A midnight army at the dawn of the web

Leigh Alexander recalls her adventures working with porn spambots in the 1990s, and the strange mixture of nostalgia and disappointment that remains.

Fashionable diseases, past and present

Today, we are gluten sensitive. In the past, we might have had the vapors, or melancholy, or consumption. Throughout history, some diseases, even ones that are very real, have taken on social meaning and social cachet — becoming part of lifestyle identities as much as they are a part of biology. (And diseases might have a meaning in one social context that they don't have in others. Think about the difference between depression and depression when you are a teenager with a big poetry obsession.) The Fashionable Diseases research project is trying to bring these social meanings to the forefront. They've got a series of podcasts now, and a conference coming up in July. Read the rest

North of Philly, a museum of dead tech

In Doylestown, Pennsylvania, there is a poured-in-place castle made of concrete and filled with archaic technology — a museum of tools that people no longer use because they've all been replaced by industrialization. You can visit. Read the rest

Creepypasta, the new keystroke in horror

Clipboard-sized, unsettling, endlessly mutating pseudolore with dark and scary themes. Creepypasta is going mainstream. [Aoen Magazine] Read the rest

Forgotten history: When the squirrels came to town

Prior to the mid-19th century, squirrels were thought of as fantastic woodland creatures, rather than the urbane, city-dwelling vermin they are today. In fact, the available evidence suggests that, up until this point, there really weren't a whole lot of squirrels living in cities in the United States — at least, not with the ubiquity that they now do. What changed? A couple of things, according to a paper published in The Journal of American History. First, human architects and city planners got really into the idea of urban greenspace for the first time, constructing elaborate parks like Central Park in New York. Second, the humans then imported squirrels from the countryside to add to the bucolic ambiance they were hoping these parks would foster. The rest, as they say, is all rodent breeding and natural selection. Read the rest

How To: Pronounce Nelson Mandela's middle name

The BBC's in-house linguists have an interesting piece about pronouncing words in Xhosa — a major language spoken in the region of South Africa where Nelson Mandela grew up. (Helpfully included in the story: How to pronounce "Xhosa".) Read the rest

Rise of the Valleyguy

To linguists, the central feature of Valleygirl Dialect is the tendency to make a statement sound like a question. For decades, this has been considered not just part of Valleyspeak, but part of female speech. That's changing. Like, dudes are totally doing it, too. Read the rest

Can the UN preserve intangible cultural assets?

As food goes globalized, UNESCO has started thinking about preserving cuisine as a cultural artifact, the same way it might preserve an ancient city. Japanese food got the nod last week. Read the rest

Ancient Aliens, modern obsessions

I'm really enjoying Jason Colavito's reviews of The History Channel's hilarious/infuriating hit show Ancient Aliens. What makes them better than the average blog? Colavito is an author who has written extensively about the anthropology of pseudoscience, and the connections between pseudoscience, religion, and science fiction. So his recaps are less about debunking the claims made on Ancient Aliens (because, really, that's just too damn easy) and more about exploring where those claims come from, pop-culturally, and what makes them so appealing, to begin with. Fascinating stuff. Read the rest

The last Jew in Afghanistan

Zabulon Simintov, an Afghan Jew, prepares for prayers at his residence in Kabul

Reuters has an absolutely fascinating profile of Zabulon Simintov, the last known Jewish person living in the entire country of Afghanistan. There were several thousand Jewish people in Afghanistan at the turn of the 20th century, but most of them (including Simintov's wife and daughters) eventually moved to Israel. Read the rest

Behind the particles: The Guardian goes inside CERN and the Large Hadron Collider

What's it like to live and work in the world's most famous physics mecca? Suzanne Moore went to Geneva, Switzerland to meet the scientists who study particle physics at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs Boson — and also home to a multinational population that can reach 10,000 at different times of year. There's a kindergarten at CERN. And Halloween parties. And, of course, the much-noted tendency toward Comic Sans Powerpoints. In other words, CERN has a culture. This is its story. Read the rest

The science of "new baby smell"

TIL: There are studies that suggest new babies really do smell different, and seem to trigger special brain chemical pathways in women. But, simultaneously, the smells we more consciously associate with "new baby" — i.e., the new baby smell used in baby products and baby-fresh scents — varies widely by culture. Make of this what you will. Read the rest

The story of the rapist's wife

The rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student last December drew worldwide attention to India's struggles with tradition, women's rights, and street harassment. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Krishna Pokharel and Aditi Malhotra add another layer to that onion, following the story of Punita Devi, the wife of one of the convicted rapists. She, too, is suffering from the fallout of her husband's choices — and in ways that come back to those issues of tradition and equality. Living in a rural area where widows lose both their honor and any viable means of financial support, Devi is facing a future where she expects to be turned out of her in-laws' home, cannot return to her parents, and is judged and punished ... not for being the wife of a rapist, but for being nobody's wife. Read the rest

The voices in your head are culturally specific

I'm utterly fascinated by the way culture affects the outcomes of mental illness — whether that's in terms of prevalence of specific disorders, how we interpret and treat those disorders, or even how seemingly innate symptoms express themselves in wildly different ways. Case in point: The voices that schizophrenics hear. In the US, those voices seem to talk a lot about violence — what a person should to do themselves, or to others. In Chennai, India, on the other hand, schizophrenic patients report that voices most commonly command them to do household chores. The disturbing content comes in the form of sexual comments or directions to drink from the toilet. Read the rest

Today's schizophrenics hallucinate different things than those of your grandparents' time

Thanks to that whole "mental" part, mental illnesses are often heavily influenced by the cultures and societies in which people live. Case in point: The way people with schizophrenia interpret their own hallucinations has changed over the course of the 20th century, keeping pace with changes in technology. Where people once believed that demons were speaking to them, they came to think of those voices as emanating from secret phonographs. Today, people with schizophrenia are likely to imagine hidden cameras taping them for a reality show. The paranoid delusions are always there, but the context changes. Read the rest

Ramadan through camera phones around the world

New York-based filmmaker Bassam Tariq shares the most beautiful images from his story project, 30Days/Ramadan, where photos from the Muslim holy month of Ramadan reveal that media stereotypes of Muslims aren't nearly as colorful or interesting as snapshots from within the community.

The 30 Days Ramadan Photo project

Since 2009, New York City-based twentysomething comedian Aman Ali and photographer Bassam Tariq have spent the Islamic holy month of Ramadan visiting mosques around America and documenting Muslim culture in the US. They've also guest-blogged individually and together for Boing Boing in the past. Bassam today sends word that with this year's incarnation of the project, they're trying to "curate some of the best and most powerful user uploaded photos during Ramadan from the world." Check it out: 30daysramadan.com. Read the rest

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