allowed because Malviya is part of a Meta program called X Check or Cross Check, whose existence was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in September of 2021, as part of the paper’s reporting on a trove of documents released by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook security staffer turned whistleblower. Under the Cross Check program, “some users are ‘whitelisted’—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come,” the Journal reported (the ability to remove content from Facebook or Instagram is not mentioned).

The Wire‘s story included a copy of the internal Instagram report, which it said confirmed that Malviya was able to have posts taken down because he was a member of the program, including timestamps that allegedly corresponded to when the posts were removed that said “Review not required. Reason: Reporting user has XCheck privileges.” In a response to The Wire, Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said the Cross Check program “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts.” He added that all of the posts mentioned by The Wire “were surfaced for review by automated systems,” and suggested that the document referred to in its story “appears to be fabricated.” Guy Rosen, chief information security officer for Meta, went into more detail in a Twitter thread.

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This Minecraft player tried to duplicate the known universe

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Christopher Slayton spent two months exploring black holes, identifying the colors of Saturn’s rings, and looking at his home planet from outer space. And Slayton, who is 18, didn’t even have to leave his desk to do so. He set out to build the entire observable universe, block by block, in Minecraft, a video game where users can build and explore worlds. By the end, he felt as if he had traveled to every corner of the universe. “Everyone freaks out about the power and expansiveness of the universe, which I never really got that much,” he said. But after working for a month and 15 days to build it and additional two weeks to create a YouTube video unveiling it, “I realized even more how beautiful it is.”

The owner of this iPhone was either in a severe car crash or just on a roller coaster

On a sunny September Sunday, Sara White and her family headed to Kings Island amusement park outside Cincinnati. The 39-year-old dentist zipped her two-day-old iPhone 14 Pro securely in her fanny pack, buckled into the Mystic Timbers roller coaster and enjoyed getting hoisted 109 feet in the air and whipped around at over 50 mph. Afterward, she looked down at her phone. The lock screen was lined with missed calls and voice mails from an emergency dispatcher asking if she was OK. During the ride, Apple’s new car-crash detection was triggered, and it automatically dialed 911. The call to the Warren County Communications Center featured an automated voice message from Ms. White’s iPhone: “The owner of this iPhone was in a severe car crash and is not responding to their phone.”

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Scientists find truth behind many ancient flood stories

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It wasn’t long after Henry David Inglis arrived on the island of Jersey that he heard the old story. Locals told the 19th-century Scottish travel writer how, in a bygone age, their island had been much more substantial, and that folks used to walk to the French coast. Inglis scoffed as he looked out across 22 kms of sea between Jersey and the French coast, and went on to write that this was “an assertion too ridiculous to merit examination.” About 150 years earlier, another writer had been similarly unmoved; no one could have trod from Jersey to Normandy, he wrote, “unlesse it were before the Flood,” referring to the Old Testament. Yet there had been a flood. A big one. Between roughly 15,000 and 6,000 years ago, massive flooding caused by melting glaciers raised sea levels around Europe, and that flooding is what turned Jersey into an island.

Hurricane Ian destroyed their homes, then algorithms sent them money

When Hurricane Ian churned over Florida in late September, it left a trail of destruction from high winds and flooding. But a week after the storm passed, some people in three of the worst-hit counties saw an unexpected beacon of hope. Nearly 3,500 residents of Collier, Charlotte, and Lee Counties received a push notification on their smartphones offering $700 cash assistance, no questions asked. A Google algorithm deployed in partnership with nonprofit GiveDirectly had estimated from satellite images that those people lived in badly damaged neighborhoods and needed some help.

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The man who stole the Mona Lisa and took it back to Italy

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.

Saturday was the anniversary of the birth of the Italian painter who made perhaps the biggest art repatriation blunder in history. In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia stole da Vinci’s masterpiece from Paris and later brought it to Florence. But the theft’s success as a repatriation effort was very short-lived. Less than three years after it was stolen from the Louvre, the Mona Lisa returned to Paris in January 1914. Though he was misguided as a historian and an umpire of provenance — the painting had been clearly and cleanly purchased by the King of France, the country to which it was ultimately returned — Peruggia’s caper is worth recalling at a time when repatriation remains a murky battleground.

The scandal that rocked a Cleveland fishing tournament

There’s nibble-around-the-edges, cut-the-corners cheating, like going five miles an hour over the speed limit or faking sick to get out of work. This is a story about the other kind: whole-hog, all-in cheating where plausible deniability doesn’t exist. It begins in Cleveland’s Gordon Park, on the shores of Lake Erie, where the Lake Erie Walleye Trail was wrapping up its championship event on Saturday. Fischer weighed the fish of angler after angler, picking up their fish and setting them on a scale. Late in the proceedings, the anglers of boat No. 12, Chase Cominsky and Jake Runyan, brought their five-fish catch up for weighing. They needed to beat 16.89 total pounds to claim Team of the Year honors and $30,000 in various prizes. Their catch’s weight: 33.91 pounds. The silence that greeted Fischer’s announcement was the first sign that something was very much amiss.

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Would you swim with a robot dolphin?

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 San Jose, California, kindergarteners are sitting at the edge of an outdoor pool when a sleek two-meter-long mass breaches in front of them, water dripping off its smooth gray skin. It stops and enthusiastically nods, splashing the children as their jaws drop in awe. A thin, barely perceptible cord running from its navel to a control panel nearby is the only obvious sign that this is no dolphin—it’s a robot. Delle, a prototype animatronic dolphin currently undergoing testing in San Jose, became a media sensation in 2020 because of its hyperrealistic features. Created by Edge Innovations—the Hollywood special effects company behind the killer whale in Free Willy, the snake in Anaconda, and the dolphin in Flipper—Delle was designed to revolutionize traditional captive animal demonstrations.

One of long COVID’s worst symptoms is also its most misunderstood

On March 25, 2020, Hannah Davis was texting with two friends when she realized that she couldn’t understand one of their messages. In hindsight, that was the first sign that she had COVID-19. It was also her first experience with the phenomenon known as “brain fog,” and the moment when her old life contracted into her current one. She once worked in artificial intelligence and analyzed complex systems without hesitation, but now “runs into a mental wall” when faced with tasks as simple as filling out forms. Her memory, once vivid, feels frayed and fleeting. Former mundanities—buying food, making meals, cleaning up—can be agonizingly difficult. Her inner world—what she calls “the extras of thinking, like daydreaming, making plans, imagining”—is gone. The fog “is so encompassing,” she told me, “it affects every area of my life.”

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Section 230, the platforms, and the Supreme Court

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

For the past several years, critics on both sides of the political spectrum have argued that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube too much protection from legal liability for the content that appears on their networks. Right-wing critics argue that Section 230 allows social-media companies to censor conservative thinkers and groups without recourse, by removing their content (even though there is no evidence that this occurs), and liberal critics say the platforms use Section 230 as an excuse not to remove things they should be taking down, such as misinformation. Before the 2020 election, Joe Biden said he would abolish Section 230 if he became president, and he has made similar statements since he took office, saying the clause “should be revoked immediately.”

This week, the Supreme Court said it plans to hear two cases that are looking to chip away at Section 230 legal protections. One case claims that Google’s YouTube service violated the federal Anti-Terrorism Act by recommending videos featuring the ISIS terrorist group, and that these videos helped lead to the death of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old US citizen who was killed in an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015. In the lawsuit, filed in 2016, Gonzalez’s family claims that while Section 230 protects YouTube from liability for hosting such content, it doesn’t protect the company from liability for promoting that content with its algorithms. The second case involves Twitter, which was also sued for violating the Anti-Terrorism Act; the family of Nawras Alassaf claimed ISIS-related content on Twitter contributed to his death in a terrorist attack in 2017.

The Supreme Court decided not to hear a similar case in 2020, which claimed that Facebook was responsible for attacks in Israel, because the social network promoted posts about the terrorist group Hamas. In March, the court also refused to review a decision which found Facebook was not liable for helping a man traffick a woman for sex. While Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the decision not to hear that case, he also wrote that the court should consider the issue of “the proper scope of immunity” under Section 230. “Assuming Congress does not step in to clarify Section 230’s scope, we should do so in an appropriate case,” Thomas wrote. “It is hard to see why the protection that Section 230 grants publishers against being held strictly liable for third parties’ content should protect Facebook from liability for its own ‘acts and omissions.’”

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