The weird science behind what we call “glitter”

Each December, surrounded by wonderlands of white paper snowflakes, bright red winterberries, and forests of green conifers reclaiming their ancestral territory from inside the nation’s living rooms and hotel lobbies, children and adults delight to see the true harbinger of the holidays: aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate. Aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate settles over store windows like dazzling frost. It flashes like hot, molten gold across the nail plates of young women. It sparkles like pure precision-cut starlight on an ornament of a North American brown bear driving a car towing a camper van. Indeed, in Clement Clarke Moore’s seminal Christmas Eve poem, the eyes of Saint Nicholas himself are said to twinkle like aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate.

An updated history of a viral Internet video

In July, Defector published a story about an ancient internet video called “Basketball (so funny you’ll pee your pants).avi,” based on extensive archival research and interviews with the people involved. The video was filmed at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Penn., in the mid-90s, during a basketball game against Delco Christian. It features a Shipley player heaving the ball across the length of the court, where it collides with a small child. Footage of the freak accident was submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos, and eventually made its way across Web 1.0 video sites and peer-to-peer networks. It is one of the earliest viral videos on the internet. But recently, the story got a lot more complicated all of a sudden.

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The Wire pledges transparency as it reviews its Meta coverage

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

Last week, The Wire—an independent news outlet based in India—reported that Amit Malviya, the social-media manager for India’s ruling BJP party, was able to remove images from Instagram without having to go through the normal moderation channels. As evidence, The Wire published an internal Instagram report that appeared to corroborate its reporting, with timestamps for when the images were removed, and a note that the usual moderation process wasn’t required because they were flagged by Malviya. When Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, denied that this was possible, The Wire published a second story, including a screenshot of what it said was an email from Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta. In the email, Stone seemed upset about the leak of the original report, and asked his staff to put the journalists who published The Wire‘s initial story on a watchlist.

In a response to that story, Guy Rosen, chief information security officer at Meta, wrote that the email from Stone also appeared to have been fabricated. The Wire then published a third story, in which it described the technical method it used to verify the email, and included a video showing the process. The story also had screenshots of emails sent by two unnamed internet security experts, who said they had reviewed a copy of the Stone email and the process The Wire used to verify it, and they were convinced that it was genuine. Some reporters, however, noted that the emails from the experts were dated in 2021, not 2022. Devesh Kumar, the Wire reporter who handled the verification story, said this was a simple mistake due to a glitch in his operating system.

in an interview with Platformer, Casey Newton’s technology newsletter, Jahnavi Sen, deputy editor of The Wire, said someone from the site met with one of the original sources for the report about Instagram, and that this source verified their identity by providing a number of documents, including their work badge and pay slips. Kumar told Platformer that when The Wire approached its original source about the Instagram takedowns, the source send a copy of the internal report within 20 minutes. When The Wire reached out to a different source, they said they didn’t know anything about the Instagram report, but “they had insight into the discussions happening internally. Seven minutes later, the source responded with the email allegedly from Stone.”

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Was Chaucer a rapist? New research suggests he was not

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 nearly 150 years, a cloud has hung over the reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of “The Canterbury Tales,” long seen as the founder of the English literary canon. A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus”— a word commonly translated as rape. But this week, two scholars stunned the world of Chaucer studies with previously unknown documents that they say show that the “raptus” document was not in fact related to an accusation of rape against Chaucer at all. The new documents, the two scholars say, establish that the one that surfaced in the 1870s had been misinterpreted. Instead of stemming from a rape case, they argue, the document had been filed as part of a labor case, in which another man charged Chaumpaigne with leaving his household to work in Chaucer’s before her term of labor was over.

The original Tiger Kings

The last survivors of a lost empire live behind the Mirage, in Las Vegas, out back by the pool. On a good day, Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden will draw more than 1,000 visitors, the $25 adult admission fee justified mostly by the palm shade and tranquility it offers relative to the mania outside its walls. There are also long summer stretches when it’s 100 degrees and things get a little grim. During a recent visit, only a few families strolled through, surveying the five sleeping animals on display: three tigers, a lion, and a leopard. The Secret Garden ostensibly operates as an educational facility. “Look, a lion,” one young father said to his son, while pointing at a tiger.

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Santa Muerte

This is just one of many eye-catching pieces of art from Ravi Zupa, who says he is inspired by German Renaissance printmakers, Flemish primitives, abstract expressionists, Japanese woodblock artists, and Mughal painters. His work frequently incorporates religious iconography from Europe, Asia, and Pre-Columbian Latin America with revolutionary propaganda from around the world. (via my friend Michael Murray’s wonderful online magazine, Galaxy Brain).

The Wire and Meta point fingers

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

On Monday, Jahnavi Sen—deputy editor of The Wire, an independent news outlet in India—reported that Amit Malviya, the social-media manager for India’s ruling political party, was able to have any post removed from Instagram, regardless of the content, by flagging them through the service’s reporting system. An internal report The Wire saw a copy of “makes clear that the reported post was taken down immediately without any of the company’s moderators looking at it,” the site wrote. Any post flagged by Malviya was treated the same way, according to The Wire: “an immediate removal from the platform, no questions asked.” A source at Meta, the parent company of both Instagram and Facebook, told The Wire that Malviya reported more than 700 posts in September, and all were removed.

According to The Wire, these takedowns were allowed because Malviya is part of a Meta program called X Check or Cross Check, whose existence was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in September of 2021, as part of the paper’s reporting on a trove of documents released by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook security staffer turned whistleblower. Under the Cross Check program, “some users are ‘whitelisted’—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come,” the Journal reported (the ability to remove content from Facebook or Instagram is not mentioned).

The Wire‘s story included a copy of the internal Instagram report, which it said confirmed that Malviya was able to have posts taken down because he was a member of the program, including timestamps that allegedly corresponded to when the posts were removed that said “Review not required. Reason: Reporting user has XCheck privileges.” In a response to The Wire, Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said the Cross Check program “has nothing to do with the ability to report posts.” He added that all of the posts mentioned by The Wire “were surfaced for review by automated systems,” and suggested that the document referred to in its story “appears to be fabricated.” Guy Rosen, chief information security officer for Meta, went into more detail in a Twitter thread.

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This Minecraft player tried to duplicate the known universe

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.

Christopher Slayton spent two months exploring black holes, identifying the colors of Saturn’s rings, and looking at his home planet from outer space. And Slayton, who is 18, didn’t even have to leave his desk to do so. He set out to build the entire observable universe, block by block, in Minecraft, a video game where users can build and explore worlds. By the end, he felt as if he had traveled to every corner of the universe. “Everyone freaks out about the power and expansiveness of the universe, which I never really got that much,” he said. But after working for a month and 15 days to build it and additional two weeks to create a YouTube video unveiling it, “I realized even more how beautiful it is.”

The owner of this iPhone was either in a severe car crash or just on a roller coaster

On a sunny September Sunday, Sara White and her family headed to Kings Island amusement park outside Cincinnati. The 39-year-old dentist zipped her two-day-old iPhone 14 Pro securely in her fanny pack, buckled into the Mystic Timbers roller coaster and enjoyed getting hoisted 109 feet in the air and whipped around at over 50 mph. Afterward, she looked down at her phone. The lock screen was lined with missed calls and voice mails from an emergency dispatcher asking if she was OK. During the ride, Apple’s new car-crash detection was triggered, and it automatically dialed 911. The call to the Warren County Communications Center featured an automated voice message from Ms. White’s iPhone: “The owner of this iPhone was in a severe car crash and is not responding to their phone.”

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Scientists find truth behind many ancient flood stories

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.

It wasn’t long after Henry David Inglis arrived on the island of Jersey that he heard the old story. Locals told the 19th-century Scottish travel writer how, in a bygone age, their island had been much more substantial, and that folks used to walk to the French coast. Inglis scoffed as he looked out across 22 kms of sea between Jersey and the French coast, and went on to write that this was “an assertion too ridiculous to merit examination.” About 150 years earlier, another writer had been similarly unmoved; no one could have trod from Jersey to Normandy, he wrote, “unlesse it were before the Flood,” referring to the Old Testament. Yet there had been a flood. A big one. Between roughly 15,000 and 6,000 years ago, massive flooding caused by melting glaciers raised sea levels around Europe, and that flooding is what turned Jersey into an island.

Hurricane Ian destroyed their homes, then algorithms sent them money

When Hurricane Ian churned over Florida in late September, it left a trail of destruction from high winds and flooding. But a week after the storm passed, some people in three of the worst-hit counties saw an unexpected beacon of hope. Nearly 3,500 residents of Collier, Charlotte, and Lee Counties received a push notification on their smartphones offering $700 cash assistance, no questions asked. A Google algorithm deployed in partnership with nonprofit GiveDirectly had estimated from satellite images that those people lived in badly damaged neighborhoods and needed some help.

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The man who stole the Mona Lisa and took it back to Italy

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.

Saturday was the anniversary of the birth of the Italian painter who made perhaps the biggest art repatriation blunder in history. In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia stole da Vinci’s masterpiece from Paris and later brought it to Florence. But the theft’s success as a repatriation effort was very short-lived. Less than three years after it was stolen from the Louvre, the Mona Lisa returned to Paris in January 1914. Though he was misguided as a historian and an umpire of provenance — the painting had been clearly and cleanly purchased by the King of France, the country to which it was ultimately returned — Peruggia’s caper is worth recalling at a time when repatriation remains a murky battleground.

The scandal that rocked a Cleveland fishing tournament

There’s nibble-around-the-edges, cut-the-corners cheating, like going five miles an hour over the speed limit or faking sick to get out of work. This is a story about the other kind: whole-hog, all-in cheating where plausible deniability doesn’t exist. It begins in Cleveland’s Gordon Park, on the shores of Lake Erie, where the Lake Erie Walleye Trail was wrapping up its championship event on Saturday. Fischer weighed the fish of angler after angler, picking up their fish and setting them on a scale. Late in the proceedings, the anglers of boat No. 12, Chase Cominsky and Jake Runyan, brought their five-fish catch up for weighing. They needed to beat 16.89 total pounds to claim Team of the Year honors and $30,000 in various prizes. Their catch’s weight: 33.91 pounds. The silence that greeted Fischer’s announcement was the first sign that something was very much amiss.

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