Your humble and obedient servant

When the writing of handwritten physical letters was popular, it was not uncommon to end a letter with a valediction similar to “Your humble servant,” etc. More recently, people often ended letters with “Yours truly,” or “Sincerely yours.” But according to this article, both of those are actually abbreviations. It explains:

While one may think that the word “Yours” is a type of possessive form, it doesn’t mean that at all. It actually is an abbreviation of “Your Servant” — typically written: yours and abbreviated today as “yours”. So both “Sincerely Yours” and “Yours Truly” actually mean “Sincerely your servant” and “Your servant truly”, respectively.

Florida, Texas, and the fight to control platform moderation

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

On May 23, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit struck down most of the provisions of a social-media law that the state of Florida enacted in 2021, which would have made it an offense for any social-media company to “deplatform” the account of “any political candidate or journalistic enterprise,” punishable by fines of up to $250,000 per day. In their 67-page decision, the 11th Circuit justices ruled that any moderation decisions made by social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, including the banning of certain accounts, are effectively acts of speech, and therefore are protected by the First Amendment. Last week, however, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit came to almost the exact opposite conclusion, in a decision related to a social-media law that the state of Texas enacted last year. The law banned the major platforms from removing any content based on “the viewpoint of the user or another person [or] the viewpoint represented in the user’s expression or another person’s expression.”

In the 5th Circuit opinion, the court ruled that while the First Amendment guarantees every person’s right to free speech, it doesn’t guarantee corporations the right to “muzzle speech.” The Texas law, the justices said, “does not chill speech; if anything, it chills censorship. We reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First
Amendment right to censor what people say.” The court dismissed many of the arguments technology companies such as Twitter and Facebook mamde in defense of their right to moderate content, arguing that to allow such moderation would mean that “email providers, mobile phone companies, and banks could cancel the accounts of anyone who sends an email, makes a phone call, or spends money in support of a disfavored political party, candidate, or business.” The appeals court seemed to endorse a definition used in the Texas law, which states that the social media platforms “function as common carriers,” in much the same way that telephone and cable operators do.

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association—trade groups that represent Facebook, Twitter, and Google—argued that the social-media platforms should have the same right to edit content that newpapers have, but the 5th Circuit court rejected this idea. “The platforms are not newspapers,” Judge Andrew Oldham wrote in the majority opinion. “Their censorship is not speech.” Given the conflicting arguments in the 11th Circuit case and the 5th Circuit decision, Ashley Moody, the Attorney General for Florida, on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to decide whether states have the right to regulate how social media companies moderate. The answer will affect not just Florida and Texas, but dozens of other states—including Oklahoma, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia— that have either passed or are considering social-media laws that explicitly prevent the platforms from moderating content, laws with names such as The Internet Freedom Act, and The Social Media Anti-Censorship Bill.

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Alzheimer’s is an immune system disorder, doctor says

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

For years, scientists have been focused on trying to come up with new treatments for Alzheimer’s by preventing the formation of brain-damaging clumps of a mysterious protein called beta-amyloid. But is that really the key to the disease? In July 2022, Science magazine reported that a key 2006 research paper, which identified beta-amyloid as the cause of Alzheimer’s, may have been based on fabricated data. Other scientists believe there may be other causes: Donald Weaver, who runs the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto, says his research shows that Alzheimer’s may be an immune system disorder. “We believe that beta-amyloid is not an abnormally produced protein, but rather is a normally occurring molecule that is part of the brain’s immune system,” he writes.

Satellite images show the unprecedented flooding that has left Pakistan underwater

Reuters has a feature that compares satellite images of Pakistan before and after the massive flooding that has hit the country. In one area in Sindh province, which has been especially badly hit, locals say even two-storey houses are barely visible over the surface of the water. Floods from record monsoon rains and glacial melt in the mountainous north have affected 33 million people and killed over 1,500, washing away homes, roads, railways, bridges, livestock and crops in damage estimated at $30 billion, Reuters says. The news service used imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite.

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Researchers find rare space diamonds from ancient planet

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Billions of years ago, an asteroid smashed into a dwarf planet in a cataclysmic collision that blasted the insides of the planet into outer space. Over time, remnants of the dwarf planet’s mantle have fortuitously fallen to Earth as diamond-rich meteorites, called ureilites, that reveal an unprecedented glimpse into the subterranean layers of a doomed ancient world. For years, scientists have puzzled over the fallen remains of the long-lost planet and the mysterious presence of its abundant diamonds, which include hints of lonsdaleite, an ultra-rare type of diamond named after the pioneering crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale. Now, scientists led by Andrew Tomkins, a professor of geosciences at Monash University, have found the largest lonsdaleite diamonds ever seen.

A buyer thought he was buying a painting by Lucian Freud — but is that what he got?

A businessman who liked to acquire furniture and art at competitive prices — let’s call him Omar — bought a rare painting by Sigmund Freud’s grandson in 1997, for a hundred thousand Swiss francs, or about seventy thousand dollars, several times lower than its appraised value. He thought he had gotten a steal, and tried to lure some potential buyers by putting it on eBay. Then he got a call from someone claiming to be Freud himself, who said he wanted the painting back, and offered Omar a hundred thousand Swiss francs. Omar refused. The caller doubled his offer. “Sorry,” Omar said. “I am loving this painting.” The voice responded: “Fuck you. You will not sell the painting all your life.” When Omar tried to have the painting authenticated, Freud claimed it wasn’t his.

Experts say the number of lakes on Mars has been drastically underestimated

Billions of years ago, Mars was speckled with murky lakes that may have been home to microbial life, raising the tantalizing possibility that Martian fossils might be buried in the dessicated remains of these ancient waters, which are known as “paleolakes.” Scientists even speculate that briny liquid lakes may still flow under the red planet’s ice caps, perhaps providing a final refuge for microbial Martians—though the odds of extant life on Mars are hotly debated. Some 500 paleolakes have been identified on Mars, but scientists believe that hundreds or thousands more are waiting to be discovered in this “new era of Martian limnology,” meaning the study of freshwater ecosystems, according to a study published on Thursday in Nature Astronomy.

An AI used medical notes to teach itself to spot disease on chest x-rays

After crunching through thousands of chest x-rays and the clinical reports that accompany them, an AI has learned to spot diseases in those scans as accurately as a human radiologist. The majority of current diagnostic AI models are trained on scans labeled by humans, but that labeling is a time-consuming process. The new model, called CheXzero, can instead “learn” on its own from existing medical reports that specialists have written in natural language. The findings suggest that labeling x-rays for the purpose of training AI models to interpret medical images isn’t necessary, which could save both time and money. A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School trained the model on a publicly available data set of more than 377,000 chest x-rays and more than 227,000 clinical reports.

The number of ants on Earth is such a large number it’s almost unimaginable

A new estimate for the total number of ants on Earth comes to a mind-boggling total of nearly 20 quadrillion – or about 20,000 trillion. In a paper released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists from the University of Hong Kong analyzed 489 studies and concluded that the total mass of ants on Earth weighs in at about 12 megatons of dry carbon. Put another way: If all the ants were plucked from the ground and put on a scale, they would outweigh all the wild birds and mammals put together. So for every person who is alive on the planet right now, there are about 2.5 million ants. “It’s unimaginable,” Patrick Schultheiss, a lead author on the study who is now a researcher at the University of Würzburg in Germany, told the Washington Post in a Zoom interview.

The mysterious and fascinating search for the secrets of eel migration

The European eel and the American eel—both considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—make this extraordinary migration. The Sargasso is the only place on Earth where they breed. The slithery creatures, some as long as 1.5 meters, arrive from Europe, North America, including parts of the Caribbean, and North Africa, including the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers study them in the hope of solving mysteries that have long flummoxed marine biologists, anatomists, philosophers, and conservationists: What happens when these eels spawn in the wild? And what can be done to help the species recover from the impacts of habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and hydropower? Scientists say that the answers could improve conservation. But, thus far, eels have kept most of their secrets to themselves.

We dry out as we age

Could “obesogens” contained in plastic be making us fat?

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

According to a recent Bloomberg piece, in the US, roughly 40% of today’s high school students were overweight by the time they started high school. Globally, the incidence of obesity has tripled since the 1970s, with fully one billion people expected to be obese by 2030. An emerging view among scientists is that one major overlooked component in obesity is almost certainly our environment — in particular, the pervasive presence within it of chemicals which, even at very low doses, act to disturb the normal functioning of human metabolism. Some of these chemicals, known as “obesogens,” directly boost the production of specific cell types and fatty tissues associated with obesity. Unfortunately, these chemicals are used in many of the most basic products of modern life including packaging, clothes and furniture, cosmetics, and food additives.

This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it

Those cool AI-generated images you’ve seen across the internet? There’s a good chance they are based on the works of Greg Rutkowski, according to MIT’s Technology Review. Rutkowski is a Polish digital artist who uses classical painting styles to create dreamy fantasy landscapes. He has made illustrations for games such as Sony’s Horizon Forbidden West, Ubisoft’s Anno, Dungeons & Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering. And he’s become a sudden hit in the new world of text-to-image AI generation. His distinctive style is now one of the most commonly used prompts in the new open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion, which was launched late last month. The tool, along with other popular image-generation AI models, allows anyone to create images based on text prompts.

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My media diet and I are featured in the “Why Is This Interesting?” newsletter

I’ve been a fan of Noah Brier and Colin Nagy’s great “Why Is This Interesting?” newsletter for quite awhile now, so I was honoured to be asked to submit an interview as part of their regular “media diet” feature. You can check it out at their site, or you can read it below:

Tell us about yourself.

I’m the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, which is published by Columbia University, but I live in Canada (in a secret location known only as “The Meadows”). I write about the intersection of media and the internet, which means basically everything from Facebook and Twitter to 4chan and QAnon. Before I joined CJR, I wrote about media for Fortune magazine and, before that, for a blog network called GigaOm that was started by my friend Om Malik. Prior to that, I spent about 15 years as a reporter, columnist, and editor at a national newspaper in Toronto called the Globe and Mail. While I was a business reporter there in 1995, I started a stock index that included some early internet giants, including Netscape, and that was the beginning of my fascination with the web. I started the paper’s first blog, and then at one point around 2008, they put me in charge of social media — I’m pretty sure I was the first social-media editor at any major newspaper in North America, as far as I know. I started the paper’s first Twitter and Facebook accounts (imagine trying to describe “tweeting” to senior executives in 2007) and introduced things like live-blogging to reporters and editors, and also helped launch and moderate reader comments. That was back when the internet and I were both still young and naive 🙂

Describe your media diet.

I read everything I can get my hands on, from the backs of cereal boxes to old magazines at the dentist’s office and everything in between. Most of my hard news content comes either through Twitter lists that I’ve created over the last decade or so, or through newsletters I subscribe to (like this one!), but I also subscribe to and read (or skim at least) most of the major news publishers like the NYT, Washington Post, etc. as well as the New Yorker and The Atlantic. I like the BBC’s international coverage, and I also read some other sources like Al Jazeera to get a different perspective on world events. In my spare time, I like to read old-school blogs like and Metafilter, and I like to browse Tumblr and Reddit — Reddit’s “Today I Learned” and “Explain It Like I’m Five” in particular are great, but there are also sub-Reddits that do an amazing job of covering news, like the one that has been reporting on the war in Syria.

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TikTok has fueled a debate over sleep training for babies

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Both sides of the sleep-training debate come with their own experts; whatever you decide to do, you’re going to be able to find a person with some type of credential to back you up. Parents who find the “cry in crib” approach abhorrent can cite the work of British attachment-parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith, whose Gentle Sleep Book includes sentences like “It is indeed true that sleep deprivation is a form of torture.” Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program, argues that we should worry less about the crying. “I find the argument that crying harms your child ludicrous.” He recalled when his 5-year-old cried because there was an ant on his doughnut: “I wasn’t worried about him being brain-damaged afterward.”

Fifth Circuit court decision pretends the First Amendment doesn’t exist

Mike Masnick of Techdirt (which you should read if you aren’t already) looks at what he says is an extremely stupid court decision that just came down on platform moderation: “As far as I can tell, in the area the 5th Circuit appeals court has jurisdiction, websites no longer have any 1st Amendment editorial rights,” says Masnick. “That’s the result of what appears to me to be the single dumbest court ruling I’ve seen in a long, long time, and I know we’ve seen some crazy rulings of late. However, thanks to judge Andy Oldham, internet companies no longer have 1st Amendment rights regarding their editorial decision making.”

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A kayak trip up Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park

If you’ve ever been to Algonquin Park in Ontario, you know it’s one of the largest parks in Canada, if not the world. It’s about 7,600 square kilometres in size — that’s about one-quarter the size of Belgium — and it has about 2,400 lakes and 1,200 kilometres of rivers. Most people who go to Algonquin camp or canoe on the west side, or just off Highway 60, which runs right through the park. But there is a jewel on the far eastern side of the park that is worth visiting, and that is Barron Canyon.

Barron Canyon is a massive, narrow canyon with walls that are about 300 feet high in spots — almost twice as high as Niagara Falls. According to geologists, the fault associated with Barron Canyon was probably first formed during the breakup of the supercontinent known as Rodina about 570 million years ago, and then enlarged during the breakup of Pangea some 150 million years ago. At one point, the Barron River carried the entire outflow from Lake Aggasiz (the precursor of today’s Great Lakes). Although it is very high, the canyon is less than 50 feet wide in spots, which makes the massive granite walls seem even more impressive. There’s a great hiking trail along the top of the canyon that is definitely worth it, but it’s a great day paddle as well.

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