Threads: You can have political content but you will have to work for it

Last July, Meta launched Threads, a new social network it hoped would compete with X (formerly Twitter), and within twenty-four hours the new app had hit thirty million sign-ups; a few months later it would have almost a hundred million monthly users, according to Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO. Not long after it launched, however, Adam Mosseri—the man in charge of both Threads and Instagram—sparked some controversy by describing how Threads would handle news, including political topics. In a nutshell, he said that while users were free to post and discuss news and politics, Threads was “not going to do anything to encourage” that kind of content. In other words, news and politics would not be recommended by the Threads content algorithm.

The controversy Mosseri triggered with these remarks resurfaced this week, when he posted an update on Threads’ approach to political news and user accounts. If a user followed political accounts on either Threads or Instagram, he said, Meta would do its best to “avoid getting between you and their content”—but at the same time, Mosseri said, the company remained focused on how to avoid recommending such content in various places across the app. The result, he added, is that political news topics and accounts will not show up as recommendations in any of the app’s features, including Explore, Reels, and Suggested Users. (Mosseri noted that if users wanted to see political recommendations, there would be a way to opt in.)

Mosseri and other Meta spokespeople described these moves as consistent with the company’s existing approach to political content, as described in a Meta blog post. “People have told us they want to see less political content,” the post states, and so the company has spent “the last few years” reducing the amount of such content that users see in their feeds or in recommendations. Meta does this, it said, because its policy is not to recommend certain types of content “to those who don’t wish to see it.” The company told Axios that anyone who discovers that their account is blocked from being recommended can request a review of this decision or “stop posting this kind of content for a period of time” in order to be eligible to be recommended again.

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

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She was the greatest female explorer of all time

From Atlas Obscura: “She’s been called the greatest female explorer of all time, and the best-traveled woman of the Middle Ages. Just after the year 1000 AD, she gave birth to the first European baby in North America. And she concluded her global odyssey with a pilgrimage on foot to Rome. Yet few today can name this extraordinary Viking lady, even if they have heard of Erik the Red and Leif Erikson, her father- and brother-in-law. Her full name, in modern Icelandic, is Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir—Gudrid the Far-Traveled, daughter of Thorbjorn. She was born around 985 AD on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland and died around 1050 AD at Glaumbær in northern Iceland.”

This unassuming suburban couple had a $160 million painting in their bedroom

Police sketches of the man and woman who stole Willem de Kooning's Woman-Ochre from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in November 1985

From the Smithsonian: “She was a retired speech pathologist, and he was a retired music teacher. For all intents and purposes, Rita and Jerry Alter were a totally normal couple living in the New Mexico suburbs—except for one thing. They had a stolen Willem de Kooning painting worth $160 million hanging behind their bedroom door. The couple has never been officially linked to the artwork’s theft from the University of Arizona. According to the university, a man and a woman entered the museum around 9 a.m. on November 29, 1985. While the woman spoke with a security guard, the man went up to the second floor, where he cut the painting from its frame, rolled it up and hid it under a garment.”

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Elon Musk’s desperate search for revenue at X

When asked about the future of X, Elon Musk spins a fanciful tale of an “everything app” where hundreds of millions of users not only post videos but do their online banking, bet on sporting events, hook up with other users on dates, and even search for jobs a la LinkedIn. Is any of this actually happening? No (apart from users posting videos, that is). What is happening—a reality Musk may be trying to obscure with his flights of fancy—is that ad revenue has tanked, brands are staying away, and, according to Fidelity, X’s market value has likely declined by over 70 percent since Musk bought it.

One of Musk’s first big bets is on a pivot to video. To draw attention to this effort, he convinced Jimmy Donaldson, the YouTuber known as MrBeast, to post one of his videos on X last month. While Donaldson said the video made him $263,000 based on more than 150 million views, he also said the stunt was “a bit of a facade,” and that some advertisers likely bought ads on his video only after it was promoted. A number of X users said they saw the show in their feed multiple times, CNBC reported, but it was not marked as an ad.

According to a blog post by the company, a new video feature similar to TikTok’s infinite scroll has over 100 million daily users and more than half of them are from Gen Z, which X says is the fastest growing audience on the platform. The company also talks about letting users publish longer-form videos, and bragged that in December, users watched 130 years’ worth of videos 30 minutes or longer (although it’s not clear what “watched” means). X has announced video deals with celebrities such as CNN news host Don Lemon, and of course former Fox News host Tucker Carlson has a show on X.

Note: This was originally published at Fortune magazine

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He entered the wrong date in an Excel spreadsheet and lost $92 million

From the Financial Times: “Last year, Norway’s $1.5tn sovereign wealth fund revealed that it had lost NKr980mn, roughly $92mn, on an error relating to how it calculated its mandated benchmark, which led to a marginal overweight in US fixed income relative to global fixed income. In a recent report, the fund revealed the source of the mistake: a staffer named Simon entered the date December 1st instead of November 1st when calculating the fund’s benchmark, which threw off the calculations. The mistake wasn’t found until months later by the Norwegian Ministry of Finance, which audits the fund’s performance. Could this be the most consequential Excel spreadsheet error ever?”

The long and surprising legacy of the Hopkinsville Goblins

From Atlas Obscura: “In August 22, 1955, a Kentucky newspaper reported strange goings-on north of Hopkinsville. Two cars arrived at the local police station, filled with at least five adults and several children, all of whom were highly agitated. They unfurled a strange story: a circular-shaped object came to rest in a nearby gully, and a strange, goblin-like thing with glowing eyes appeared and moved toward him. Steven Spielberg was told about the case by J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer turned UFO researcher whose work gave Close Encounters of the Third Kind its title, and the story not only helped inspire what became the movie E.T., but also the movie Gremlins, and the film Poltergeist.”

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.

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The Kee to Bala will never die

Cottage Life magazine recently republished a great piece from 2012 about the Kee to Bala, a legendary music venue perched on the edge of Lake Muskoka, a former 1920s dance hall where everyone from Count Basie to Snoop Dogg have played. For some strange reason — maybe the location, on a beautiful lake two hours north of Toronto in cottage country — it became a must-play location for tons of great bands over the years, some of whom would fly to Canada specifically to play the Kee. Maybe part of the attraction, as the article explains, is the feeling when the venue is packed to the rafters and the whole structure (which is made entirely of wood) is literally bouncing up and down.

It’s embarrassing to have to tell him, but the sound check was, well, impenetrable. “That’s the sound check,” Sam Roberts says, looking remarkably unconcerned. “As soon as the people come in, something magic happens. It’s literally a chemical reaction. You’ll see tonight.” A buzz goes up, and suddenly, it seems, the main floor is thronging with people, a true crowd for the first time. Sam and the boys have been spotted coming in by boat to the Kee dock. Five minutes later, the buzz becomes a roar, and the pit area is packed. At precisely 11 p.m., the Sam Roberts Band walks onto the stage and hits its opening chord. It is as the leader himself said it would be. The bodies absorb the reverb, oscillating in the pit, bobbing in place and holding their hands up like a giant grade one class, and the band’s sound is loud and pure. 

The article quotes Steve Manchee, whose family owns a trio of old cottages on a point across the bay from the Kee — the bands often rent one of the family’s cottages, and Steve often drives them across to the venue in his boat. As it happens, our family rented one of those cottages for a couple of weeks in the summer for a number of years, and we could often hear the bands warming up and performing, the sounds wafting across the bay to Manchee Point.

I remember sitting on the point listening to David Wilcox (I think it was) playing one night on a crystal clear evening when the wind was just right. And more than once, I paddled my kayak the 20 minutes or so across the bay — with a bike light on so people could see me — and sat bobbing in the lake underneath the deck, listening to whoever was playing.

A friend of a friend said he did some work for one of the bands playing at the Kee (I think the mirror got knocked off the Tragically Hip’s tour bus and he had to weld it back on), and he got invited to stay for the show. So he sat backstage and watched as a couple of guys periodically had to shove these huge wooden shims into the stage to keep it level, because the bouncing of the building during a show was so violent that the stage was literally coming apart. Amazing place!

It’s not just a penthouse, it’s a cottage on the roof

From the air, it looks a little like a Cape Cod cottage, or at least the very rich version of such a thing, complete with 12-foot ceilings and a tower with three floors and a tiny cupola. But it’s not in Cape Cod, or anywhere else near the ocean for that matter, it’s on the roof of an apartment building in the East Village of Manhattan. Oh, and it’s listed for $9.5 million — or at least, the entire package is, which includes the top two floors of the building. The condo building is known as the Minthorne House, named after the family whose farm used to cover most of what is now the East Village in the 1800s. The farm was split up and one of the offspring built the five-story apartment building.

New York being what it is, of course, the building only has three apartments over five floors, and they are all worth north of $2 million at this point. The penthouse cottage was last sold in 2017 for $3.5 million, but that was before a wholesale, top-to-bottom restoration of the interior (here’s what it used to look like before). The previous owners were the artist Henry Merwin Shrady III and his family — Henry designed the cottage and had it built, and his son used it while he was going to college. Only possible downside: the Hell’s Angels clubhouse is just a few blocks away.

The history of LSD therapy behind the Iron Curtain

From the MIT Press: “One of the most unusual chapters in psychiatry behind the Iron Curtain concerns the use of LSD psychotherapy in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Until recently, this period was known mainly through the work of Stanislav Grof, who practiced at Prague’s Psychiatric Research Institute, moved to the U.S. in 1967, and is today celebrated as one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. But dozens of other Czech psychiatrists also used LSD in psychotherapy, and the most dedicated and outspoken of them was Hausner, who supervised more than 3,000 LSD sessions, published research in more than 100 articles and books, and yet remains largely unknown, even in his homeland.”

Archeologists have found a vast network of cities hidden under the Amazon jungle

From the BBC: “Using airborne laser-scanning technology, Rostain and his colleagues discovered a long-lost network of cities extending across 300 sq km in the Amazon, complete with plazas, ceremonial sites, drainage canals and roads that were built 2,500 years ago and remained hidden for thousands of years. They also identified more than 6,000 rectangular earthen platforms believed to be homes and communal buildings in 15 urban centres surrounded by agricultural fields. Most of what we think we know about the Amazon is wrong, says Rostain. “This forces us to rethink the entire human past of the Amazon.” 

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.

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