Return to Byzantium

The History of Byzantium | A podcast telling the story of the Roman Empire  from 476 AD to 1453

“Wondering why so many Russian and Ukrainian cities have Greek names (eg Sebastopol)? Catherine the Great had a secret plan to resurrect Byzantium and install her appropriately-named grandson Constantine as New Roman Emperor. Step 1 was to found a lot of new cities with Greek names. Step 2 was to ally with the Austrian Empire. Then the Austrians got distracted with other things and they never reached Step 3.”

via Astral Codex Ten

When you look that dumb, you have to go quickly

“I felt a little stupid, to be honest, and when you look that dumb you have to go quickly,” said skier Jack Kuenzle, who set a new record for ascending and then descending Mount Hood, wearing nothing but a tiny pair of shorts that looked like underwear. Why? “My body just puts out an enormous amount of heat during these climbs—so that’s why I do it,” he said. “But yeah, when I went past people, it was hard to tell whether they were cheering or laughing at me.”

Some kind of magic

I really liked this poem, “Some Kind of Magic,” by Ken Giesbrecht

I dreamt of you last night
as I have so often this past year.
It is the same dream
It always is.
In it we are witches
living secluded on some coast,
Although where I could not tell you.

What I can tell you is that we are content.
That we spend our days with the windows open
Our hearts fluttering,
curtains caught in a gentle breeze.
Our heads bow together in the garden.
You favour the flowers, and I the herbs.

I see you among blossoms
my mind cannot separate your petals from their stem.
You are both soft and strong,
and very beautiful.

Even on the days the mist gathers in
rolling in like deep waves off the sea,
and we must close the shutters
for fear of damaging the stores,
I am not sad.

We sit together,
Yarrow hanging to dry above our heads,
there is comfort in this companionship,
we are Circe and Penelope,
or something like them anyway.

I do not hesitate to reach for your hand.
I know it like my own.
I know it is foolish
dreaming of what will not be,
you are not a witch,
and I am not a gardener,
I know this.

No matter how I try,
I cannot make things grow.
Still, you must have some kind of magic in you,
if even the thought of you,
makes something in me bloom.
Lush and green,
in places where the earth was scorched.

The BeTriton is a bike, camper and boat all in one

So, you probably like riding a bicycle, and you like camping, and you like paddling around in a tiny boat — so why not a product that puts all of those things into one amazing gizmo? Now you can do this! It’s called the BeTriton, and it just launched, and it is the craziest thing I have seen in a long time. Trying to imagine the bong sessions that not only led to this design, but actually resulted in the creation of a prototype, marketing plan, etc. Absolutely bonkers.

Chuck Fipke, the man who struck diamonds

Now and then, I like to remember some of the people and stories I have come across during my 35-year career in journalism, and one of the strangest — and most amazing — of them all was a guy named Chuck Fipke. When I came across him in Edmonton around 1989 or so, Chuck was an oddball loner with an almost impossible story: he claimed that there were diamonds in the Northwest Territories. And not just a few diamonds, but enough for a diamond mine. At this point, Chuck was mostly known for sleeping in his car while prospecting in the far north, and for baking soil samples in his oven at home.

The idea that there might be diamonds in the Northwest Territories might seem pretty straightforward today, since there are not one but three massive diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, which at their peak produced close to $3 billion worth of high-quality diamonds every year. But in 1989, this seemed like a crackpot idea that almost no one in their right mind — other than Chuck — believed was possible. It was like someone saying they’ve invented a time machine or a faster-than-light warp drive. It wouldn’t be overstating it to say Chuck was probably laughed at more than he was listened to.

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Facebook’s news feed: Fewer friends, more AI

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

Last week, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, reported its quarterly financial results, and said that while the number of Facebook users increased during that period, the company’s revenues grew at the slowest rate since Facebook first went public a decade ago. This news came on the heels of a similarly gloomy financial report in February, when Meta said that its profit shrank, and also announced that its user base fell for the first time since Facebook went public in 2012. After this report was released, the company’s share price plummeted, reducing Meta’s market value by almost $240 billion, the largest one-day decline in US history. The stock has recovered since then, but is still about 35 percent lower than it was in January.

In his remarks about Meta’s most recent results, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s CEO, tried to reassure investors and analysts that the social network still has a rosy future. He pointed to several things Meta plans to change, including a reduction in costs to help defray the company’s investment in the metaverse, since the unit devoted to those projects lost nearly $4 billion in the most recent quarter. Zuckerberg also talked about how the company plans to change the news feed at both Facebook and Instagram in order to compete with TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform that has grown at a rapid pace over the past few years (Facebook has also reportedly hired a PR firm to spread negative news stories about TikTok).

Many industry analysts believe TikTok has become a significant competitive threat to Facebook’s dominance. Meta has been “focused on its far-off vision for virtual existence [and] has been caught unprepared by the growing popularity of short-form video,” Tae Kim wrote at Bloomberg in February, after Meta’s stock fell. Instagram has its own short-form video feature, called Reels, which the company has been pushing as an alternative to TikTok, but while Instagram’s version is growing quickly, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the Chinese company’s growth. TikTok hit the four-billion-user mark last year, a goal it reached almost twice as fast as Facebook, and its advertising revenue is expected to surpass both Snapchat and Twitter by 2024. Analysts believe that the app’s recommendation algorithm is the key to its success.

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