The death-defying legend of cowpuncher Boots O’Neal

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 sun is not yet up when Boots O’Neal starts his workday. As the 89-year-old cowboy readies his mount in the predawn quiet, he stuffs his hands into well-worn leather gloves. He pulls down his silverbelly hat and grunts his way onto the saddle, planting his tall-topped boots in the stirrups. The horse he’s riding today is a dark sorrel named Cool. This morning’s chore: Boots and his coworkers must round up some two dozen bulls scattered across a vast grazing pasture, drive them to a set of pens about a mile away, and load them into a livestock trailer so they can be hauled to another division of the Four Sixes, the legendary West Texas ranch that sprawls across 260,000 acres.

The curious case of the Stone Age fossil known as Nebraska man

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, a rancher named Harold Cook assisted paleontologists from the Denver Museum and the American Museum in digs at fossil beds along Snake Creek, some 20 miles south of his family’s ranch. Whether he picked up the tooth while scouting for those excavations, during one of them, or sometime after, he never said. But Cook believed he had found something truly special. Based on his knowledge of fossils, he suspected that the tooth belonged to a primate, and not a mere monkey—an ape perhaps. An even more tantalizing prospect was that the tooth belonged to an early human. Cook was correct about one thing: The tooth was important. But it would become part of history in a way he never imagined.

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Interesting things from Astral Codex Ten

I think I’ve linked to Scott Alexander’s blog Astral Codex Ten before (the name of the blog is an anagram of his name). He publishes lists of links that he comes across from time to time, and some of them are quite fantastic. Here are some from a recent collection that I liked, or that I wanted to save for later:

Impossible colours: Researchers did a test in which they restricted participants’ vision and forced them to view a field made up of two colours, and they would up seeing not a combination of those two colours but “new colors entirely, which are not in the CIE 1931 color space, either in its real part or in its imaginary parts. Some of the volunteers reported that afterward, they could still imagine the new colors for a period of time.”

Luck-based medicine: Elizabeth Van Nostrand is a software engineer who writes about her lifelong problems with food and digestion, and how modern medicine was almost completely useless until a doctor accidentally helped her. “This finalized some already fermenting changes in how I view medical interventions and research,” she writes. “Namely: sometimes knowledge doesn’t work and then you have to optimize for luck. I assure you I’m at least as unhappy about this as you are.”

The effect of open-label placebos in clinical trials: In other words, if you give patients a placebo, saying “This is a placebo, try taking it and maybe the placebo effect will make you feel better”, do they? This gets investigated a lot, but the latest study says yes, with a medium-to-large effect size.

Do anti-depressants work? Despite decades of research, there’s still quite a bit of debate about whether SSRI drugs — which are prescribed for millions of people every year — actually help those with depression. A large meta-analysis of the research seems to show that if they do work at all, they don’t make much of a difference for those who suffer.

Love is a haunted house

What follows is from Griefbacon, the great email newsletter from writer Helena Fitzgerald. It’s ostensibly about why the movie “The Lion In Winter” is a great Christmas movie, but it is really about love and family and relationships.

“The Lion in Winter doesn’t really take place in the 12th century, any more than a stripper dressed up as a fireman can really save you from a fire. It takes place in 1968, and it takes place right now. It takes place in this week of this year, and this week of last year and next year, too, as crowds gather at train stations and airports, as cars clog up the highways between the cities and the suburbs to drive the interstate backward from adulthood to childhood. It takes place in every home where someone is setting the table, in every grocery store where someone is standing in line, in every apartment where a new couple is anxiously getting ready to host one or both of their parents, and in every group chat where siblings are resentfully double-tapping heart and “haha” reactions.

In a castle in France in 1183, where indoor heating hasn’t yet been invented, a bunch of family members, all of whom are to one degree or another estranged, gather for Christmas dinner, to bring up old grudges, and whine behind one another’s backs. We hate people and we love them at the same time, we have the same arguments and we don’t resolve anything, we’re vicious and petty to the people in our families and nothing comes out of it except agreeing to do it all again next year.

If the only thing that keeps us alive sometimes is spite, well, maybe there’s a romance to that too. Love is the haunted house that costs forty dollars but guarantees that you’ll die. We show up to the arcade again in the sunlight of whatever next day comes, scrubbed clean of the blood from the night before, ready to get our hearts smashed up by the people we have loved the longest, even if that’s just ourselves, feeling so lucky to get one more chance at it. We love people and we die of it, but it’s also what keeps us alive.”

The best of my “When The Going Gets Weird” newsletter

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.

As I’ve probably mentioned a number of times, I write and publish a daily email newsletter called “When The Going Gets Weird,” (based on a quote by Hunter S. Thompson). I used to publish it through a service called Nuzzel, which was founded by Jonathan Abrams (who also coincidentally founded Friendster, one of the first social networks). I switched to Revue when it bought Nuzzel, and then Twitter bought Revue (and is now shutting it down) so I decided to try Ghost, an open-source solution for newsletter publishing. I’ve also been experimenting with Substack, although I’m less enamored of a centralized entity like that for mostly philosophical reasons.

Lots of people use their newsletters to write thoughtful essays about the issues of the day, and I admire that, but I chose to take a different path. I decided to focus on interesting and/or offbeat stories, inspired by early bloggers like Jason Kottke. I used to collect these stories and just tweet them out or write a blog post about them here on my personal blog, but eventually there were so many that I thought I could do a newsletter. Maybe I will run out at some point, or the supply will dry up and I will have to decrease the frequency, but for now at least I am doing it daily.

Anyway, I thought I would collect some of my favourite stories from the past year, for those who haven’t been able to read them all and those who read them but want to be reminded:.

Librarian keeps the love notes and doodles she finds written in books:

“In her 20 years as a librarian, Sharon McKellar has unearthed all kinds of left-behind personal items — from doodles to recipes to old photographs — nestled between the pages of returned library books. She carefully removes them and reads them, then she scans and uploads them to the library’s website after scrubbing any personal identifying information.”

Photo of nearest star turns out to be slice of chorizo:

“A photo tweeted by a famous French physicist supposedly of Proxima Centauri by the James Webb Space Telescope was actually a slice of chorizo. Étienne Klein, research director at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission posted the photo last week, claiming it showed the closest star to the sun. Klein told French news outlet Le Point that his intention had been to educate people about fake news online.”

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The Luddites were right

The term “Luddite” has come to mean someone who is opposed to technology, because the conventional wisdom about the movement of the same name is that it was started by artisanal weavers who hated the new automated looms that were stealing their jobs. But this isn’t really an accurate description of what happened. According to historians who specialize in the period, the Luddites were artisanal weavers who resisted the arrival of factory-style manufacturing. But it wasn’t the technology that bothered most of them per se — it was that the factories using the new looms paid workers less and treated them poorly. In other words, it was more of a labour issue than a technological one.

“Luddism,” the sociologist Donald MacKenzie writes, “was neither mindless, nor completely irrational, nor completely unsuccessful.” The Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, allegedly a stocking maker in the 1700s who destroyed two machines by throwing his clogs into them. But there’s no evidence that a person by that name actually existed, which raises the possibility that the story was created by an earlier group of activists opposed to the mechanization of labour.

“[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring,” Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology. But “their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a ‘nuisance value’. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers.”

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A 550-year-old clue to the life of Vlad the Impaler

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.

On a dark and stormy night in May this year, exactly 125 years to the day that Bram Stoker published the definitive vampire novel, two people pored over a document more than 500 years old in a room in Transylvania, signed by Dracula himself. Gleb and Svetlana Zilberstein’s mission? To extract genetic material from the letters written by Vlad Dracula, the historical inspiration for Stoker’s vampiric count, left there by his sweat, fingerprints and saliva. And from that, the pair – who have been dubbed “protein detectives” – can build up a picture of not only the physical makeup of the Wallachian warlord, who became known as Vlad the Impaler for his practice of displaying his enemies on stakes, but also the environmental conditions in which he lived.

Space debris expert: Orbits will be lost, and people will die, later this decade

Until about a decade ago, an average of 80 to 100 satellites per year were launched into varying orbits. Some reentered Earth’s atmosphere quickly, while others will remain in orbit for decades. This now seems quaint. In the last five years, driven largely by the rise of communications networks such as SpaceX’s Starlink and a proliferation of small satellites, the number of objects launched into space has increased dramatically. In 2017, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the annual number exceeded 300. By 2020, the annual number of objects launched exceeded 1,000 for the first time, and this year, the total number of satellites launched has already surpassed 2,000.

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The Ingram Christmas Letter for 2022

This Christmas feels a little different than it did last year, where we were worried about the Omicron variant of COVID. This time, we’re worried about the BF.7 variant, and a resurgent flu virus, and RSV, all of which have combined to create what the news calls a “tri-demic” 🙂 Remember when we weren’t worried about pandemics, and we just wandered around hugging and kissing people without a care in the world? It seems like so long ago now. Anyway, we are going to try and make Christmas as normal as it could be this year, while still taking reasonable health precautions. And why are we concerned about RSV, you might ask, since it mostly affects young children? Because we have one! Not Becky and I, of course, but our daughter Caitlin and her husband Wade, who had a beautiful baby girl named Quinn Leanne Hemrica in June. We are grandparents! And yes, this means we are really old!

Note: If you just want to see the photos from this letter all in one place, there’s a Google Album of them. And if you want to see more photos of the Ingram clan, check out the Ingram Family photo album, which has every photo I’ve ever taken, plus a bunch of old print photos that I’ve scanned in over the years.

Okay, now that I’ve given away the big news, back to the letter. We started the year, as we often do, by eating a huge amount of delicious food in a kind of New Year’s smorgasbord, and we did some skating on the pond near the house. Just to recap, we moved to Buckhorn (about two hours north of Toronto) a few years ago, just before COVID hit. Good timing! We live in a duplex with our good friends Marc and Kris, on a lovely piece of property out in the country with acres of hiking trails. It is basically paradise. In February, we went to Ottawa for our annual Winterfest trip, but there was a warm spell so they closed the Ottawa canal (the world’s longest skating rink supposedly, although the Dutch might disagree). So since we couldn’t go skating and have poutine and Beaver Tails, we just went bowling (A note for the non-Canadians: Beaver Tails are fried dough and sugar, not actual tails from actual beavers). We were even joined by our niece Lindsay, who enjoyed bowling despite being nine months pregnant!

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Stuart Little leads art historian to long-lost Hungarian masterpiece

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.

A long-lost avant garde painting was returned to Hungary after nine decades thanks to a sharp-eyed art historian, who spotted it being used as a prop in the Hollywood film Stuart Little. Gergely Barki, a researcher at Hungary’s national gallery in Budapest, noticed Sleeping Lady with Black Vase by Róbert Berény as he watched television with his daughter Lola. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Bereny’s long-lost masterpiece on the wall behind Hugh Laurie. I nearly dropped Lola from my lap,” said Barki. The painting disappeared in the 1920s, but Barki recognised it immediately even though he had only seen a faded black-and-white photo from an exhibition in 1928. A former set designer had bought it for next to nothing in an antiques shop in Pasadena.

PhD student solves 2,500-year-old Sanskrit problem

A Sanskrit grammatical problem which has perplexed scholars since the 5th Century BC has been solved by a University of Cambridge PhD student. Rishi Rajpopat, 27, decoded a rule taught by Panini, a master of the ancient Sanskrit language who lived around 2,500 years ago. Sanskrit is mostly spoken in India by an estimated 25,000 people, the university said. Mr Rajpopat said he had “a eureka moment in Cambridge” after spending nine months “getting nowhere”. “I closed the books for a month and just enjoyed the summer – swimming, cycling, cooking, praying and meditating,” he said. “Then, begrudgingly I went back to work, and, within minutes, as I turned the pages, these patterns starting emerging, and it all started to make sense.”

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