We are not wise, and not often kind

This is a poem called “Don’t Hesitate,” by Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb

A Theory of Knowledge

The following is an excerpt from a piece of literary fiction by Jess Zimmerman in Catapult magazine

This final exam will count for 40 percent of your course grade. In the space below, please provide an example of each listed cognitive bias.

Reactance

When I thought you didn’t want me, I would have done anything.

Attentional bias

Everyone on the department website has an official headshot, except you. (I looked. Of course I looked.) Instead you have a snapshot taken near dusk, near winter, your jacket zipped to your jaw. The buttery light from a streetlamp pours molten down your face; you are lifting your chin against a sudden wind that blows your hair back. Who took this picture? You aren’t looking at her. You’re looking off to the left.

My experience with cryptocurrency: a cautionary tale

My experience with cryptocurrencies actually had two different beginnings, but I’ll start with the second one first: in 2018 or so, I got interested in a new journalism startup called Civil (I wrote about it here). Civil’s founders had a model for a community-based journalism publishing platform that was based on cryptocurrency — namely, on tokens that it offered to journalists and others, which gave members voting power over the organization’s bylaws, etc. (it had a constitution and an advisory board as well, to make it more difficult for crypto holders to take over the organization). In effect, it was an early version of what is now called a DAO or distributed autonomous organization.

The idea was that journalists and readers could support journalism by buying tokens, and the newsrooms based on the platform could pay their writers in tokens, etc. I decided to buy a few tokens to see how this model might work, so I went to Coinbase to set up a crypto wallet, and when I went to create a login, it said I already had an account. That’s when I remembered that I had bought some Bitcoin a year or so earlier, as an experiment. At the time (early 2017) I bought about $20 worth, and then totally forgot about it. As I looked at the chart of the price of my holdings over the years, I noticed that the $20 worth had reached a peak of about $2,500 at one point in early 2018, but had since fallen back to around the $500 level. So I bought some Civil tokens.

Buying Civil meant converting some Bitcoin into Ethereum, because that’s what Civil’s tokens were based on. In any case, it seemed as though ETH (which was created by a Canadian, Vitalik Buterin) had more potential for expansion than Bitcoin, since it allowed for the creation of smart contracts, etc. that could be recorded in the blockchain. Unfortunately for Civil (which was soon defunct), the market tanked for a variety of reasons, and my holdings dropped to the $100 to $200 level — a tenth of what they were worth in early 2018, but 10 times what I had spent to acquire my initial holding. Cryptocurrencies stayed low for almost two years, from late 2018 to early 2020.

In 2020, cryptocurrencies started climbing again, and rapidly — in March of 2020, my stake was worth about $170, and by the same time in 2021, it was worth almost $3,000. When it passed that mark, I decided to “take some profits,” as professional investors like to say, so I sold about $600 worth — meaning I turned it into “real” money, or what crypto types call “fiat” currency (which just means that its value is set by governments and central banks). When it climbed again, I sold another chunk of $600. I did that a third time, and what I had left was still worth about $2,500 or so. Everyone was getting into crypto, it seemed, and the related market for NFTs or “non-fungible tokens,” which were basically JPEGs that were recorded on the blockchain, but which lots of people were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for — money I assume they generated the same way I did, i.e. by accident.

Here’s where the cautionary tale part comes in: around this time, I read about a startup called the Ethereum Name Service, which was trying to replicate the Domain Name Service used by the internet (which turns an IP address of numbers into something like mathewingram dot com). It was offering people a version of their domain that ended in .eth, which could be linked to your existing domain. So I bought one for about $30 and forgot about it. Some time later, the company did an “airdrop” of tokens to those with .eth names, because it wanted to become a DAO. Airdrops had become fairly commonplace, and in effect it gave people free money (or tokens) for doing nothing.

All of a sudden, I had ENS tokens that were theoretically worth about $4,000 — even though they weren’t trading on any official crypto exchanges, people were buying and selling them anyway, by converting them into other cryptocurrencies. Just to be on the safe side, I took about $1,000 worth of the ENS tokens and converted them into Ethereum and put it in my Coinbase wallet. The other tokens were in a so-called “hot” wallet run by Metamask, which has a browser extension that allows you to easily connect your wallet to various services like ENS. And then I joined a Discord server that ENS had to allow holders of the tokens to talk about what was happening. And that’s when things went sideways.

One day, not long after the airdrop, I got a direct message from an account that looked official, and it said I had to register my tokens, and gave me a link — so I went to the page, and up popped an official-looking Metamask dialog box asking me to connect my account. So I did — or at least I tried to. But the box gave me an error when I put in my password (which was not uncommon), and asked for my “secret phrase,” which is a string of about eight words which is basically a super password that gives users access to their wallet even when their password doesn’t work. Not thinking, I typed it in — and immediately regretted it. So I went to look at my Metamask wallet, and it was empty. In a matter of seconds, someone had taken about $3,000 worth of ENS tokens.

Since the blockchain has a distributed ledger that records every transaction (one of its best features, if you want to track illegal transactions), I was able to follow the trail of my tokens, as the thief moved them from wallet to wallet, until they wound up in a wallet held by what was obviously a fake name — a wallet that at the time had tokens worth about $6 million in it. And that’s where the trail went cold. Dozens of other ENS holders on the Discord server said they had also been taken in by the same scam, with some of them losing as much as $10,000 worth of tokens, and the Discord server sent out multiple warnings about people pretending to be official representatives, and how it would never DM people links.

It was an expensive lesson. But it became a lot less expensive over the next few weeks and months, as the value of cryptocurrency of all kinds continued to tumble. As of this writing, the $3,000 I theoretically lost would now be worth about $600 or so. And the way I thought of it — even when it was worth $3,000 — was that I never really did anything to earn those tokens in the first place, so in a sense it was kind of free money. That said, the experience definitely left me with a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to crypto, as have all the various “rug pulls” and scams and hacks that the sector has seen.

I still believe that cryptocurrency and the blockchain have some theoretical value, or could be used to do interesting things — like Civil, for example. Some might argue that you could structure a publishing platform without cryptocurrency, one that allowed users to buy shares and vote on how the platform should be managed, and therefore the blockchain isn’t necessary. Some of those who published through Civil, however, argued that the crypto model did have certain features that might be interesting — such as the ability to publish something on the blockchain, making censorship impossible, since every distributed copy of the blockchain would also have a copy of the story in it.

Will any of this come to pass? I honestly don’t know. There is another publishing platform based on cryptocurrency called Mirror.xyz that has been trying to do some similar things as Civil — voting, a distributed organization, etc. And their model does something interesting that Civil didn’t: since Ethereum allows for smart contracts, people can decide to fund a piece of writing and then effectively gain an ownership stake in it, and so they can profit if the article or work is resold at some point in the future (I used Mirror to publish this post on Axie Infinity, a “play to earn game” based around NFTs). also wrote about . Does any of this make any sense? Will anyone want to do it? Again, I don’t really know. Maybe if cryptocurrencies ever go back up again we will find out.

The ghost towns of Balaclava and Newfoundout

A friend came to visit us at the lake recently, and they wanted to go and see a nearby “ghost town” called Balaclava. I had never heard of it before, but it turned out to be just a short drive from our place. So we headed off to Scotch Bush road near Dacre and there it was — not technically a ghost town, I don’t think, since there are still people living there. But it does have a great old abandoned lumber mill that dates back to the 1850s or so (although much of it was apparently destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 1930s).

Behind the lumber mill is a tall, rusted tower that sits on a foundation of river rocks, with the remains of a wooden chute leading to the mill. This was apparently the first sawdust furnace in Ontario, and it was reportedly built because the owner of a grist mill down the river from the Balaclava mill sued the owner in 1911, claiming the sawdust being dumped into the river was fouling up his grist works. According to some reports, this was also the first environmental lawsuit in Ontario.

Continue reading “The ghost towns of Balaclava and Newfoundout”

Facebook and paying for news

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

On June 9, Keach Hagey and Alexandra Bruell—two Wall Street Journal reporters who cover the major digital platforms—reported that Facebook, a subsidiary of Meta Platforms, was “re-examining its commitment to paying for news,” according to several unnamed sources who were described as being familiar with Facebook’s plans. The potential loss of those payments, the Journal reporters wrote, was “prompting some news organizations to prepare for a potential revenue shortfall of tens of millions of dollars.” The Journal story echoed a report published in May by The Information, a subscription-only site that covers technology; in that piece, reporters Sylvia Varnham O’Regan and Jessica Toonkel said Meta was “considering reducing the money it gives news organizations as it reevaluates the partnerships it struck over the past few years,” and that this reevaluation was part of a rethinking of “the value of including news in its flagship Facebook app.”

Meta wouldn’t comment to either the Journal or The Information, and a spokesperson told CJR the company “doesn’t comment on speculation.” But the loss of payments from Meta could have a noticeable impact for some outlets. According to the Journal report, for the past two years—since the original payment deals were announced in 2019— Meta has paid the Washington Post more than $15 million per year, the New York Times over $20 million per year, and the Journal more than $10 million per year (the payments to the Journal are part of a broader deal with Dow Jones, the newspaper’s parent, which is said to be worth more than $20 million per year). The deals, which are expected to expire this year, were part of a broader system of payments Meta made to a number of news outlets, including Bloomberg, ABC News, USA Today, Business Insider, and the right-wing news site Breitbart News. Smaller deals were typically for $3 million or less, the Journal said.

The payments were announced as part of the launch of the “News tab,” a dedicated section of the Facebook app where readers can find news from the outlets that partnered with Meta (higher payments were made to those with paywalls, according to a number of reports). The launch was a high-profile affair, including a one-on-one interview between Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp.—parent company of Dow Jones and the Journal—and Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, wrote for CJR that the meeting was like “a Camp David for peace between the most truculent old media empire and one of its most noxious disruptors,” and wondered how much it had cost for News Corp. to forget about its long-standing opposition to Facebook’s media strategy. The event was “a publicity coup for Facebook; it tamed the biggest beast in the journalism jungle,” Bell wrote.

Bell is not the only media industry observer to note that Facebook’s payments to media outlets have felt more like a marketing ploy than a sign of a deep and abiding commitment to journalism. “The correct way to view Google and Facebook’s actions, I believe, is through the lens of PR,” wrote Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, a year or so after the launch of the News tab, when Google announced something very similar. “The troubles of the news business are a major PR problem for these companies, who — however fair they or anyone else thinks it is — get blamed for its ills.” The move to pay media companies did seem like a rather dramatic shift in Facebook’s viewpoint: a little over a year before the launch of the News tab, Zuckerberg seemed to be skeptical that paying the media for content was something worth doing. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” he told Vox, during an interview in 2018, after being asked about a proposal from Rupert Murdoch that the social network should pay “carriage fees” for news content.

As Benton and others have noted, the decision to pay publishers—after years of refusing to do so, despite repeated complaints—came amid rising pressure, from legislators in multiple jurisdictions, aimed at getting Google and Facebook to compensate the media industry for the harms allegedly done to it by the digital platforms’ control of online advertising. That kind of pressure has been a fairly constant drumbeat in the industry for the past 15 years or so, after publishers in Spain, France, and Germany started pushing for legislation that would compel Google to pay for reusing content from news sites. A desire to quell this kind of legislation was part of why Google launched what became its Google News Initiative, in which it committed to pay publishers $300 million for training, internships, and other partnership arrangements. Facebook made similar kinds of commitments with its Facebook Journalism Project, which launched in 2017.

The pressure on Google and Facebook to pay publishers ramped up with the passing of legislation in Australia in 2021, which forced platforms to sign licensing deals with media outlets or face arbitration. Both companies eventually signed a number of deals with publishers (although there was criticism that smaller outlets were left out), and other countries such as Canada and the UK are expected to pass similar laws soon. According to the Journal, Zuckerberg has been “disappointed” by these regulatory efforts, which have reportedly “damped [his] enthusiasm for making news a bigger part of Facebook’s offerings.” And Meta has apparently noticed that “fewer people have been clicking on links to news articles since President Donald Trump left office,” according to The Information. The company also appears to be much more focused on promoting short-form video—as a way of competing with TikTok, the popular video-sharing platform—than appeasing publishers, which could leave even large media players out in the cold.

Here’s more on Facebook:

  • The irony: In 2018, I wrote for CJR about how Google and Facebook had become the two largest funders of media and journalism in the world, and the risks of depending on them as a source of revenue. “The irony is hard to miss,” I wrote. “The dismantling of the traditional advertising model—largely at the hands of the social networks, which have siphoned away the majority of industry ad revenue—has left many media companies and journalistic institutions in desperate need of a lifeline. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are happy to oblige, flush with cash from their ongoing dominance of the digital ad market.”
  • Loss of trust: When the News tab was announced, Josh Constine of TechCrunch wrote that Facebook shouldn’t be trusted. “Are we really doing this again?” he asked. “After the pivot to video. After Instant Articles. After news was deleted from the News Feed. Once more, Facebook dangles extra traffic, and journalism outlets leap through its hoop and into its cage.” Publishers, Constine argued, should have learned the risks of relying on the platforms. “When you build on someone else’s land, don’t be surprised when you’re bulldozed. And really, given Facebook’s flawless track record of pulling the rug out from under publishers, no one should be surprised.”
  • Amplification: New research indicates that changes to the Facebook recommendation algorithm amplified the reach of Republican posts and content during the first half of 2019. “We conclude that it seems possible that changes in how Facebook rated content led to a doubling of the total shares of local Republican party posts compared to local Democratic party posts in the first half of 2019 even though Democratic parties posted more often during this period,” the scientists who conducted the research wrote. “The fact that private companies can so easily control the political information flow for millions of Americans raises clear questions for the state of democracy.”
  • Failure to detect: Facebook failed to detect violent hate speech in advertisements submitted to the platform by the non-profit groups Global Witness and Foxglove, the Guardian reported. “The hateful messages focused on Ethiopia, where internal documents obtained by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed that Facebook’s ineffective moderation is fanning ethnic violence”, as she said in her 2021 congressional testimony,” the paper wrote. In March, Global Witness ran a similar test with hate speech in advertisements in Myanmar, which Facebook also reportedly failed to detect.

Other notable stories:

  • A fisherman confessed that he helped kill Dom Phillips, a freelance reporter for The Guardian, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, a former government official who worked in the area to combat illegal fishing and mining, according to a report from the New York Times. “It was a grim breakthrough in the 10-day search for the missing men deep in the Amazon that has transfixed Brazil and provoked international outrage,” the paper reported. The two men disappeared on June 5, while traveling on the Itaquaí River in a remote area of the Amazon, near the borders with Peru and Colombia. Reuters, meanwhile, reported that the fisherman and his brother both confessed to killing Phillips and Pereira.
  • Brazil is “on the brink of a disinformation disaster,” writes Julia Angwin, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup, a data-driven research organization. The country goes to the polls to elect a president in October, she says, and it “appears to be headed in the same contentious direction as the U.S. presidential election of 2020. Even before voting has begun, the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, has already started talking about voting irregularities—raising concerns that he might not concede defeat should he lose.” Bolsonaro has also repeatedly brought up the election of Joe Biden in the United States, suggesting that votes were rigged in some way.
  • First Draft News, a research organization that trains journalists to recognize and handle misinformation and disinformation, is shutting down, according to a post from co-founder Claire Wardle. But most of the operation is moving to Brown University to become part of the recently launched Information Futures Lab, an initiative from Brown’s School of Public Health. First Draft started as a nonprofit coalition in 2015, Wardle writes, and since then has trained more than 10,000 journalists and other professionals, and has helped work on misinformation projects as part of almost 20 elections in various countries.
  • Covering Climate Now, a partnership that CJR and The Nation created in 2019, announced the winners of the Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards on Wednesday, the second year that the awards have been handed out. The list of winners includes journalists at The Guardian, Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera English, PBS, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, the Los Angeles Times, and WGBH-PRX. Justin Worland, senior correspondent for Time, was named Climate Journalist of the Year.
  • The Los Angeles Times profiled the Martinez brothers, crusading journalists from El Salvador who have been forced to do their work from Mexico because they fear their reporting on the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, could get them arrested. “Bukele has built a sprawling state-run media machine that is guided by daily opinion polling while at the same time surveilling independent journalists with spyware and drones, punishing government officials for leaking information, and lobbing tax fraud and money-laundering accusations at El Faro, the investigative news site where the Martínez brothers work,” the Times reported. In April, Bukele approved a law that threatens any journalist who reports on gangs with up to 15 years in prison.
  • Posting content about the recent defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard led to dramatic increases in revenue for YouTube creators, Business Insider reported. According to Playboard, a company that tracks revenue for leading YouTube channels, a former district attorney who posted videos about the trial made close to $170,000 between April and June, and that was after YouTube took its 30 percent share of the channel’s revenue. Emily Baker told Business Insider that her livestream during the announcement of the verdict brought in 370,000 concurrent viewers, and that she makes far more creating YouTube content than she ever did as an attorney.
  • Factwire, an independent news entity in Hong Kong, announced that it is closing, Variety reported. Although the outlet didn’t cite any specific reason for the closure, some observers noted that it is the fourth independent news organization to close its doors in the past year, and that this is likely a result of a crackdown on press freedom by the Chinese government. Factwire, which specialized in investigative reporting, was established in 2015 using funds raised by a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Check My Ads, an organization that tries to pressure advertisers who sponsor right-wing content, has started a new campaign aimed at ads that run on Fox News, Gizmodo reported. But in contrast to other such attempts, the current campaign is focused on trying to get ad networks and ad exchanges to drop Fox as a client. “We’re kicking off by focusing on many of the same exchanges we previously contacted over their ties to various insurrectionists,” Claire Atkin, one of the groups’ co-founders, told Gizmodo. “She noted that while some of the exchanges—Yahoo is among the group’s targets—cut off ad-dollar access to digital properties from Steve Bannon, they remain tethered to Fox News’s site.”

Crypto and the rise of “speculative communities”

Max Read, a former editor-in-chief of Gawker, writes a newsletter called Read Max, and in one of his latest editions he talks about a book he read and reviewed, called “Speculative Communities: Living With Uncertainty in a Financialized World,” by a London-based sociologist named Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou. It’s about more than just crypto, but it explains a lot about the rise of that kind of niche community:

Where prediction once reigned, speculation now dominates. You can see this at the most literal level in the rise of gig-platform apps like Uber, where the once-simple acts of hailing or driving a cab become adventures in speculation—wagers on whether the price of a ride will rise or fall in the next five minutes—but you can also see it on a discursive level in social media, where users stake out speculative positions (called “takes”) on volatile reputational marketplaces. You even see it, Komporozos-Athanasiou argues, in the success of “populist” politicians and initiatives from the Greek bailout referendum to Brexit to Trump, votes for which can be understood as speculative wagers on “possible, yet uncertain, outcomes”

[H]omo economicus is an isolated individual, while homo speculans, in Komporozos-Athanasiou’s formulation, is a member of a “speculative community.” The delegitimation of neoliberal reason not only increases volatility, it also undermines the previous regime’s insistence on atomized individuals and family units. “Struggles of speculation and insurance,” then, “are experienced more intensely but also more collectively.” Here Speculative Communities draws on Benedict Anderson’s famous study of the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, which argued that the collapse of anciens régimes around the world and the rise of print-media capitalism in the wake of the industrial revolution created new uncertainties around which the “imagined communities” of nationalism could coalesce.

Hamlet is actually about doomscrolling on Twitter

This is the only slightly tongue-in-cheek thesis of Allegra Rosenberg, writing in Ryan Broderick’s excellent “Garbage Day” newsletter. In a section of the newsletter, Allegra talks about reading and trying to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy, how it reminds her both of Twitter and of Derrida, and of a recent edition of Charlie Warzel’s Galaxy Brain newsletter in which he discusses theories of contemporary society as posed by L.M. Sacasas:

In Hamlet’s keen analysis from inside his own cloud of hesitation, it is the fear of the unknown which prevents him or anyone from taking the craved-for plunge into the sweet release of death. It makes us rather bear the ills we have / than fly to those we know not of. He understood how stuckness self-perpetuates. The equally frustrating presentness perpetuates, too, in Sacasas’ contemporary formulation: when everything is commentary, what else is there to comment on, but prior commentary?

He says: “We’re not building toward new ideas; we’re relating things that just happened to other things that happened before that” — and thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. The internet is a forest of inscriptions, so dense that we are far too caught up in infinite fractal brambles of things said and done to actually make any real choices, and/or to understand our situation insofar as we can affect it. 

This got me thinking about Jacques Derrida (I know…). In Archive Fever, a later work dealing with the looming digital age, he speaks about how the titular fever — what he identifies as a death or destruction drive — allows in itself for the ongoing existence of the archive: “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.” Basically the only reason we’re stuck in the “doom loop” of forever talking about the past, as Warzel puts it, is because the internet contains both the constant production of the past as well as an intense feeling of ephemerality.

Lumiere Brothers short from 1895 upscaled to 4K

The 1895 short film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” is probably one of the most famous — and the earliest — film clips in history. It was directed and produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière, brothers who were among the first to create such films. The 50-second silent movie shows a train pulled by a steam locomotive into the gare de La Ciotat, the train station in a French southern coastal town near Marseille. It consists of one continuous real-time shot. There were rumors that when it was first shown, the audience screamed and some fled from their seats, convinced a real train was coming at them. But many film historians doubt that this actually happened.

In 2020, YouTuber Denis Shiryaev wanted to update the look of the clip, so — with the help of several neural networks — he upscaled the clip to 4K resolution and 60 FPS