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A mysterious scammer conning Instagram influencers. A grim account of illegal gold mining in South Africa. A read on time and the science of the perfect second. An examination of one’s birth — and the control that documents have over us. An ode to the soybean and the world of tofu.

1. A Scammer Who Tricks Instagram Into Banning Influencers Has Never Been Identified. We May Have Found Him.

Craig Silverman and Bianca Fortis | ProPublica | March 26, 2023 | 4,629 words

If you’ve ever lost your Instagram account to a hacker or requested aid from Meta in any way, you understand feeling helpless trying to get a faceless corporation to pay attention. Egregious tech company irresponsibility and complete disregard aside, where Meta failed, ProPublica may have succeeded in tracking down a man known for hijacking accounts by exploiting security loopholes, then hounding their owners for money. A scammer known as OBN claims to have made hundreds of thousands of dollars plaguing people who earn a living on Instagram “because their content verges on nudity and pornography, which Instagram and its parent company, Meta, prohibit.” Not only does he shut down lucrative influencer accounts, he antagonizes account owners with taunts and threats. Meta’s response? They intend to offer a program that would charge for customer support from a real person, something that most tech companies consider not just the right thing to do, but table stakes for being in tech: “Meta has acknowledged that it needs to invest more in customer support. In February, founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that Meta would offer people the ability to pay for account verification and enhanced support, including ‘access to a real person for common account issues.’” —KS

2. The Dystopian Underworld of South Africa’s Illegal Gold Mines

Kimon de Greef | The New Yorker | February 20, 2023 | 7,676 words

A decade ago, I traveled to South Africa as part of a public health research project focused on the country’s mining industry. Countless miners — almost all of them Black — suffered from silicosis and tuberculosis from their time spent toiling underground, looking for gold. They were owed compensation for their suffering, but most of them had never received it. Our research question was simple: Why? The answer was a tangled web of institutional dysfunction, racism, inequality, poverty, and neglect. It was also wholly predictable. South Africa’s mining sector was designed during the colonial era to benefit a few at the expense of many (to say nothing of the toll on the natural environment). Black workers were paid slave wages to work in horrific conditions; for some it was the only means of providing for themselves and their families. When the industry collapsed in the ’90s, leaving behind labyrinths of shafts and tunnels, illegal mining emerged in force because people still needed money to survive. Kimon de Greef masterfully shows how an array of historical forces and failures brought South Africa to the era of zama-zamas, illegal miners who spend months, even years at a time deep in the earth working for criminal syndicates. If there is a lesson to be learned from South Africa’s mines, it is that cruelty begets desperation, which in turn begets more cruelty. —SD

3. In Search of Lost Time

Tom Vanderbilt | Harper’s Magazine | March 20, 2023 | 5,339 words

How do you count seconds? By feel? Mississippily or Mississipilessly? Can you ever trust a New Year’s party countdown? If you’ve ever even considered these questions — or if you just have a lifelong love of calipers and other measuring devices — you’re in for a treat. Tom Vanderbilt (who, like me, had a childhood fascination with the time/temperature line in his hometown) heads off in search of the ground truth of our chronological system. That quest brings him to Colorado’s Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, itself operated by a federal agency that oversees all things measurable in the United States. As it turns out, time is just as slippery as you thought it was while waiting for thunder to follow lightning; it’s the only one of seven international “base units” that has never had a physical constant. Since 1967, a second has been the time it takes for a ball of cesium atoms to reach 9,192,631,770 microwave-induced oscillations, but even that’s only an approximation. But Vanderbilt’s story isn’t simply a tale of numbers and methods; it’s a chronicle of curiosity, of the way we can be captivated by something that sounds so utterly rigid. Tick-tock, you don’t stop. —PR

4. Documents

Diane Mehta | The Kenyon Review | Winter 2023 | 6,018 words

“The FS-240, or Consular Report of Birth Abroad, that my parents filled out on my behalf, three months after my birth, is a way of avoiding the truth: I have no status inside or outside any clear borders unless I consider my mother’s uterus my original country.” In this gorgeous essay, Diane Mehta examines the unknowns surrounding her birth in postwar Germany, and reflects on the life trajectories of her parents — her father, an Indian Jain physician, and her mother, a Jewish American woman. Mehta intimately explores her family history while also placing it within a global context; she writes about what it means for written documents and pieces of paper to dictate our lives and seal our fates, but also how imagination can help someone reshape and control a narrative filled with blanks. —CLR

5. America Doesn’t Know Tofu

George Stiffman | Asterisk Magazine | March 9, 2023 | 3,278 words

Having been vegetarian for the last couple of years, I have eaten many a chickpea and a lentil, but not much in the way of tofu. My efforts at cooking with it generally result in a sad, limp affair that has more than a passing resemblance to pond sludge. But this delightful essay has single-handedly turned my tofu thoughts around, with luscious descriptions that pour off the page and make you want to reach in and grab a piece of the joyfully named “exploding-juice tofu.” And if exploding juice is not your thing, fear not, for there are more than 20 other types of tofu in the world, all with “different mouthfeels.” I was as surprised as you. George Stiffman briefly touches on how the perceived value of vegetarian food differs between East and West — but for the most part, this essay is unashamedly just about how good this soybean curd can be, and is no poorer for it. (So good that Stiffman waits for a tofu teacher outside a Chinese brothel at 4 a.m. while “jotting down tofu goals.”) I have a new reverence for my pond sludge. —CW

Audience Award

The piece our readers loved most this week.

‘Dad Said: We’re Going to Follow Captain Cook’: How an Endless Round-the-World Voyage Stole My Childhood

Suzanne Heywood | The Guardian | March 25, 2023 | 5,574 words

In this excerpt from her book, Wavewalker: Breaking Free, Suzanne Heywood recounts the misery of her unconventional childhood. A three-year sailing adventure ended up being nearly a decade trapped on her parents’ boat — which Heywood remembers here with a brooding resentment. This edited extract gives a full picture of her remarkable story. —CW