5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 1/30

Sixth-century plague, steroids to chemists, On the Road as a set of directions, media archaeology, and how to sell a viral Facebook page.
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1. Someone died in the sixth century. More than 1,400 years later, a scientist discovers the body and sequences the DNA of the organism that killed the person.

"Scientists have reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of bacteria that caused one of the most deadly pandemics in history nearly 1,500 years ago.

They did it by finding the skeletons of people killed by the plague and extracting DNA from traces of blood inside their teeth.

This plague struck in the year 541, under the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, so it's usually called the Justinian plague. The emperor actually got sick himself but recovered. He was one of the lucky ones."

 

2. The story of THG, the steroid that brought down Barry Bonds, from the perspective of chemists

"A steroid called gestrinone, on the other hand, was commercially available. It was originally devised, in 1974, as a contraceptive steroid. It has an alkynyl group – containing a carbon-carbon triple bond – attached at carbon 17. Arnold realised that converting the alkyne group to an alkyl group would make gestrinone into a carbon-17 alkylated steroid, likely to have real anabolic properties. It would just require the addition of four hydrogen atoms to turn the gestrinone molecule into tetrahydrogestrinone. To a skilled organic chemist like Arnold, this was easy, it just needed the reaction of hydrogen gas in the presence of a catalyst, and it was turned into THG. Once this had been done, THG was ready to be used. It is the presence of the alkyl group at carbon-17 that enables it to make stronger van der Waals' contacts with the human androgenic receptor than do the other steroids, and that is why it has such strong androgenic properties, as well as its anabolic effects."

 

3. An arch interpretation of what On the Road was about.

"The exact and approximate spots Kerouac traveled and described are taken from the book and parsed by Google Direction Service API. The result is a huge direction instruction of 45 pages. The chapters match the ones of the original book."

 

Media Archaeology Lab

4. Lori Emerson's Media Archaeology Lab at UC Boulder

"The MAL – which is the largest of its kind in North America – is a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using obsolete tools, hardware, software and platforms, from the past. The MAL is propelled equally by the need to both preserve and maintain access to historically important media of all kinds – from magic lanterns, projectors, typewriters to personal computers from the 1970s through the 1990s – as well as early works of digital literature/art which were created on the outdated hardware/software housed in the lab."

+ Emerson highlighted the book Artyping, which became the springboard for my romp through typewriter art history. (Which is also the reason your newsletter is late.)

 

5. The Facebook page "Dont Touch My Hair, Face, or Phone" accumulated 8 million likes flogging the idea people shouldn't touch your hair, face, or phone. Now, it appears to be operated by a London online retailer. What happened? 

"And for most of July, the page left hair, face and phone unguarded while commencing on an Awesome Inventions shopping frenzy — “Water Fountain Sink! LED Slippers! Message In A Bottle USB! Superman Ice Cubes!!” 

But rather than flagging these posts as spam, a sizable number of the page’s followers accepted the new direction, tagging their friends and sharing each post. A post touting a “Mug with Biscuit Pocket!“, for example, garnered 5,565 likes. Yesterday’s New York Times obit of Pete Seeger, by comparison, earned just shy of 1,700 likes.

Building this sort of audience through Facebook ads would cost a fortune, far beyond the budget of a modest online store. Enter the black market. Popular Facebook pages can be sold in a fairly simple process. The original page administrator receives payment off the Facebook platform and in exchange, adds the buyer as an admin on the page. With admin privileges, the buyer is able to post whatever they’d like, leaving the original audience none the wiser.

On forums like Black Hat World, Facebook pages are openly bought and sold. Sites like FameSwap are even more shameless about it, offering potential buyers a choice of subject area and more detailed statistics to guide their purchase. Sometimes buyers don’t use an external site at all, opting to simply reach out to a page’s admin to make an offer."

 

Today's 1957 English Language Tip:

anagram. (Lit.): 'rewriting.' A shuffling of the letters of a word or phrase resulting in a significant combination. Bunyan tells his readers that John Bunyan anagram'd makes nu hony in a B (new honey in a bee). Anagrammatize(d) is the usual verb, but the now obs. anagram'd is less cumbersome.

By this logic, Instagrammatize would have been the most likely verb, if the app had come out in 1957.

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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