What we talk about when we talk about Wordle

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, the game of the moment is Wordle — an incredibly simple game that Josh Wardle designed for his partner as a harmless amusement. It has since taken off, and I think it’s for much the same reason that everyone started making sourdough bread during the first COVID lockdown — namely, boredom and a desire to escape. If people aren’t doing Wordle, then they are probably knitting or making pottery, or they’re watching all the original Star Trek series episodes in order.

In that vein, I think one of the things that is fascinating to me about Wordle is how different it is from almost everything else around it — and not just games, but media in general. In fact, it’s the opposite of almost everything that falls into that broad category, in almost every way (with one important exception). As I said, it is incredible simple — you get six chances to guess a five-letter word. That’s it. And there’s only one game per day. And it doesn’t cost anything, and there are no ads, and it’s not an app, and you can’t buy new guesses, and it doesn’t spy on your attempts and then try to sell you things.

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A monthly ‘zine of public domain treasures

In his day job, Parker Higgins is the director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and the former head of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But on the side, he has a passion for public-domain content, so in 2019 he put together a project called 1923, which became a year-long ‘zine which he distributed — on paper! — to subscribers who funded his Kickstarter campaign. The archives of the ‘zine are available online now, and they are fascinating. Here’s what Parker says in the preamble/about section of the site:

The year 1923 has served as an invisible barrier for decades. For the first two decades of the 21st century‚Äîthe very time period that archives, databases, and collections were really starting to come online — the commons was cut off at that year; works published before 1923 were safely in the public domain, while works published in 1923 or later were risky and required individual research.

On January 1, 2019, the public domain resumed its march forward after a 20-year hiatus. Our cultural commons now includes a handful of very famous works: one of the most iconic images of the silent film era; the first book of poetry by e e cummings; a legendary novelty song that topped the charts for weeks. These well-known works got lots of well-deserved attention in January 2019 as they rose into the public domain, their copyright restrictions falling away after so many years.

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Pictures from abandoned America

Abandoned Six Flags (New Orleans, LA) | Ozarka Splash Ride Start
The entry ascent of the Ozarka Splash ride at the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans

I confess I have a thing about photos of abandoned institutions — prisons, hospitals, amusement parks, shopping malls, etc. — and photographer Matthew Christopher has exactly the kind of thing I like: detailed and haunting shots of all kinds of crumbling churches and schools across the US. He posts them on his website, Abandoned America, but also on Instagram and Twitter. One of my favorite newsletter writers, Luke “Welcome to Hell World” O’Neill recently interviewed Christopher. As Luke put it in his intro:

You probably have your own local variations on the theme. Abandoned factories that made god knows what with glass hanging like jagged teeth in the windows after years of tossed stones. Town buildings left in bureaucratic limbo ripe for sneaking into. An old library with empty shelves or a squat little brick shit house of an elementary school whose halls echoed no children’s voices but our own surreptitious whispers. The “old firehouse.” The “old” whatever. Something was always the “old” something. A place where important things happened and now do not. 

 - Girard Theatre
The abandoned Girard Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the roof of the former supermarket is visible in the center before the stage
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One of the Founding Fathers tricked his way into creating a bank

Chase Bank - Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv

Thanks to the popularity of the musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, plenty of people know the role that the eponymous legislator played in the creation of the United States, before he was killed during a duel. They may even know that he helped create the idea of a central bank, as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. But what is probably less known is how his rival, Aaron Burr, had almost as long-lasting and important a legacy in banking — one that relied on assistance from Hamilton — but his began with a bit of misdirection. As this short history details, the result was what became Chase Bank:

In the late 1790s, following the new US Constitution’s adoption, New York City was enjoying a period of commercial growth and expanding population. These increases didn‚Äôt come without a price, however, and one of the most vexing problems the city faced was the lack of clean water. Aaron Burr observed the need for a healthy water supply and devised a plan to employ the local demand for water into a vehicle he could use to enrich himself.

He proposed the creation of a private company — the Manhattan Company — that would provide clean water for street cleaning and firefighting as well as the infrastructure for the project by laying pipes. Burr’s Manhattan Company ultimately won approval from the state Legislature. However, Burr’s plan was an artifice and a ruse. What he really wanted to do was start a bank; hence, just before his Manhattan Company was approved, Burr inserted a clause in the bill giving his company sweeping powers to use surplus capital to function as a bank.

After Burr’s Manhattan Company achieved incorporation, it quickly began to engage in the banking business and operated under that name until it merged with Chase Bank in the early 1950s. After a series of subsequent mergers, beginning in the early 1980s and culminating with the union of the JPMorgan and Chase banks, JPMorgan Chase became the largest bank in the United States

Neil Young, still not burning out or fading away


I guess if you are famous for singing “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” (from “My my, hey, hey” off the Rust Never Sleeps album from 1978) you have to be pretty careful not to do either one — and Neil Young seems to be doing more than just about any other senior citizen (he’s 76) to avoid either of those fates, with the possible exception of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson (okay, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen are doing okay too).

Neil just told Spotify to remove all of his music, because they let Joe Rogan promote COVID misinformation on his podcast, which Spotify bought in 2020 for $100 million. And he also just released a documentary — filmed by his wife, Darryl Hannah — to go along with his newest album, called Barn. It’s called that because he reunited with the members of Crazy Horse, his legendary band, and they set up shop in an 18th-century barn on a ranch in Colorado.

It’s kind of amazing to watch Neil wail away at his guitar and harmonica, stomping up and down in classic Neil Young style, wearing ripped jeans and an old T-shirt, just like he did 40 years or so ago. And all the guys bang away at their instruments too, although they do so a little more gently than they used to, and they are a bit more hunched over. Maybe they forget the lyrics now and then. Still, kind of inspirational. Pitchfork’s review says: “Neil Young is standing on the porch, smoking weed, waiting for somebody else to show up. That’s the basic premise of “They Might Be Lost,” the strangest, loosest—and thus, the quintessential—song from Barn, his latest album.”

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Photo retrospective: Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s

The musician Mighty Sparrow, centre, was known as the King of Calypso in the 1960s and ’70s. This photo was taken at a barbecue for Contrast, a Black-run newspaper.

Toronto Life magazine has a fantastic retrospective of Toronto in the 1960s and ’70s, courtesy of a photo collection from Joan Latchford — a former nun who left the convent in the UK where she spent seven years, and returned to Toronto and bought a Hasselblad camera:

“Instead of paying bills, of which I had a number, I decided I would get something that I really wanted, which was a good camera,” she once said. She soon switched to a Leica, set up a darkroom in her basement, and started a photography career, knocking on magazine editors’ doors to sell her images. Her clients included the CBC, Chatelaine and the National Film Board’s stills division, which commissioned her to capture images of Toronto’s Caribbean diaspora. After her death in 2017, she left behind around 40,000 negatives, which she’d meticulously filed under categories like, “Men,” “Women,” “Children,” “Celebrities” and “Humour.” She also kept detailed notes: one of her phone books had B.B. King’s number in it.

Yonge Street, 1971: On summer weekends, Yonge Street would close off for pedestrians. “It was a cool time back then, when everyone would be out and about,” says Wilyman

The story of John Troyer, a legendary witch hunter in the 1800s

A fascinating story here from Rosemary Counter, who found out that an uncle was a famous witch hunter in the 1800s.

In the summer of 1829, in a sleepy Ontario sheep-farming settlement called Baldoon, the McDonald family found themselves tormented by their two-storey home. Without warning, beams would drop from the ceiling, and at night, the kitchen filled with the noise of marching feet. Over the years, the disturbances grew more terrifying. Fires spontaneously ignited. Rocks and bullets rained down on the house. Once, a twenty-five-centimetre hunting knife tore through the air.

By 1831, a desperate McDonald family realized they needed professional help, so the patriarch, John, travelled 200 kilometres—three days on horseback, riding dawn to dusk—to consult with a highly recommended healer. According to an 1871 account by John’s son, the diagnosis required gazing into a moonstone, which revealed “a long low log house” where lived a witch and the source of the McDonalds’ suffering. The witch took the form of a black-headed stray goose, and it was decided that, if they shot the goose’s wing with a sterling silver bullet, they’d at once stop her—which they did. The ghost never struck again.

Two centuries later, the Baldoon mystery reigns as one of Canada’s greatest ghost stories—you can find tellings and retellings in just about every collection of Canadian folklore. Less well known, perhaps, is the person who ultimately solved it: John Troyer, a man legendary at the time for his unconventional talents in herbal remedies, fortune telling, white magic, bloodletting, water dowsing, exorcisms, and of course, witch hunting. He was also my distant uncle.

What life is like in a Chinese COVID quarantine camp

My room at the camp reminded me of my old college dorm room. It came with two single beds with thin mattresses, a hard sponge pillow and a duvet, two small tables with a small television, an electric kettle, a hair dryer, two folding plastic chairs, a fabric closet, a bedside table, an air conditioner and a water heater.I was allowed to open my window to retrieve food and other necessities that were delivered, or just to get some fresh air. Three meals were provided daily in plastic bags (in the morning, afternoon and evening) and were left on a tray outside my window for me to collect.

Through that same window, staff members swabbed my nose and throat as part of the daily Covid-19 testing requirements.The camp has a total capacity of 3,416 units, according to data from Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP). There were a total of 16 rooms in each building, eight rooms on each floor.As of 9 a.m. local time on January 4, when I was on my third day there, almost 1,300 people were occupying 995 units at the camp, according to the CHP.

Source: The cost of visiting family in the US from Hong Kong: How I ended up at a government quarantine camp

The Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge

I just finished writing for the Columbia Journalism Review about a report on misinformation that was published recently by the UK’s Royal Society, and in the process of researching the piece, I learned a bit about the society, which is more than just your usual collection of academics and researchers. It turns out that it is one of the oldest scientific organizations in the world — it was founded in 1660 as the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,” when it was given a royal charter by King Charles II.

Prior to that, it was known as the “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning,” and before that it was often known as “the Invisible College.” One of the founders was Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral but was also an astronomer, physicist and all-around scientist. Robert Hooke, another early founder who was the first to visualize a micro-organism using a microscope, was given the title of “Curator of Experiments,” and performing experiments was one of the main early functions of the Royal Society. Sir Isaac Newton became the president of the society in 1703 and served in that role for almost a quarter of a century. In the 18th century, some of the society’s work became political:

It became customary for His Majesty’s Government to refer highly important scientific questions to the council of the society for advice, something that, despite the non-partisan nature of the society, spilled into politics in 1777 over lightning conductors. The pointed lightning conductor had been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, while Benjamin Wilson invented blunted ones. During the argument that occurred when deciding which to use, opponents of Franklin’s invention accused supporters of being American allies, and the debate eventually led to the resignation of the society’s president, Sir John Pringle. 

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