Smithsonian offers AI-generated resolutions for 2022

Coming up with a good set of New Year’s resolutions can be almost as tricky as sticking to the ones we made last year. But what good is living in the year 2022 — decidedly “the future”! — if we can’t turn to artificial intelligence to ease some of our burdens?

As it turns out, the Smithsonian has partnered with AI researcher Janelle Shane to create AI-generated resolutions. From MSN.com:

For the many of us who have not spent 2021 at the gym calling our mothers while planning our weekly soup-kitchen volunteer schedule, we know the insectoid life span such New Year’s resolutions can have.

 

So the Smithsonian has another idea for 2022: What if instead of relying on our own resolutions we asked an AI what it thinks we should do? Starting this weekend, the “Futures” exhibit both online and at its Arts and Industries Building offers a “Resolutions Generator,” an AI that makes suggestions on what commitments we should undertake for 2022. […]

 

“Change my name to one of my favorite shapes,” it suggests, or “Every Friday for a year I will wear a different hat.” And, “Every time I hear bells for a month, I will paint a potato.”

One of my favorites (I think I’ll adopt it for the year to come): “Treat every dog I meet like a celebrity.”

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The 13 Yule Lads of Icelandic Christmas folklore

Although Santa Claus is certainly the world’s best-known Christmastime gift-giver — thanks in no small part to the global influence of American culture and the advertising budget of The Coca-Cola Company — he is by no means the only such figure. European tradition and folklore is rife with precursors, side-kicks, companions, and parallels. (See, for example, Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, and Besnickel.) Many of these characters resemble St. Nick in form, function, or disposition: (typically bearded) magic men who dole out presents to well-behaved children and, at times, punishments to the naughty ones.

Yule Lads
Four men in costume as Yule Lads.

Icelandic folklore features its own unique cast of Christmas characters: the terrifying ogre Grýla and her husband Leppalúði, who feed on children and fish; the gigantic Yule Cat, a feline taller than the tallest houses that devours anyone caught without a new article of clothing at Christmas; and the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous elves who deliver tricks and treats at holiday time. Sometimes called the Yuletime-lads or Yulemen, the Lads are sons of Grýla and Leppalúði. Children place their shoes on windowsills each of the thirteen nights before Christmas, and one Lad visits per night, filling the shoes with either small gifts for well-behaved children or rotten potatoes for the naughty ones. According to the National Museum of Iceland, each Lad has his own distinct habits and personality, described vividly by his name. From Wikipedia:

Icelandic name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjarstaur Sheep-Cote Clod Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. 12 December 25 December
Giljagaur Gully Gawk Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. 13 December 26 December
Stúfur Stubby Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them. 14 December 27 December
Þvörusleikir Spoon-Licker Steals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition. 15 December 28 December
Pottaskefill Pot-Scraper Steals leftovers from pots 16 December 29 December
Askasleikir Bowl-Licker Hides under beds, waiting for someone to put down their askur (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals. 17 December 30 December
Hurðaskellir Door-Slammer Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up 18 December 31 December
Skyrgámur Skyr-Gobbler Has a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt) 19 December 1 January
Bjúgnakrækir Sausage-Swiper Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked 20 December 2 January
Gluggagægir Window-Peeper A snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal 21 December 3 January
Gáttaþefur Doorway-Sniffer Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð) 22 December 4 January
Ketkrókur Meat-Hook Uses a hook to steal meat 23 December 5 January
Kertasníkir Candle-Stealer Follows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible) 24 December 6 January

The only thing we’re missing is a catchy Rudolph-esque Yule Lad tune to help us remember them all.

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Chinese moon rover to investigate bizarre cube-shaped object

China’s Yutu-2 (“Jade Rabbit”) moon rover, the first to land on the far side of the moon, has been exploring the lunar surface since 2018. To date, the rover has been used to study the moon’s composition and interior structure. Now, it has been dispatched on a curious side quest: investigating a strange object spotted in the distance.

The mysterious “moon cube” spotted by China’s Yutu-2 moon rover.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

An intriguing cube-shaped object spotted on the far side of the moon has attracted the attention of scientists.

China’s Yutu 2 rover captured images of the mystery structure from around 260 feet away while navigating across the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the moon, reports Popular Science’s Margo Milanowski. Chinese scientists have already rerouted the rover to take a closer look, but it will take a few months for Yutu 2 to reach the bizarre lunar feature.

The shape was spotted on the horizon in November during the mission’s 36th lunar day, according to a Yutu 2 diary published by Our Space, a Chinese language science outreach channel affiliated with the China National Space Administration. Our Space first described the object in a post last week, temporarily dubbing it a “mystery hut” (神秘小屋/shenmi xiaowu).

Mysterious indeed. Of course, as Inverse reports, the object in question is almost certainly just a boulder.

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Tonight is Krampus Night

A vintage illustration of Krampus.
In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon,” who during the Christmas season punishes children who have misbehaved.

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, as you may be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back. The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. Young men in these parts traditionally dress up as Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening before the Feast of St. Nicholas, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampusnacht spirit — just be prepared for some weird looks if you’re not in Europe.

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Canada taps strategic maple syrup reserve

Metal buckets collect sap from maple trees in the early spring.

Shortages of everything from toilet paper to gasoline have roiled markets and panicked consumers since the start of the pandemic. While much-feared turkey shortages did not materialize to disrupt Thanksgiving, high gas prices — partly the result of an OPEC-led supply squeeze — recently prompted the Biden administration to release 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The latest shortage threatens to spoil breakfasts and brunches around the world: due to sub-optimal weather conditions in the spring which limited this year’s harvest, we face a maple syrup shortfall. NPR reports:

While high gas prices have pushed President Biden to tap into the US’s strategic oil reserves, America’s neighbor to the north is also dealing with a shortage of another so-called “liquid gold”.

The Canadian group Quebec Maple Syrup Producers recently announced it was releasing about 50 million pounds of its strategic maple syrup reserves — about half of the total stockpile. […]

This is a seasonal process though, as maple sap can only be harvested in specific weather conditions. So, this year’s short and warm Spring resulted in an uncharacteristically low yield for producers.

“That’s why the reserve is made, to never miss maple syrup. And we won’t miss maple syrup!” said Helene Normandin, the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers’ communications director.

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The forgotten witch burnings of Chicago

A backyard witch and other Halloween decorations adorn the yard at the Liebernman house on North Maplewood Avenue in Chicago in 1960. (Jack Mulcahy/Chicago Tribune)
A backyard witch and other Halloween decorations adorn the yard at the Liebernman house on North Maplewood Avenue in Chicago in 1960. (Jack Mulcahy/Chicago Tribune)

Ask an old-timer to recount the Chicago Halloweens of their youth, and they’ll likely describe all the familiar trappings: jack-o’-lanterns, bobbing for apples, candy and costumes for the younger children and mischief and alcohol and perhaps a bonfire or two for the older ones. But they may or may not also mention another peculiar tradition, one that you certainly wouldn’t expect to find in an urban environment like the Windy City and are not likely to see anywhere else, for that matter: witch burnings. Just as strange as the tradition itself is the fact that it is now almost entirely forgotten.

As a 2018 investigative retrospective in the Chicago Tribune reports:

Details are spotty, photos are tough to come by, but in many neighborhoods and suburbs around Chicago, from the early 1930s until the late 1980s (and later in some places), Halloween wasn’t Halloween without a witch burning. And yet today it’s a tradition so forgotten that local historians, folklorists and urban history professors were alternately repulsed and dumbfounded to learn it happened. Julia Sniderman Bachrach, former historian for the Chicago Park District, said: “Burning witches in Chicago parks? OK, now I’m thrown for a loop.”

No real witches were burned, of course — rather, people set fire to witch effigies, often made of papier-mache and stuffed straw, painted Wicked-Witch-of-the-West green. In some cases, the effigies themselves weren’t actually burned and instead were saved for reuse year after year (makeshift coffins, purportedly containing the witches, were incinerated instead). These witch burnings often served as the climax of a Halloween evening.

In Chicago, witch burnings centered on the south side; they could also be found in suburbs such as Schaumberg, Lisle, and Berwyn. The tradition appears to be unknown outside of the Chicagoland area, at least within the context of 20th century American Halloween celebrations. Some analogs (and, perhaps, precursors) persist overseas. For instance, Prague’s “Witches Night,” or Pálení carodejnic, burns witch effigies annually on April 30 to mark the end of winter. Similarly, November 5 sees Guy Fawkes effigies burnt across England to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

Chicago’s tradition began to decline in the 1980s. The Chicago Tribune suggests that around this time, activist Wiccan and pagan groups started to protest the practice. Willowbrook, for instance — a Chicago suburb — discontinued its Halloween witch burnings following testimony from members of a witches association at its village board meeting. (Others point out that the decline may relate to the racial turnover of neighborhoods: “I’m trying to find a polite way to put this — I would be surprised if burning witches would have gone over too well in those black communities.”) While some parts of the Chicago area saw witch burnings continue into the late 1990s, you would be hard pressed to find one anywhere today.

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Mysterious boom rattles New England

The autumn idylls of New England were disturbed recently by forces unknown. The New York Times reports:

A mysterious boom jolted New Hampshire and at least one adjoining state on Sunday morning, rattling homes, spooking pets and prompting several hundred amateur sleuths to go online to try to find out what possibly could have caused all the commotion.

So far, the source of the boom has confounded residents, many of whom speculated that it might have been an earthquake.

But an official at the National Earthquake Information Center, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey, said that none of the agency’s stations had found any evidence of an earthquake in all of New England during the past seven days.

Some residents wondered if a meteorite or an aircraft might be behind the mystery, one that generated some complaints next door in Massachusetts.

With earthquakes ruled out — the last quake recorded in the area was a magnitude 1.7 on August 22 — speculation abounds as to the noise’s source, with some hypothesizing that it may have been a military test of some kind. Others suggest the culprit may have been a small meteor exploding in the atmosphere. However,

[…] while a meteor is likely the cause, the only way to prove it is if someone saw it. Because it was overcast across much of the region Sunday morning, there might not be any evidence of a meteor.

Unless it happens again, the source of this sound may remain an October mystery.

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The tragedy and farce of Cleveland’s Balloonfest of ’86

Cleveland, Ohio is used to being the butt of jokes. Its famous burning river and the perennial underperformance of its football team have earned it widespread mockery and the enduring moniker “the mistake on the lake.” Once one of the nation’s five largest metros, Cleveland’s industry has bled offshore and its people have fled for suburbs and Southern climes, leaving behind a well-worn rustbelt emblem with an outsized set of legacy cultural institutions.

In 1986, movers and shakers at the United Way tried to shift this narrative with a single bold stroke. Their plan: break a Guinness world record by releasing more than one million balloons into the air as a fundraising gimmick, and show the world that Cleveland could be something more than a cheap punchline.

To do so, they contracted an LA-based balloon company that spent six months preparing for the event. A structure the size of a city block, covered with a mesh net, was set up to hold the balloons, which were filled in a single day by 2,500 volunteers. Altogether, more than 1.4 million balloons were inflated and launched into the air on September 27, 1986 — and truly, it was a sight to see.

Alas, Balloonfest ’86 was not the positive turning point Cleveland had hoped for. A simple principle had evaded the organizers: what goes up must come down. A cold front trapped the balloons close to the ground and forced many of them into the lake just offshore. The rest caused problems elsewhere: shutting down airports, clogging highways and waterways, littering the region with plastic and string. Horses in surrounding exurbs suffered “permanent injuries” when they were spooked by balloons landing in their pastures, prompting lawsuits and a payout from the event organizers. Most tragically, a Coast Guard search for two missing fishermen had to be called off due to the balloons; both men drowned. (This also prompted a lawsuit and subsequent settlement.)

Asked for comment on the event years later, the United Way said simply “we would not do a balloon launch ever again.”

You can watch a short documentary (7 minutes) about the Balloonfest incident below:

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The radioactive wild boar-pigs of Fukushima

A wild boar.
A wild boar.

In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1000 square miles of surrounding territory were evacuated of all inhabitants and left fallow ever since. Despite high levels of background radiation, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (as it is known) has become a thriving haven for wildlife (funny how big a difference the total absence of human beings can make!). After being off-limits to humans for more than thirty years, today the area is thickly forested and home to wildcats, deer, and bison, among other large mammals.

Something similar has happened in the area around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan after the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster. From the BBC:

“Once people were gone, the boar took over,” explains Donovan Anderson, a researcher at Fukushima University in Japan.

His genetic study of the wild boar that roam in an area largely abandoned after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster – has revealed how the animals have thrived.

Using DNA samples, he also discovered that boar have bred with domestic pigs that escaped from farms.

This has created wild pig-boar hybrids that now inhabit the zone.

Apparently, these boar pose such a nuisance that the Japanese government has contracted local hunters to cull them.

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U.S. government releases interim UFO report

At last, the moment we’ve been waiting for since last December’s COVID relief bill has arrived: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released its interim report on two decades of UFO sightings to Congress.

The New York Times reports:

A total of 143 reports gathered since 2004 remain unexplained, the document released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said. Of those, 21 reports of unknown phenomena, involving 18 episodes, possibly demonstrate technological capabilities that are unknown to the United States: objects moving without observable propulsion or with rapid acceleration that is believed to be beyond the capabilities of Russia, China or other terrestrial nations.

[…]

The nine-page document essentially declines to draw conclusions, announcing that the available reporting is “largely inconclusive” and noting that limited and inconsistent data created a challenge in evaluating the phenomena.

[…]

The government intends to update Congress within 90 days on efforts to develop an improved collection strategy and what officials are calling a technical road map to develop technology to better observe the phenomena, senior government officials told reporters on Friday.

While details are scant and the report’s authors decline to go out on any limbs, what’s especially interesting here are the things that aren’t ruled out. One line in particular stands out to me: “21 reports of unknown phenomena, involving 18 episodes, possibly demonstrate technological capabilities that are unknown to the United States: objects moving without observable propulsion or with rapid acceleration that is believed to be beyond the capabilities of Russia, China or other terrestrial nations.

You can read the unclassified report yourself here.

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Department of Defense UFO report expected as soon as tomorrow

In recent weeks, the world has been abuzz about a string of UFO sightings, footage drops, and surprising statements from sober and well-regarded public officials. Long the purview of crackpots, cultists, and the New Age movement, recent sightings are seemingly now being taken seriously by the government and mainstream press alike.

For instance, the following footage, which depicts an unidentified triangular craft spotted by a U.S. Navy vessel, aired on NBC news last month:

Similarly, this segment appeared on the May 16 broadcast of 60 Minutes:


Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) published a New York Times op-ed in which he described his visits to Area 51 as well as a clandestine Pentagon operation, called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which investigated reports of UFOs and similar phenomena involving American military personnel. The conclusions Reid shares are equivocal, but intriguing:

What have I personally learned from official investigations into unidentified aerial phenomena so far? The truth, disappointing as it may be, is that there’s still a great deal we don’t understand. It’s unclear whether the U.F.O.s we have encountered could have been built by foreign adversaries, whether our pilots’ visual perception during some encounters was somehow distorted, or whether we truly have credible evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.

Even former President Barack Obama commented on UFOs in a recent interview: “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” he said.

Apparently, we should prepare ourselves for further disclosures, thanks to an upcoming report. Writes New York Magazine:

One of the many curiosities packed into the $2.3 trillion omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief package passed by Congress in December was a stipulation requiring the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to deliver an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects to Congress within six months, compiling what the government knows about UFOs rocketing around over American airspace.

The report — which comes after a slow, four-year drip of reporting and government admissions on UFO sightings — could be delivered to Congress as early as June 1. Regardless of what’s in it, the release will be the most direct and substantive U.S. government account of what officials call unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) ever made public.

Whatever the report describes, it is sure to be pretty interesting.

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The mystery of the Wanggongchang Explosion

Ancient Chinese figures regard a small gunpowder explosion.
Ancient Chinese figures regard a small gunpowder explosion.

In the spring of 1626, during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor — the last ruler of the Ming dynasty — a catastrophic explosion devastated Beijing. As many as 20,000 people were reportedly killed, and entire square miles of the city were completely obliterated. Yet despite the large scale of destruction, and the generally meticulous recordkeeping of the imperial court, the cause and nature of the explosion are still subject to fevered speculation. Some even suggest that it never actually occurred at all.

The earliest account of the event appears in an official gazette (dibao) from the summer of 1626, reprinted later under the title “Official Report on a Heavenly Incident” (see Feng 2020):

When the sky was bright and clear, there was a sound like a roar from the northeast to the southwest corner of the capital, and the ashes rose and the houses were uprooted. In a moment there was a great earthquake, and the sky and the earth collapsed, and it was dark as night. From Shunchengmen in the east to Jinbu in the north, three to four miles in length, the surrounding area was destroyed, affecting tens of thousands of homes and people. The area around Wang Gong’s factory is completely devastated, with pieces of corpses everywhere, a suffocating smell filling the air, and rubble falling from the sky, confusing the vision. It is difficult to describe this heartbreaking sight. The roar of the explosion was heard from Hexiwu in the south, in Tongzhou in the east, in Miyun, and Changping in the north.1

Feng (2020, p. 74) notes two ways that this report differs from “conventional” gazettes:

The first is that it includes no reference to imperial edicts or court memorials; instead, it features copious entries describing how people, including the emperor and officials, suffered from the catastrophic explosion. Second, the text delineates an extensive array of abnormal and uncanny scenes that occurred in multiple locations across Beijing, conveying an atmosphere of panic in the capital. These elaborate narratives of “strangeness” stand in sharp contrast to the typically terse accounts of disasters in other gazettes.

Setting aside these reports, the simplest explanation for the explosion is not so strange at all: an accidental ignition of stores at the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop (Wanggongchang). Indeed, the Wanggongchang Armory, which produced nearly two tons of gunpowder per week2, was located near the epicenter of the blast. Yet while this account might seem to accord with the principle of Occam’s Razor, some argue that the details don’t add up. In particular, analysis suggests that the destruction described in contemporary records would have required explosive force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than even the largest plausible stockpiles of black powder could produce.3 Others contend that specific elements of the official narrative (a “roaring rumble” from the northeast, a bright streak of light, mushroom-shaped clouds) are inconsistent with a gunpowder explosion.

Alternative explanations abound. A 1986 conference in Beijing

explored all the possible causes of the incident from a spontaneous explosion of black powder to a natural gas leak, and the more far-fetched theories of meteorites, hidden volcanoes, and an underground nuclear discharge. The conference participants ultimately concluded that an earthquake resulted in a release of gasses at the site which ignited a massive explosion and firestorm which destroyed the area.

Other more “outlandish” theories, Jeremiah Jenne notes, “have implicated supernatural forces and even an interplanetary nuclear strike on Beijing.”

The reality may be far more mundane than any of the above. Feng (2020) argues that historical accounts of the explosion immediately sought to “politicize” it. In fact, the Tianqi Emperor was not a popular figure. He was, as Jenne recounts, “an odd young man, more comfortable in a carpenter’s shop than reading documents. […] Power devolved to his mother and the eunuchs, in particular, the infamous Wei Zhongxian, one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history.” Along these lines, Feng suggests that “the ‘Official Report’ emphasizes the strangeness of the explosion in a manner that subtly aims to provoke the audience’s suspicion of the eunuch faction.” Perhaps the real story, then, is one of exaggeration for political effect — an industrial explosion embellished and distorted to tar a distrusted group.

 

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