Hi everyone! Mathew Ingram here. Before we begin, I realize that the "year-end round-up" newsletter has become so ubiquitous that you may have no room in your life for another one. But the round-up has become a time-tested tradition in the media business for some pretty compelling reasons – for one, the period between Christmas and New Year's is kind of a dead zone, and round-ups are relatively easy to pull together when you are a) understaffed, b) tired c) hungover d) lacking in motivation or e) all of the above.
I am not immune to these kinds of pressures myself, I confess. But on top of that, I also find it kind of fascinating to look at which of the links I include here get the most clicks. That's why when I started this newsletter, I also installed an open-source link-shortening service called Yourls, which lets me create custom links for the articles I share. It comes with built-in analytics that track the clicks on those links, in much the same way Twitter and other services do. I don't really do anything with this information – I don't sell it to advertisers, or pick different links to include based on whether they might get more clicks (at least not consciously). I just find it interesting! And maybe you will too.
This sample is obviously weighted with respect to time, in that the links I included in early versions of the newsletter have had time to accumulate more clicks. But I'm not sure how many people go back and look at previous versions of the newsletter, so it's hard to say how much of an impact that has. Anyway, without further ado, here are the 10 most popular links since January, 2023:
1) How Johnny Cash informed America of Joseph Stalin's death – 1,615 clicks
Far Out magazine wrote about how a young Staff Sergeant in the US Army named John Cash was working late at night on a base in West Germany in 1953 when a message came through in Morse code about the health of Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator. Cash continued monitoring the telegraph until he got a message that Stalin had passed away, which he passed on to his Army superiors, and from there the message made its way to President Dwight Eisenhower.
2) Historic 6666 ranch gets the perfect steward – 1,235 clicks
Texas Monthly wrote about how Taylor Sheridan, the former actor turned producer who created Yellowstone and several other popular Western-based TV shows, was part of a group of acquirers who bought the legendary 6666 ranch in Texas for $370 million. The ranch totals more than over 266,000 acres – larger than San Antonio, nearly twice the size of Chicago, and about six times the size of Brooklyn (but still only the ninth-largest ranch in the state).
3) The year Ian Fleming finally started writing his first novel – 1,216 clicks
Crime Reads wrote about how Ian Fleming wrote his first novel not for the joy of creating, but as a way to avoid reality. He was forty-three years old and troubled by thoughts of the future. On the surface, his life looked idyllic, but Fleming was depressed and drinking heavily. His fiancée, Ann, was pregnant with his child, but this didn’t mean that he wanted to be married to her. He began writing, he later admitted, to take his mind off the ‘hideous spectre of matrimony’.
4) Artist or artifice: Who is Adam Himebauch? – 1,137 clicks
The New York Times wrote about the artist Adam Himebauch, who through a digital performance and gallery show has meticulously created the persona of an older, acclaimed artist who rose to fame through the 1970s and 80s. Is it a hoax, or an art performance? Or a little of both? His gallery exhibit “Back to the Future” puts the art in artifice. The art is real — certainly, the brushstrokes on the canvases are his own. And his name, Adam Himebauch, isn’t a pseudonym. But the facts of his career are fuzzy, the timeline fabricated.
5) The ingenious ways people in prison use (forbidden) cell phones – 1,030 clicks
The Marshall Project wrote about what prisoners do with cellphones, which they acquire through a variety of questionable methods. Some use them to self-publish books or take online college classes. Others become prison reform advocates, teach computer skills, trade bitcoin or write legal briefs. Although some jails and prisons have allowed prisoners to have cell phones, since most don’t, there are major risks to having illicit electronics. Getting caught with a contraband phone can result in losing privileges, spending months in solitary confinement or catching a new criminal charge.
6) I sold my wife's clothes to build a Christmas village – 1,024 clicks
A man wrote for Walrus magazine about how he sold his (and his wife's) belongings in order to raise enough money to build a massive, scale-model Christmas village in his parents' basement. "My wife doesn’t realize that I’ve been selling articles of her clothing for the past three years. We’ve been living together for only two. 'Where’d that striped top go?' she asked once. I feigned ignorance and then inconspicuously checked our Kijiji account to make sure I’d deleted the ad. I got a whole $23 dollars for it."
7) Aldrin and Armstrong were nearly stranded on the moon – 1,009 links
The History Channel wrote about how Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong almost didn't make it back from the Apollo 11 trip to the moon in July of 1969. When the two returned from their moonwalk to the lunar module, they discovered that a one-inch circuit breaker switch had broken off an instrument panel. The switch had snapped off from the engine-arm circuit breaker, the one vital breaker needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift Armstrong and Aldrin off the moon and send them back to the command module.
8) Victorians didn’t cover table legs because they were too sexy – 930 clicks
Atlas Obscura wrote about the enduring myth that Victorians were so repressed sexually that they even placed covers over the legs of pianos and tables because they were too shapely and might cause impure thoughts. The myth seems to have come from a 1839 travelog by a writer and officer in the British Navy who was traveling with a young woman who scraped her knee. When asked if her leg was okay, the woman said a gentleman should only refer to “limbs” in the presence of a lady, and never “legs,” even when talking about furniture.
9) Ten mummified crocodiles emerge from an Egyptian tomb – 925 clicks
The New York Times wrote about a group of mummified crocodiles, possibly dead for more than 2,500 years and preserved in a ritual that likely honored Sobek, a fertility deity worshiped in ancient Egypt. The remains were unearthed from a tomb at Qubbat al-Hawa on the west bank of the Nile River. The crocodile played an important role in Egyptian culture for thousands of years: in addition to being linked to a deity, it was a food source, and parts of the animal, like its fat, were used as medicine to treat body pains, stiffness and even balding.
10) Did air pollution inspire the Impressionist movement in art? – 873 clicks
Hyperallergic wrote about how the late 19th century in Europe saw the emergence of the hazy style of the Impressionists, which privileged mood and light over fine details. While this monumental shift was often attributed to shifting stylistic preferences, a new study argued that it was also due to a change in the environment’s appearance: As the Industrial Revolution engulfed London and Paris in smog, the world literally became blurrier.
Bonus: As a treat for anyone who made it this far, here's the article that got the least clicks in 2023, with just 10. To be fair though, it is less than a month old.
Mano Majumdar wrote for Works In Progress about the development of asbestos, which was a miracle material, virtually impervious to fire. But as we fixed city fires in other ways, we came to learn about its horrific downsides, including how it affected the lungs of those who were forced to produce it.
As always, if you like this newsletter, I'd be honoured if you would help me by contributing whatever you can via my Patreon. And while I find a lot of these links myself, through RSS feeds etc., I also get some from other newsletters that I rely on as "serendipty engines," such as The Morning News from Rosecrans Baldwin and Andrew Womack, Dan Lewis's Now I Know, Robert Cottrell and Caroline Crampton's The Browser, Clive Thompson's Linkfest, the always interesting Why Is This Interesting from Noah Brier and Colin Nagy, Maria Popova's website The Marginalian, Sheehan Quirke AKA The Cultural Tutor, the Smithsonian magazine, and JSTOR Daily. If you come across something you think should be included here, feel free to email me.