Is getting rid of misinformation the right approach?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, misinformation—and its more toxic cousin, disinformation—stopped being just an academic concept, and started feeling like a social and political emergency. Concerns about Russian trolls meddling in American elections were soon compounded by hoaxes and conspiracy theories involving COVID-19. Even those who could agree on the definition of misinformation, however, debated what to do about it: should Facebook and Twitter be forced to remove “fake news” and disinformation, especially about something as critical as a pandemic? Should they be forced to “deplatform” repeated disinfo spreaders such as Trump and his ilk, so as not to infect others with their dangerous delusions?

After coming under pressure to do so, both from the general public and from president Biden and members of Congress, Facebook and Twitter—and to a lesser extent, YouTube—started actively removing this kind of content. They began by banning the accounts of people such as Trump and Alex Jones, who runs a disinformation operation known as InfoWars, and later started blocking or “down-ranking” COVID-related misinformation that appeared to be deliberately harmful. But was this the right way of handling the problem? Some argue that it is, and that “deplatforming” people like Trump—or even blocking entire platforms, such as the right-wing Twitter clone Parler—works, in the sense that it removes the problem. But not everyone agrees.

The Royal Society, a scientific organization founded in the UK in 1660, recently released a report on the online information environment, which states that “censoring or removing inaccurate, misleading and false content, whether it’s shared unwittingly or deliberately, is not a silver bullet and may undermine the scientific process and public trust.” Frank Kelly, a professor at the University of Cambridge and the chairman of the report, wrote that the nature of science includes uncertainty, especially when it is trying to deal with an unprecedented medical crisis like the pandemic. “In the early days of the pandemic, science was too often painted as absolute and somehow not to be trusted when it corrects itself,” he wrote, “but that prodding and testing of received wisdom is integral to the advancement of science, and society.”

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The forgotten medieval habit of “two sleeps”

A historian researching medieval social habits gradually came to the conclusion that sleeping twice during the night — a first sleep, from about 10 pm until midnight or 1 am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, and then a second sleep until the early morning — was commonplace not just in England or Europe, but also in other countries around the world.

First sleeps are mentioned in one of the most famous works of medieval literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (written between 1387 and 1400), which is presented as a storytelling contest between a group of pilgrims. Ekirch found casual references to the system of twice-sleeping in every conceivable form, with hundreds in letters, diaries, medical textbooks, philosophical writings, newspaper articles and plays.

The practice even made it into ballads, such as “Old Robin of Portingale. “…And at the wakening of your first sleepe, You shall have a hot drink made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe, Your sorrows will have a slake…” Biphasic sleep was not unique to England, either – it was widely practised throughout the preindustrial world. In France, the initial sleep was the “premier somme“; in Italy, it was “primo sonno“. In fact, Eckirch found evidence of the habit in locations as distant as Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America and the Middle East.

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Civil War fortress for sale — would make a perfect super-villain hideout

If you’ve always wanted to own a Civil War fort, then this is your lucky day: Fort Montgomery is for sale for the discounted price of just $1.4 million, which includes about 350 acres of land (although about 85 of those are underwater at the moment) and a huge pile of crumbling limestone, complete with slit windows for firing cannons out of. The limestone came from the same quarry as the stone that built Radio City Music Hall, according to the realtor’s website (which looks like it was designed in 1994 using Windows Notepad). “Rebuild your dream on the rich ruins of history,” it says, along with a Powerpoint presentation of the fort’s charms, which include tunnels covered in graffiti.

There’s no rush in case you actually do want to buy this crumbling pile: the fort, and the man-made island it sits on, have actually been for sale since about 2006. Prior to that date, a businessman named Victor Podd owned the fort, and used it as the headquarters for his company, Powertex. After he died, his heirs tried to sell it, and in 2006 someone offered $5 million for it, but the sale never went through.

Construction of the fort and the island — which overlook Lake Champlain, close to the Canadian border — started in 1844 and continued for more than two decades. The fort was actually the second attempt to build a military outpost on the site; the first was almost completed when the builders realized that it was actually on the Canadian side of the border, so it was torn down, and is now known to history only as “Fort Blunder.” When the international border was redrawn, it turned out the site was on the US side, so a new fort was built.

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A combination piano, BBQ grill and three-wheeled car? Why not!

In case you like to play the piano, but also want to grill some shishkebabs at the same time, and want to drive around as well, this creative inventor has just the solution — a piano with 52 individual motors connecting the keys to spits, with an internal firepit and three motorized wheels. Spectacularly useless? Definitely. And why did this man create such a thing? Because he could.

Turns out our artist/inventor is Geng Shuai, also known as “Handy Geng,” a Chinese YouTuber whose fans call him “Useless Einstein” (if that’s what your fans call you, imagine what others call you!). He got the idea for the piano-grill-car — Grillano? — from a reader comment. In case you are in the market, he also makes phone cases that look like meat cleavers, of which he has sold 10. And he made a driveable mech with tractor treads and hydraulic arms:

On a related note, there is a Japanese term, “chindogu,” which loosely translated means “useless tool,” and covers an entire category of inventions that solve prosaic problems in an overly engineered way. Examples include the “noodle cooler”:

chindogu chopsticks with fan attached

What’s the metaverse? Whatever companies want it to be

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Facebook’s name change in November, when the company announced that it was rebranding itself as Meta, sparked a lot of credulous media coverage of “the metaverse,” a somewhat nebulous concept that incorporates virtual reality, 3D gaming, and a number of other trends. Microsoft’s announcement on Tuesday that it plans to acquire Activision Blizzard, a leading game developer, for almost $70 billion is likely to accelerate interest in the concept even further, since it was specifically mentioned as one of the justifications for the deal (which still needs to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission). Microsoft said that the acquisition will “provide building blocks for the metaverse,” a claim that was repeated in more than one news story about the deal (although in some cases the statement was not taken at face value).

Activision Blizzard is one of the largest gaming companies in the world, with titles such as Call of Duty, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft, as well as smaller one-person games like Candy Crush. What does any of that have to do with the metaverse? Not a lot, admits the New York Times. Microsoft didn’t go into any detail on how the deal advances the metaverse, although Satya Nadella, the CEO, did say “when we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won’t be a single, centralized metaverse.” Peter Kafka, a media writer for Vox, described this as a statement aimed directly at Lina Khan, head of the Federal Trade Commission—an attempt to encourage her to approve the purchase, because it might mean competition for Facebook/Meta.

The connection between games like World of Warcraft and the metaverse isn’t totally a creation of Microsoft’s marketing department. Experts—including Matthew Ball, who has written a number of essays on the concept, and helps run an investment fund that finances metaverse-related technology— point out that multiplayer “worlds” such as Roblox and Fortnite are the closest thing to the multiverse right now. Although they began as just a pastime, they have consumed the attention of users to the point where non-game events take place in them, including concerts by musicians like L’il Nas X that draw millions. Last year, technology writer Clive Thompson argued that “the metaverse is already here, and it is Minecraft” (which Microsoft bought in 2014).

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For the billionaire who has everything but taste

This week’s Zillow monstrosity comes courtesy of Rebecca Makkai, who shared some truly bizarre photos of a massive house in Woodstock, Connecticut that was built by millionaire castle afficionado and alleged camel -killer Christopher Mark, who apparently comes from a long line of steel tycoons. If you also like castles, but you think that the ones at Disney World aren’t fake-looking enough, then this is for you — and the 20,000-square-foot behemoth with 9 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, 12 fireplaces, and its own moat is just $35 million.

Said the Daily Mail when the castle went up for sale in 2014 for $45 million: “Eccentric millionaire Christopher Mark is unloading his property, which he began building in 2001, and was only completed in 2008, just three years after he made headlines for reportedly kicking out girlfriend Marina Isakova and the couple’s child from the lush digs.” Connecticut magazine said that during Mark’s divorce from his wife, both sides tried to make the other out to be responsible for the death of a camel that was kept as part of a petting zoo/wild animal operation:

The animals on the castle property also came up in the case. Mark has long run a nonprofit refuge for exotic animals called Wilderness Kingdom, Inc. Since 2004, the property has been licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a traveling zoo. When a camel died in 2010, both Mark and Galt alleged the other was neglectful. In a motion filed on June 25, 2010, Galt claimed “the animals are not being properly taken care of” and “a camel on the property has recently died.”vIn an email to Galt written on July 3, 2010, Mark countered that “when you sent the workers home and animals were not fed for 4 days, the camel lost a lot of weight since and died last week.”

Yes, this is a bathroom, and yes, it has a big-screen TV and a fireplace

That’s not an iceberg, it’s a superior mirage

Simone Engels saw something bright on the horizon while taking photos from a beach on Vancouver Island, near the Strait of Georgia — so she took a picture and zoomed in to see what looked like a giant glacier. The object remained on the horizon for a full half hour, and when she posted the photo on social media, everyone was convinced it was an iceberg — even a friend who’d studied iceberg geomorphology for her PhD. “I was very stumped,” Engels told the CBC. “We don’t generally see icebergs here.” But it was not an iceberg — it was a mirage.

“It’s not an iceberg,” said Colin Goldblatt, an associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Victoria. “It’s a beautiful photograph, and what we’re seeing is a lovely example of a superior mirage.” He explained that this kind of mirage is possible during an atmospheric inversion, when warm air is sitting on top of a layer of cooler air, causing the light to bend downward. What Engels was seeing was the peaks of the Cheam Range near Chilliwack, more than 180 kilometres away. Normally, these mountains would be on the other side of the horizon, hidden by the Earth’s curvature.

A Black singer named Tina Bell helped invent grunge

If you’re like most people, when you think of the term “grunge,” you picture a bunch of white guys with long hair and plaid shirts playing angst-ridden, power-chord style rock and roll. Canadian folk artist turned rock musician Neil Young is often seen as the godfather of grunge, for his love of both plaid shirts and hard-rocking music. But some would argue that one of the real pioneers of grunge in the 1980s was a tiny Black woman named Tina Bell and her band, Bam Bam. Not only was the music pioneering, but the band gave some more famous grunge artists a start as well, including a drummer who went on to play with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and a young roadie name Kurt Cobain.

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New York eccentrics and their apartments

New Yorkers reveal their fabulous apartments in photographer Sally Davies’s portraits of larger than life characters in their equally colourful homes– a glimpse into the grit, elegance, poverty and humanity of an ever-changing city:

Flloyd NYC. Photographed at his home in the East Village on 26 October 2019.

Flloyd: “Shortly after moving in I discovered the person before me paid one-fourth of what I paid and I spent the next two years in court. Afterwards, my rent was lowered to an insanely low amount. This has given me the ability to live the life of a starving artist. I live a very sober life, and I enjoy cooking and baking, and watching old movies with my boyfriend.”

X Baczewsky. Photographed at her home on 1st Avenue on 2 May 2019.

X Baczewsky: “When I moved into this tiny apartment I decided that I would think of it as a small parlour in a much larger home, rather than the small apartment that it is.”

James Kaston. Photographed at his home in Stuyvesant Town on 2 November 2019.

James: “I still like New York City, but not the bike lane, not the bikes, not the people on the bikes. I don’t like the glass towers and I don’t like all the chain stores in this city. It’s really become a city of greed. I don’t like the way the word ‘luxury’ is tossed around regarding things that should just be described as “plain”.