• Law enforcement busts $31 million counterfeit coupon scheme

    A Virginia mother of three named Lori Ann Talens worked from a desktop computer in her Virginia home, attracting little attention. Few people knew that she was running one of the largest fraudulent coupon schemes in history. For over three years, Ms. Talens created fake coupons and sold them to coupon enthusiasts via social media or messaging apps. Now, the jig is up.

    Ms. Talens, 41, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Tuesday for operating what prosecutors called "one of the largest coupon fraud schemes" in U.S. history, saying it cost retailers and manufacturers more than $31 million in losses.

    From April 2017 to May 2020, Ms. Talens used the moniker "MasterChef" to design, create and produce a variety of counterfeit coupons in her home, prosecutors said. The fakes, they said, were extremely believable.

    "These counterfeit coupons were virtually indistinguishable from authentic coupons and were often created with inflated values, far in excess of what an authentic coupon would offer, in order to receive items from retail for free or for a greatly reduced price," Joseph L. Kosky, an assistant U.S. attorney, wrote in court documents.

    In addition to mail fraud, Ms. Talens also pleaded guilty to wire fraud and health care fraud that stemmed from a separate scheme that involved defrauding Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from November 2015 to February 2020.

    Johnny Diaz for The New York Times
  • #VanLife influencer disappears and boyfriend refuses to talk to police

    Two people left on a trip but only one came home. Over the past few days, I've been absolutely captivated by this #VanLife-gone-wrong saga.

    Pleasant photos of hikes, scenery, and a small white van fill the Instagram grids posted by Brian Laundrie, 23, and his girlfriend, Gabrielle Petito, 22. They now have over 95,000 and 324,000 followers respectively. Beneath the surface, though, an ugly story was developing.

    Here's an approximate timeline: the couple left on July 2nd for what was supposed to be a four-month trip through the American West. On August 12th in Moah, Utah, police responded to domestic problem.

    Mr. Laundrie and Ms. Petito both told the police that they were in love and engaged to be married and "desperately didn't wish to see anyone charged with a crime."

    Mr. Laundrie told one officer that "issues between the two had been building over the last few days," a police report said.

    Ms. Petito cried during the encounter with the police and said she suffered from anxiety, according to body camera footage of the episode. In the police report, Ms. Petito is recorded saying she moved to slap Mr. Laundrie because she feared that he "was going to leave her in Moab without a ride."

    The New York Times

    No charges were filed, and Mr. Laundrie stayed in a hotel that night. Eleven days later, around August 23rd, Ms. Petito's family spoke with her for the last time. The last post on her Instagram is dated two days later.

    In one of the more unusual details of the case, Fox News reports that Ms. Petito listened to "a series of haunting songs" on September 1st according to her public Spotify records.

    In September, the story becomes more concerning. Mr. Laundrie came home from a cross-country trip on September 1 without his girlfriend. Gabrielle Petito's family became suspicious, and when they recieve answers from Mr. Laundrie, they reported her missing on Sept. 11th. Gabrielle Petito's family is now publically asking Brian Laundrie for answers.

    In a letter, Ms. Petito's parents and stepparents begged Mr. Laundrie's parents to tell them "where Brian left Gabby."

    The New York Times

    Though the incident has attracted widespread attention, Mr. Laundrie is still clammed up regarding Ms. Petito's location. His lawyer, however, made a brief public statement.

    On Wednesday, Steven Bertolino, a lawyer for Mr. Laundrie in East Islip, N.Y., said in a statement that he had advised Mr. Laundrie not to speak with the authorities because, in his experience, an intimate partner is often the first person law enforcement "focuses their attention on in cases like this."

    The New York Times

    This 8-minute vlog shows a gleaming portrait of the couple's day-to-day life before Ms. Petito's disappearance.

  • Microsoft doesn't require passwords anymore

    Microsoft users might be able to throw away the sticky note taped to their laptop: the company introduced a new option to delete password authentication.

    Microsoft uses its authenticator app, fingerprint/facial recognition, and SMS/email verification codes to verify accounts— which may be more secure than using "soccerlover123" or "Mychemicalromance1998!" yet again. In a world where many people still don't use password managers, Microsoft's decision makes sense.

    "The benefits of passwordless authentication are very clear. Most people create their own passwords, and it's often a challenge to create something that's secure and memorable without relying on a password manager. People often reuse their passwords, too, allowing attackers to quickly log into a variety of compromised accounts after a particular organization is targeted and passwords are dumped.

    Google, Apple, and others are also working toward less reliance on passwords. Google Chrome lets you sign in without a password, and Apple's iOS 15 and macOS Monterey updates include a Passkeys in iCloud Keychain feature, an attempt to replace passwords with a more secure login process."

    Tom Warren for The Verge
  • Beware of "beaning," a trend where teens pour baked beans on doorsteps

    Bizarre teen social media challenges are nothing new (recall the cinnamon challenge, Beezin', the Kylie Jenner lip challenge, the condom challenge, Tide Pod challenge, and more). A new one, "beaning," concerned the West Yorkshire police enough that they issued a warning to shopkeepers and parents.

    In the "beaning" trend, tricky kids dump cans of baked beans on doorsteps and spread the contents around. Then, they upload a video of the stunt to social media (here's one example, and here's another). Like the decades-old practices of toilet-papering and egging houses, the trend seems to accomplish little more than waste perfectly good things and inconvenience neighbors.

    "The craze has proven to be popular with over 1.2m views under the hashtag "#beanbandits", where kids show off their bean-based pranks.

    Though it's not just doorsteps that are being "beaned" – even driveways, front doors and cars are not safe.

    In a statement, reported by the Yorkshire Post, PCSO Michelle Owens said: "It has come to the attention of the police that a new trend has started by groups of youths called 'beaning'."

    Sinead Butler for Indy 500
  • Cross your fingers: the world's largest container ship heads for the Suez Canal

    In one of 2021's many odd plot twists, container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week in March, creating a traffic jam of hundreds of vessels— and a major disruption in global trade.

    Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself. A brand new, even bigger ship, Ever Ace, will head through the canal in the coming days. While the ill-fated Ever Given held 20,124 cargo units, Insider reports that the new ship, Ever Ace, can hold 23,992 units. It will be the largest container ship to go through the Suez.

    According to American Bureau of Shipping records, the two ships are the same length, but the Ever Ace is wider and deeper. The Ever Given is 192.9 feet wide, slightly narrower than the Ever Ace's 201.7 feet. The Ever Given has a draught, or depth, of 52.4 feet in comparison with the Ever Ace's 54.1 feet.

    Cheryl Teh for Insider

    What's with all the "Ever" names? Taiwanese company Evergreen follows an "Ever" + "G-word" naming convention. Its 20-ship fleet contains ships with names like Ever Gentle, Ever Gleamy, Ever Genius, and Ever Going.

  • Docuseries LuLaRich exposes the predatory, pyramid scheme-like practices of a multi-level marketing company

    The makers of Hulu's Fyre documentary expose a new scammy subject: multi-level marketing. LuLaRoe sells stretchy patterned clothing, but their main business is selling a dream of financial freedom to new sellers. According to The Guardian, the company allegedly makes money "through the unsustainable recruitment of new members." Like many other MLMs, the company sends messages to people— often women, often mothers looking for extra cash— that selling LuLaRoe can turn them "boss babe" and offer them "part-time work for full time pay." For many sellers, that empty promise had devestating consequences. Buy-in costs could be ten thousand dollars, sales quotas could be unsustainable, and while some people succeeded, many found themselves in a financial nightmare.

    "By the end of 2016, what had started in 2012 as a homespun business selling maxi skirts out of the trunk of a car by two Mormon grandmothers had reached over $1.3bn in sales with over 60,000 consultants – and faced lawsuits alleging that LuLaRoe founders Mark and DeAnne Stidham misled retailers and ran a pyramid scheme."

    The Guardian

    LuLaRoe suffered from very public turmoil in 2017, and though the company has been decimated by lawsuits, it still exists, and it still has some engaged sellers— some of whom left negative reviews on the docuseries. Ex-LuLaRoe seller Roberta Blevins, who was featured in "LuLaRich," read some of the one-star reviews on her Instagram.

    "She then turned to the company's 2020 numbers, which show, she says, that "50% of the company made less than $5,000 in the year.'"

    Variety

    Now streaming on Amazon Prime.

  • Here's how Jeopardy wizard Matt Amodio got so good at trivia

    Matt Amodio is a Yale Computer Science PhD student and when he's not working, he gets lost in Wikipedia. Amodio's episodes are airing now, and he's currently ranked third for most consecutive episodes won: twenty-one. He trails only Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer. When asked how he became so knowledgeable about so many different topics, Amodio responded to USA Today with this quote:

    "I like to read. I think that you can't do it without reading. So on a regular basis, I just fall into a rabbit hole of Wikipedia links, (and) every article opens up 20 more things that I have questions about it. This is just how how I spend my day, or my nights when I'm done working. I did change one thing for preparation for the show, though, because I don't necessarily find culture to be super-interesting. I'm a historian at heart and I like learning about culture maybe 40 years, 50 years later. I like looking at it in the rearview mirror."

    If you're feeling inspired, dive into some of my favorite, most addicting articles: List of cognitive biases, Sex in space, List of common misconceptions, Bushism, or Animal locomotion (imagine if we had evolved wheels!).

  • Amid soaring Pokémon and Lego prices, thieves pull off a toy heist

    Gotta catch 'em all! On September 10th, a group of thieves crashed a white van into a Dutch toy store and made off with an unknown quantity of goods. Pokémon and Lego, which have cult followings among kids and collectors alike, have become increasingly valuable. Some Pokemon cards can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    "According to a press release from Dutch police, the ram raid occurred at 9:30 PM local time Friday and targeted a branch of the Dutch toy store chain Intertoys in Voorburg, a town of 40,000 in the southwest of the Netherlands. 

    Police, including a helicopter, chased after a white van only to later find out it was the wrong vehicle. Later in the night, they found the actual suspected van abandoned on a street in The Hague, a nearby city. 

    The manager of the store told Dutch media that the thieves were out for the store's Pokémon and Lego collection."

    Gabriel Geiger for Vice
  • Academics rush to correct rapper Nicki Minaj's claims that a vaccine caused her "cousin's friend" to become impotent

    Nicki Minaj came to Twitter to share a questionable story about "her cousin's friend" who became impotent after receiving the Covid vaccine. Some of her 22 million followers, including experts, immediately responded with offers to help Minaj learn about the vaccine, which does not cause male infertility or erectile dysfunction.

    Various board-certified urologists suggest that Minaj's cousin's friend may be experiencing symptoms of an STI, and other people suggested Minaj consider the differences between correlation and causation.

    Dr. Raven the Science Maven, a science communicator with a 2021 Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, responded with a vaccine rap that she made for a former student.

    From experience, stories about "cousin's friends" may not always contain accurate information. Still, I wish Nicki's cousin's friend the best with both his genital and marital problems, and I urge everyone to please get vaccinated!

  • Plant-based meat company vandalizes the bacon Wikipedia article

    A British company called This makes plant-based meat alternatives. They also vandalize Wikipedia to promote their products.

    On August 26th, a now-blocked Wikipedia user called "This Isn't Bacon" removed the first three photos in Wikipedia's "Bacon" article and replaced them with photos of what appears to be the company product. Wikipedia is not a billboard, and editors quickly reverted the company's changes. However, on September 10th, User:This Isn't Bacon undid the changes. According to the revision history, the second vandalism attempt was only up for 24 minutes.

    The company took to social media to show off its edits. In a LinkedIn post, Co-founder Andy Shovel posted a screenshot of the changes with the caption "I wonder how long we'll get away with this." The company shared the stunt on its Instagram page, too; the caption gloats "THIS™ Isn't Bacon".

    This isn't the first company to use the online encyclopedia for brand promotion. In 2019, North Face changed high-traffic Wikipedia images to subtly show North Face products. The move caused the brand to face scrutiny from both the public and The Wikimedia Foundation. The New York Times:

    "But, in its statement, Wikipedia likened the campaign to defacing public property: 'They have risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.'"

    I'm all for creative promos, and I like alternative meat, but unethically manipulating Wikipedia is not the way to go.

  • An interview with The Onion editors about the pitch-perfect 9/11 edition

    After the attacks of 9/11, comedy paused and The Onion questioned the place of comedy in such a somber moment. After much discussion, the editors put together an issue focused on the attacks which tapped the pulse of the nation and became a piece of comedy history. In this long interview from 2020, the former editors discuss their Midwestern origins, their experiences on 9/11, and their thought process behind the iconic headlines.

    "It was a precarious time in comedy, with many humorists having yet to return and guys like Letterman and Jon Stewart deciding to play it straight instead of crack a joke. But in their first issue back, The Onion did what it always did — it told jokes. With headlines like "Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie" and "Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake," The Onion found the pitch-perfect way to approach humor in a very sensitive time. Now, nearly 20 years later, the issue is widely considered to be an important part of comedy history — even an important part of the broader cultural history surrounding 9/11."

    An Oral History of the Onion's 9/11 Issue

    The headlines in that historic issue honored the tragedy while providing a lighthearted reflection of the many feelings of Americans. Some of them are here:

    • "U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With"
    • "Hugging Up 76,000 Percent"
    • "Rest Of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection For New York"
    • "Holy Fucking Shit: Attack On America"

  • Just the recipe: services hide life stories and popups from food blogs

    The world of independent food blogs frequently asks us to wade through thousand-word preambles. When scanning for recipes that work with our preferences and food sensitivities, we don't need to know about your unique delight in Asian greens or the trip to Tuscany that forever changed your culinary philosophy. Sometimes, artsy in-progress photos scattered through the recipe make the instructions even harder to follow. Home chefs may struggle to scroll on their laptops when their hands are covered in batter.

    The reason for the wordiness probably boils down to ad revenue and SEO optimization: unique words boost a sites' position in search results. Ultimately, we get what we pay for when we're using free food blogs. While we feed our families, maybe we should acknowledge that food bloggers need to feed theirs. Blogger Deb Perelman responded to headnote-haters in a Twitter thread that defended the practice. "Congratulations, you've found a new, not particularly original, way to say 'shut up and cook,'" she wrote.

    Still, several services have emerged to skip right to the recipe, some better than others. Short-lived Recipeasy shut down after complaints that it breached copyright and ripped off writers (previously). Here are two that are still in existence.

    1. Chrome extension "Recipe Filter"
    2. Website justtherecipe.com takes a URL and formats a recipe to fit on one screen (no scrolling necesary)

    For anyone interested in the Maple Shortbread Bars recipe that opens with "Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001", it's here (and it looks really good!).

  • I love Weeklypedia, a newsletter of Wikipedia's most-edited articles

    Each Friday, I get an email of the most edited Wikipedia pages and most active discussions. It's an interesting way to reflect on the news ("Oh right, that happened this week") and keep up with Wikipedia editing developments.

    The automated newsletter is called "Weeklypedia" and it's part of Hatnote, an organization formed by Mahmoud Hashemi and Stephen LaPorte to make projects with Wikipedia data. The Wikipedia-data-duo was previously highlighted on Boing Boing for their "Listen to Wikipedia" project.

    "As much as one might like Wikipedia, it moves so quickly that it can be hard to track when major editing events occur. Email digests are a common solution to this problem, and are more relevant than ever.

    The Weeklypedia is an aptly-named weekly summary of the most edited Wikipedia articles, available in 15+ languages. Skimming an issue only takes a couple minutes and can yield surprising results. The data used to generate The Weeklypedia is also available. Monitoring is achieved with cronfed."

    Mahmoud Hashemi, co-creator of Hatnote

    The email contains the most edited articles, the most active discussions, and the most edited new articles (created in the last week.) Here's a sample from last week's email:

    "The ten most actively edited articles created within the last week:

    1. 2021 Guinean coup d'état (239 changes by 97 authors)
    2. Mohammad Hassan Akhund (237 changes by 54 authors)
    3. Canon law of the Eastern Orthodox Church (168 changes by 8 authors)
    4. Mamady Doumbouya (150 changes by 56 authors)
    5. Scottish Women's Amateur Championship (122 changes by 1 authors)
    6. Pedimental sculptures in Canada (109 changes by 9 authors)
    7. 2021 Guerrero earthquake (104 changes by 24 authors)
    8. Tangerang prison fire (104 changes by 34 authors)
    9. Ahamed Samsudeen (100 changes by 29 authors)
    10. Flora Cheung (97 changes by 9 authors)"
  • A company that aims to revive the woolly mammoth raised $15 million

    A group of scientists and entrepreneurs have formed a company named Colossal which aims to bring mammoths back to Siberia. The animals have been extinct for thousands of years, but fragments of DNA have been preserved in fossils. The idea of reviving the species has been discussed before, but Colossal brings fresh funding to the project. The team believes they can produce mammoth-like elephants by editing elephant DNA, "adding genes for mammoth traits like dense hair and thick fat for withstanding cold." It's quite a mammoth undertaking.

    Why pour millions of dollars to revive an extinct species? Dr. George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School and Colossal, believes the animals may play an important role in a rapidly-changing ecosystem.

    "Beyond scientific curiosity, he argued, revived woolly mammoths could help the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America where the animals once grazed is rapidly warming and releasing carbon dioxide. "Mammoths are hypothetically a solution to this," Dr. Church argued in his talk.

    Today the tundra is dominated by moss. But when woolly mammoths were around, it was largely grassland. Some researchers have argued that woolly mammoths were ecosystem engineers, maintaining the grasslands by breaking up moss, knocking down trees and providing fertilizer with their droppings."

    Via The New York Times

    However, the scientific endeavor led by tech entrepreneurs has raised some eyebrows.

    "Not all scientists suspect that creating mammoth-like animals in the lab is the most effective way to restore the tundra. 'My personal thinking is that the justifications given – the idea that you could geoengineer the Arctic environment using a heard of mammoths – isn't plausible,' said Dr Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum."

    Via The Guardian

    Personally, I think that Colossal should do dinosaurs next— and then make a theme park. What could go wrong?

  • The key to a "runner's high" is marijuana, according to a new book

    Journalist Josiah Hesse wrote "Runner's High: How a Movement of Cannabis-Fueled Athletes Is Changing the Science of Sports." In the book, he argues that cannabis is changing the sport of distance running.

    "The 39-year-old journalist contends that pot makes for a more focused and relaxed athlete, creating a positive-feedback loop around exercise that can lead to improved performance.

    The thorny subject of athletes and pot took center stage this summer before the Tokyo Olympics, when Sha'Carri Richardson was suspended from the U.S. track and field team after testing positive for the banned substance."

    Wall Street Journal

    "Any endurance runner will tell you, there's a kind of hypnotic, meditative state you get into after a certain distance, there's a rhythm and deep focus on your body. That's something that cannabis also provides and harmonizes with very well. What I hear from athletes is that it gives them a dialed-in mind-set where everything else disappears. They often can enter a more playful, present state."

    Josiah Hesse in interview with The Wall Street Journal
  • Feels like a Tuesday: research explains why days "feel" certain ways

    The seven-day week originated in Mesopotamia among the Babylonians, and it has stuck around for millennia. However, it's not inherently special. Egyptians once used a ten-day week, and Romans used an eight-day week before officially adopting a seven-day week in AD 321.

    Still, the seven-day week is so ingrained that we may notice how days "feel." I was recently caught off guard by a productive "Tuesday", realizing halfway through the day that it was actually Monday. Recent research shows that a big player in the psychology of weeks is a tendency to take risks.

    "Across a range of studies, we have found that response to risk changes systematically through the week. Specifically, willingness to take risks decreases from Monday to Thursday and rebounds on Friday. The surprising implication is that the outcome of a decision can depend on the day of the week on which it is taken."

    Dr. Rob Jenkins for The British Academy

    The article discusses the implications that weekly risk fluctuation may have on elections. Because the UK holds elections on Thursdays, the most risk-averse day, are voters more likely to support causes they deem comfortable and safe?

    "The Scottish Independence and Brexit referendums were also held on Thursdays. The core message of the Brexit campaign – "Take back control" – was a direct appeal to risk aversion, and the opinion poll data show that support for Brexit was strongest on Thursdays. Our analyses show that the outcomes might have been different had they been held on Fridays."

    Dr. Rob Jenkins for The British Academy
  • Minnesota State Fair's butter sculptor retires after 50-year run

    Sculptor Linda Christensen, 79, has spent half a century carving faces into large lumps of butter. The sculptures, which are created in front of an audience of fairgoers, are modeled after winners of The Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant. Each butter bust can take six hours to finish, and some pageant winners keep butter likenesses for decades. Other winners melt the sculptures down and use the butter for cooking– one even held a community pancake breakfast.

    "Butter Sculptures of the Dairy Princesses" by amy_elizabeth_west is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    "Now, after churning out more than 500 princess butter heads over nearly five decades, Christensen has decided to retire her knife. She turned her last 90-pound block into a creamy masterpiece at the fairgrounds last month from her glass-enclosed studio.

    She's turning over her knife to Gerry Kulzer, an art teacher from Litchfield, Minn., who was chosen as her successor."

    Kathy Free for The Washington Post
  • "Sexy primes" are prime numbers that differ by six

    Man, is it me, or is it getting hot in here? There's a Wikipedia page about "sexy primes," a particularly silly topic within recreational number theory. Sexy primes are are pairs of prime numbers that differ by 6, such as (5,11), (7,13), (11,17), (13,19), and (17,23).

    "The term 'sexy prime' is a pun stemming from the Latin word for six: sex."

    "As of October 2019, the largest-known pair of sexy primes was found by P. Kaiser and has 50,539 digits. The primes are:p = (520461 × 255931+1) × (98569639289 × (520461 × 255931-1)2-3)-1p+6 = (520461 × 255931+1) × (98569639289 × (520461 × 255931-1)2-3)+5"

    Wikipedia, Sexy prime

    There are also sexy prime triplets (such as 7, 13, 19), sexy prime quadruplets (like 5, 11, 17, 23), and only one sexy prime quintuplet: 5, 11, 17, 23, 29.

    Whether sexy primes are a legitimate topic of study or a goofy math joke, they point to mathematicians' long-time fascination with prime numbers. Great mathematician Leonhard Euler once wrote, "Mathematicians have tried in vain to this day to discover some order in the sequence of prime numbers, and we have reason to believe that it is a mystery into which the human mind will never penetrate."

  • There was once a "Miss Subways" beauty contest that displayed its winners on the NYC subway

    The New York Subways Advertising Company ran a beauty contest between 1941 and 1976 for transit-inclined young women. To qualify, a woman had to be a New York City resident and herself use the subway. Winners were displayed inside subway cars, and a 1957 New York Times article estimated the photos were viewed by 5.9 million people every day.

    "Unlike Miss America, these queens represented the full spectrum of their constituency, mainly Irish, Italian, Latina and Jewish. The first black winner reigned on the trains in 1947 (36 years before a black Miss America), the first Asian in 1949." Thelma Potter, who was studying at Brooklyn College at the time, was the first black Miss Subways. Potter stated, 'It was progressive. … It stirred things up a bit.'"

    Wikipedia page Miss Subways