The office party from hell

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On the witness stand, Stu Bykofsky confessed that he didn’t really want a going-away party. After 47 years as a journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, Bykofsky found out that the editors at the Inquirer were taking his beloved column away from him. Two days before his scheduled departure, Bykofsky found out that regardless of his wishes, his colleagues were hellbent on throwing a going away party for him.It was at this official going-away party in the newsroom, on the Friday afternoon of July 12, 2019, that Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning architecture critic, trashed Byko as an ethically-challenged, crusty old misogynist who had “a taste for child prostitutes in Thailand.”

This secret society helped run the Underground Railroad

Under peeling paint and missing cornices, Essie Gregory stood on the steps of the huge, ramshackle mansion in the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with a small group of visitors. Ms. Gregory, 74, opened the front door, giving her guests a rare glimpse inside the New York headquarters of the United Order of Tents Eastern District No. 3. And despite the rundown nature of the building, it was still possible to imagine it as it once was. For generations, the Tents — members of a secret society of Black women whose 19th-century founders were enslaved — held meetings upstairs, cooked meals in the kitchen and performed secret ceremonies in the parlor.

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James Cameron wants to put the Titanic debate to rest

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Director James Cameron wants to put an end to a debate that has gone on since the movie first hit theaters, exactly 25 years ago today. Namely, could Rose have scooched over to make room for Jack on that floating hunk of wood, keeping him out of the freezing water and saving his life? Many fans have argued with zeal that both Jack and Rose could have plausibly fit on the door. Cameron disagreed, saying in that episode that “Jack has to die,” and he has long dismissed the idea that the question is even up for debate. However, the director says he is hoping to close the door on the dispute for good, with a scientific approach.

Ada Lovelace’s skills with needlepoint helped her pioneering work in computing

Ada Lovelace, known as the first computer programmer, was born on Dec. 10, 1815, more than a century before digital electronic computers were developed. Lovelace has been hailed as a model for girls in science, technology, engineering and math. But Lovelace – properly Ada King, Countess of Lovelace after her marriage – drew on many different fields for her innovative work, including languages, music and needlecraft, in addition to mathematical logic. Lovelace drew on all of these and more when she wrote her computer program – which in reality was a set of instructions for a mechanical calculator, the so-called Analytical Engine designed by inventor Charles Babbage.

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How Jack Black’s mother helped save NASA’s Apollo 13 mission

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 a teenager, Judith Love Cohen went to a guidance counselor to talk about her future and professed her deep love of math. But the counselor had other advice. She said: “I think you ought to go to a nice finishing school and learn to be a lady.” Instead, Cohen pursued her dreams. She studied engineering at USC and later helped design the program that saved the Apollo 13 astronauts. In retirement, Cohen produced books encouraging young girls to follow in her footsteps. Although her son, Jack Black, is certainly the most famous of the family, his mother has a remarkable story all her own.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead mansion sells, but the tenants refuse to leave

The Cotswold mansion where Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited has sold at auction for £3.16m despite buyers being warned that sitting tenants – who are paying a weekly rent of £5 a week – are refusing to leave the property. Piers Court, at Stinchcombe, a village about halfway between Bristol and Cheltenham, was sold to an unnamed bidder in an online auction on Thursday after the owner defaulted on a loan secured against the eight-bedroom, six-bathroom property. The sale went ahead despite the tenants, who described themselves as “Evelyn Waugh superfans”, refusing to vacate the property which they rent for just £250 a year in a deal with its previous owner, Jason Blain, a former BBC executive who bought the property for £2.9m in 2019.

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Has Twitter reached a turning point now that Elon has banned several journalists?

I haven’t written much about Twitter here, because it’s exhausting even trying to keep up with what’s happening, to be quite honest. I suspected that Elon’s ownership might be a train wreck, but I didn’t expect what happened — a train wreck in which each car of the train is a dumpster, and they are all on fire. And Elon is standing on top of the train, laughing maniacally and pouring gasoline everywhere. Is he a chaos agent, like Donald Trump, where he just enjoys watching things burn? Perhaps. Or it’s possible that he — like a number of tech bros, including Marc Andreessen — believes that everything, including journalism and morality, needs to be torn down and rebuilt by technology.

An Elon fanboy scoffed at criticism of his handling of Twitter recently, and said it would be easy as pie for a guy who puts rockets into space, etc. But the reality is that putting rockets into space or building an electric car is light-years easier than running a social network like Twitter, especially if you choose to rewrite the rules of public behavior and reinvent moderation at the same time as you are trying to convert the platform from advertising to subscription revenue. It’s not that it’s hard technically, but it involves all kinds of tradeoffs, and all of these have to do with human beings, the most complex mechanisms ever.

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The best images from NASA’s mission to the moon

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The Artemis I mission, an unmanned flight to the moon and back, just returned with some spectacular photos. The mission was a test to see whether NASA could get a capsule to the moon and back, before the space program tries to send astronauts back there. As veteran blogger Jason Kottke points out, visual imaging has been an integral part of even the earliest space missions — strap a camera to a spacecraft, let the people see what space looks like, and they will be inspired. And the photographs returned by Artemis I’s Orion spacecraft are certainly inspirational. So Jason picked his favorites, and I agree they are stunning.

The winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Prize for terrible writing

If you’ve never experienced the Bulwer-Lytton Ficton Contest, you are in for a real treat. As the website says, it’s the place where www stands for wretched writers welcome. Here’s the grand prize winner: “I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.”

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Beavers: Part bear, part bird, part monkey, part lizard

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It gives me great pleasure to link to this excellent piece on the underlying weirdness of Canada’s national creature, the beaver. “There is an element of the sacred in the beaver, if only in its deep weirdness. One million years ago, beavers the size of bears roamed North America. They pose an evolutionary puzzle, like the platypus, or birds, which share some DNA with dinosaurs. When they dive, they seem more like marine mammals than terrestrial species, more seal than rodent. Their dexterous forepaws look startlingly human with their five nimble fingers and naked palms. They groom their lustrous fur with catlike fastidiousness. Their mammalian beauty ends abruptly in the gooselike hind feet, each as wide as the beaver’s head. The feet are followed by a reptilian tail, which, it has been observed, looks like the result of some terrible accident, run over by a tractor tire, the treads leaving a pattern of indentations that resemble scales.”

How three women set a new climbing record

Sasha DiGiulian writes about how she and her team conquered a 16-metre big wall called Rayu, in northern Spain. “During dinner, the bartender told us that a local climber we’d been coordinating with wagered we’d need to be rescued by helicopter from the mountain within the first week of our expedition. ‘The mountain is very dangerous,’ the local climber said. ‘Maybe it would be a good idea for you to try the easier routes on the left side.’ Men have underestimated my climbing abilities for as long as I can remember. I signed my first sponsorship deal when I was 12 years old, a decade and a half ago, and I’ve been on enough trips since to anticipate that some guy is always going to assume he knows more than me, or suggest an easier climb. I’ve learned to tune it out. Yet something felt different in Posada de Valdeón.”

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Scientists report nuclear fusion breakthrough

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Scientists studying fusion energy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced on Tuesday that they had crossed a long-awaited milestone in reproducing the power of the sun in a laboratory. That sparked public excitement as scientists have for decades talked about how fusion, the nuclear reaction that makes stars shine, could provide a future source of bountiful energy. The result announced on Tuesday is the first fusion reaction in a laboratory setting that actually produced more energy than it took to start the reaction. “This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” said Arati Prabhakar, the White House science adviser.

My secret life as a teenaged bulletin board system operator

Benj Edwards recalls how he started a BBS – an online bulletin board system – when he was just 11 years old, and some of the lessons that he learned while running it for the next 30 years: “Thirty years ago last week, my BBS came online for the first time,” he writes. “I was only 11 years old, working from my dad’s Tandy 1800HD laptop and a 2400 baud modem. The Cave BBS soon grew into a bustling 24-hour system with over 1,000 users. After a seven-year pause between 1998 and 2005, I’ve been running it again ever since. Here’s the story of how it started and the challenges I faced along the way.”

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The serial-killer media industrial complex

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.

Sarah Marshall asks why we are so fascinated with serial killers: “How are we even to know that Samuel Little had a photographic memory if almost all the women in his drawings look so much like one another? Why did the seventy-nine-year-old man who happened to be the most prolific murderer in American history also happen to have one of the most impressive memories in American history? And if you’ve committed just a handful of murders—an unremarkable number, one that won’t even get you on the leaderboard—then wouldn’t it be, well, not a terrible idea to confess to a few dozen more? What if it makes you into something special, and helps the police close unsolved cases all over the country, and makes a great story for the people on TV, who will all want to talk to you now?”

Why did the Roman Baths disappear?

Bathing in massive public baths was once a hallmark of what it meant to be Roman. But in the late Roman Empire, many of these baths closed to the public or were turned into other structures altogether. New research by Jordan Pickett, an archaeologist and environmental historian at the University of Georgia, reveals that a combination of social, financial, and environmental challenges contributed to the decline of large public bathing complexes in Rome and elsewhere in the Empire. While popular myths for the disappearance of Roman bathing once focused on Christian opposition to nudity, his research focuses on social and environmental history as pivotal ways for understanding the decline in large-scale bathing in the late Roman Empire.

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Driving on the moon

Fifty years ago this week, Apollo 17 landed on the moon — the last time human beings walked on our planet’s satellite. With Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ron Evans on board, this was NASA’s sixth and final spaceflight to the lunar surface.

Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the Moon, setting records for the longest distance traversed in their rover—7.6 km—and the amount of lunar rocks returned. But today, what the mission is perhaps most remembered for is the fact that it was the last time humans landed on the Moon.

The photo of the lunar rover is from a book called Apollo Remastered, by a British photographer named Andy Saunders.

All citrus fruits are derived from three original fruits

Everyone knows that there are a wide variety of citrus fruits, including limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, etc. But all of the citrus fruits we know were developed from just a few that occur in the wild, including citron, pomelo, and mandarin. The variety of citrus fruits we encounter at the grocery store in the winter months are mostly hybridized from those species and their descendants.

Citron (Citrus medica) is the citrus fruit that gave “citrus” its name. Records of the fruit go back thousands of years in Mesopotamia, although its origin may be India or Southeast Asia. Citron is more temperature-sensitive than other commercial citrus grown in the U.S. but flourishes in South America and the coastal areas of the Mediterranean. Americans are mostly familiar with citron as a candied ingredient in fruitcake, made from the fruit’s peel.

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