Covering Elon Musk raises some of the same questions that covering Trump did

Do journalists need to change the way we write about Elon Musk? Casey Newton, who writes the Platformer newsletter, is among those who think that we do. Musk’s behavior as the owner and (until recently) CEO of X, the company formerly known as Twitter, may have started out  mesmerizing, like a multi-car pileup on the freeway, but at some point, his penchant for making statements and promises that are not only untrue, but will likely never become true, raises questions about how we should cover him. To take just one recent example cited by Newton, Musk bragged about a proposed martial-arts fight with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Meta. Musk promised that the fight would be live-streamed on X, with the proceeds going to charity; he also hinted that the fight might take place at the Colosseum, in Rome. Behind the scenes, however, Musk reportedly ignored attempts to book a time for the fight, then said he needed more time, and might need surgery.

A grudge match between Zuckerberg and Musk is the kind of thing that gets played for laughs, but other examples of the growing gap between Musk’s statements and the truth have been more serious. Despite Musk’s claim that he is a free speech maximalist, earlier this month, X launched a lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a research group that investigated hate speech on the platform and found that it has been increasing. X alleges that the researchers violated the platform’s terms of service in a “scare campaign to drive away advertisers.” The suit also claims that the center “engaged in a series of unlawful acts designed to improperly gain access to protected X Corp. data,” as well as breach of contract, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, intentional interference with contractual relations, and inducing breach of contract. (In turn, Imran Ahmed, the center’s CEO, accused Musk of “a brazen attempt to silence honest criticism and independent research.”)

To take another example, Musk said in February that X would start sharing ad revenue with creators on the platform. This promise generated some favorable coverage from business and technology journalists. As Newton notes, however, after sending a small number of creators a single payment last month, X announced that too many creators had applied and that it had thus decided to delay the rollout of the plan indefinitely. Then, over the weekend, after a NASCAR driver was suspended for liking a post that made fun of the police killing of George Floydin 2020, Musk promised to pay the legal bills of anyone whose employer has “unfairly treated” them as a consequence of their activity on X. But many observers are skeptical that this will ever happen. “Given that Musk won’t even pay his own vendors,” Newton wrote, “it strains credulity that he would file unlimited lawsuits” to defend ordinary users from attack. (And Musk, reportedly, has also fired a number of employees for criticizing him.)

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

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Bat bombs: A World War II idea that didn’t turn out so well

From Daniel Russell at Unanticipated Consequences: “At the start of World War II, all kinds of ideas for novel weapons were being explored as ways to end the war. Perhaps the most unlikely was Project X-Ray, an attempt to arm Mexican free-tailed bats with tiny incendiary charges. The idea came from a dental surgeon, Lytle S. Adams, who had seen the vast clouds of bats flowing out of Carlsbad caverns. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adams thought of combining the bats with small, fiery charges that would go off after the bats were dropped from a plane. If the bats were dropped at dawn over a Japanese city, they would look for a comfortable place to spend the daylight hours, then the timed fuses would go off, setting the building ablaze.” (Thanks for this items, David Weinberger!)

How an amateur diver became a true-crime sensation

Two scuba divers approaching a car underwater.

From Rachel Monroe for The New Yorker: “In December, 2020, Brandy’s husband showed her a video he’d seen on YouTube. It was made by a group called Adventures with Purpose, volunteer salvage divers who investigated cold cases by searching for cars in lakes and rivers. Brandy spent the evening binge-watching their videos, including one about Nicholas Allen, a North Carolina teen-ager who had disappeared a few months earlier, and whose submerged vehicle and body had been recovered by A.W.P. divers. The video showed Allen’s mother, Judy Riley, standing on the shore of a muddy river, sobbing. “I’ve known he was here. I’ve known and I’ve begged and I’ve asked, and today you guys got me my answers,” she said in the video. That evening, Brandy sent A.W.P. a Facebook message: “I’m hoping to find out how you determine which missing persons cases you work? My mother and her car have been missing without a trace since 1991.”

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Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the greatest female sniper of all time

From Suzanne Raga for Mental Floss: “For Lyudmila Pavlichenko, killing Nazis wasn’t complicated. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” she once said of her job. But Pavlichenko wasn’t just any soldier: She was the most successful female sniper in history, and one of the most successful snipers, period. As a member of the Soviet Army during World War II, she killed 309 Nazis, earning the sobriquet “Lady Death.” She also became a public figure who toured North America and Britain, befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, and spoke candidly about gender equality—especially when she was fed up with American reporters. Pavlichenko killed hundreds of enemy combatants in Odessa, Moldavia, and Sevastopol. “We mowed down the Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she later said.”

Switched at birth, two Canadian men discover their roots at the age of 67

From Norimitsu Onishi at the New York Times: “Richard Beauvais’s identity began unraveling two years ago, after one of his daughters became interested in his ancestry. She urged him to take an at-home DNA test. Mr. Beauvais, then 65, had spent a lifetime describing himself as “half French, half Indian,” or Métis, and he had grown up with his grandparents in a log house in a Métis settlement. So when the test showed a mix of Ukrainian, Ashkenazi Jewish and Polish ancestry, he dismissed it as a mistake. But around the same time, in the province of Manitoba, a young member of Eddy Ambrose’s extended family had shattered his identity with the same test. Mr. Ambrose had grown up attending Mass in Ukrainian, but he wasn’t Ukrainian at all. He was Métis.”

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Meta let researchers study whether it stokes polarization. The results were polarizing

For much of the last decade, academic researchers have been trying to persuade Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, to share internal data about the behavior of users on its platforms, so that they might understand how—if at all—the sites’ algorithms influence people’s political views and behavior. The company suggested that it might offer such access; back in 2018, it even launched a project designed to share data. But the amount of usable information it ended up offering to researchers was minuscule, and in some cases, significantly flawed. As I reported for CJR two years ago this month, Meta also thwarted attempts by social scientists to collect their own data through scraping, and even disabled the accounts of some researchers. All this left the impression that the company had no interest in facilitating academic scrutiny.

It was more than a little surprising, then, when social scientists last week published not one but four new studies based on user data that Meta had shared with them, part of a research project that the company launched in 2020 to analyze users’ behavior both during and immediately after that year’s presidential election. Meta provided twenty million dollars in funding (the company did not pay the researchers involved directly), and the project was coordinated by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that also helped to collect and distribute some of the data. The research was initially scheduled to be released in the summer of 2021, but was delayed a number of times; the lead researchers said that the job of sorting and analyzing all the data was “significantly more time-consuming” than they had expected. The January 6 riot at the Capitol also extended the project’s timeline. 

According to several of the researchers involved and an independent observer of the process—Michael W. Wagner, a professor of journalism and communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—Meta provided virtually all the data that they requested, and did not restrict or try to influence the research. A number of Meta staffers are named as co-authors of the papers. And the project isn’t done yet—another twelve research projects are set to drop soon.

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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Star Wars was inspired in part by a French science-fiction comic

From Nathan Lawrence for IGN: “If you’re a Luc Besson fan, you’ve likely seen at least one of the flashy trailers for his latest movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Like many big-budget movies these days, Valerian is based on a comic. If the Valérian and Laureline comics don’t ring a bell, that’s okay: you’re not alone in not knowing about the French source material. The thing is that while the trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may look like a colourful Star Wars prequel rip-off, the reality is that the Valérian and Laureline comics were birthed a decade before the original Star Wars movie hit the big screen in 1977. There’s been a lot of discussion about just how much of an influence Valérian was on Star Wars. It’s a controversial topic.”

In many best-selling trucks and cars, the engine noise you hear is at least partly fake

From Drew Harwell for the Washington Post: “Stomp on the gas in a new Ford Mustang or F-150 and you’ll hear a meaty, throaty rumble — the same style of roar that Americans have associated with auto power and performance for decades. It’s a sham. The engine growl in some of America’s best-selling cars and trucks is actually a finely tuned bit of lip-syncing, boosted through special pipes or digitally faked altogether. And it’s driving car enthusiasts insane. Fake engine noise has become one of the auto industry’s dirty little secrets, with automakers from BMW to Volkswagen turning to a sound-boosting bag of tricks. Softer-sounding engines are actually a positive symbol of just how far engines and gas economy have progressed. But automakers say they resort to artifice because they understand a key car-buyer paradox: Drivers want all the force and fuel savings of a newer, better engine — but the classic sound of an old gas-guzzler.”

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Amateurs got to Denali’s peak first, but no one believed them

From the University of Alaska, via Kottke.org: “An unexpected find in a University of Alaska Fairbanks archive has revealed more information about the oft-debated April 1910 Sourdough Expedition climb of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. Photographs found by UAF Geophysical Institute professor Matthew Sturm in the university’s Rasmuson Library archives in October show the climbing party at about 16,500 feet — far higher on the 20,310-foot mountain than previously seen. The New York Times on June 5, 1910, carried three full pages about the climb under the headline “First account of conquering Mount McKinley” and included a photograph made at about 11,000 feet. Within weeks of the Times story, however, the climb was largely discredited as a hoax and remained so until 1918 when Hudson Stuck published his book on his successful 1913 ascent of the south — and higher — summit.” (More here)

Mozart’s musical creations were inspired in part by his pet starling

Mozart's pet Starling

From Emily Hogstad for Interlude magazine: “On 27 May 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart bought a pet starling bird at a Viennese pet shop. Normally historians and musicologists don’t pay much attention to composers’ pets, but this starling wasn’t your average pet. Because when Mozart recorded the thirty-four kreutzer expense in his diary, he also transcribed a melody purportedly sung by his new bird. He included two versions: one that the bird sang, and another that was “cleaned up” for insertion into a piece of concert music. This pet store purchase actually raises some serious musicological questions. Mozart wrote on the score that he completed the work April 12, and he wrote in his expense diary that he bought the concerto-singing bird on May 27. The earliest public performance of the concerto (that we know of, anyway) was by a Mozart student on June 13. So what came first: the concerto or the birdsong?”

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The female warrior who was one of the last Samurai

From Rosemary Giles for War History Online: “Nakano Takeko was born into a well-respected samurai family in April 1847. From an early age – sources indicate she began as early as six years old – she was exposed to the ways of combat and weaponry. Her teacher, Akaoka Daisuke, also taught her the literary arts and calligraphy and she was taught to wield the naginata, a Japanese pole weapon with a curved blade. The Boshin War marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of imperial rule in Japan. Even though she was immensely qualified, Nakano Takeko wasn’t supposed to fight, given she was a woman. This didn’t stop her. At only 21 years old, she put together an ad hoc group of female warriors (Onna-musha) called the Jōshitai. Alongside her 40-year-old mother and 16-year-old sister, several other women joined.”

Michelangelo and the invention of the Star Fort

From Sheehan Quirke, also known as The Cultural Tutor: “An unusual little village in the Netherlands’ called Bourtange is built in and around a star fort. This was a type of military fortification which first appeared in Italy in the 15th century as a response to the rise of cannons in warfare. They were, in essence, replacements for the old Medieval castles with their huge towers and ramparts. The star fort was designed with low, angled walls to deflect cannon balls and built from brick rather than stone, which shattered upon impact with cannon balls. Its unsual overall plan ensured that enemies would always be in the line of fire, even when right up against the walls. None other than Michelangelo who played a major role in the early development of the star fort, when he was employed to design defences for the city of Florence. They soon spread all around Europe and, despite being a necessary reaction to the changing technologies and realities of war, even started to shape some ideas about city and urban planning.”

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People in 1920s Berlin nightclubs flirted using pneumatic tubes

From Michael Waters for Atlas Obscura: “Beginning in the 1920s, nightclub-goers in Berlin who feared face-to-face encounters could communicate with beautiful strangers from across the room. All they needed to do? Turn to the nearest pneumatic tube. Two nightclubs in particular—the Resi and the Femina—pioneered the trend. At the Resi (also called the Residenz-Casino), a large nightclub with a live band and a dance floor that held 1,000 people, an elaborate system of table phones and pneumatic tubes allowed for anonymous, late-night flirtation between complete strangers. Phones were fixed to individual tables, and above many was a lighted number. Singles needed only to look around the room, note the number, and then direct a message to that table.”

Einstein and Oppenheimer’s relationship was complicated

The true story behind Oppenheimer and Einstein's relationship | British GQ

From Hillary Busis for Vanity Fair: “Though Einstein and Oppenheimer both lived and worked at Princeton after the war—specifically at its Institute for Advanced Study, where Oppenheimer served as director from 1947 to 1966—they were not particularly close friends. But they did enjoy each others’ company. In 1948, knowing Einstein’s love of classical music, and knowing that his radio could not receive New York broadcasts of concerts from Carnegie Hall, Oppenheimer arranged to have an antenna installed on the roof of Einstein’s modest home. This was done without Einstein’s knowledge—and then on his birthday, Robert showed up on his doorstep with a new radio and suggested that they listen to a scheduled concert. Einstein was delighted.”

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The rent in this 500-year-old housing project is a dollar a year

From Luisa Rollenhagen for Deutsche Welle: “Imagine if your rent was 88 cents — a year. And it hadn’t changed for the past 500 years. Welcome to the Fuggerei. Located in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, the Fuggerei is considered to be the oldest social housing project in the world and continues to provide subsidized housing for Augsburg residents facing financial hardship. One of the Fuggerei’s most unique aspects is its unchanged yearly rent of one Rhenish guilder, which corresponds to less than €1. Today, about 150 people live in the Fuggerei, spread out across 140 apartments. The Fuggerei gets about 30 to 40 applicants a year, with a waiting list that’s currently 80 people long.”

In the 1800s there was an amusement park where LaGuardia Airport is now

Bowery Bay - North Beach, New York NY Postcard | OldPostcards.com

From Larry Margasak for the American Museum of Natural History: “From 1886 through the first two decades of the 20th century, New Yorkers escaping the summer heat flocked by boats and trolleys to North Beach, Queens. Their destination: one of the great beaches and amusement parks of that era. Its formal name, when it opened on the North Shore of Long Island on June 19, 1886, was Bowery Bay Beach. But many New Yorkers knew it as “The Coney Island of Queens.” The pristine recreation area was opened by William Steinway and a partner. Steinway was best known as a manufacturer of the world-famous Steinway pianos, but that wasn’t his only area of interest. Bowery Bay Beach was part of a grand business scheme in Queens. It included Steinway’s piano factory, a new village for Steinway employees and other working-class New Yorkers, an electric trolley system, hotels, a grand pier to receive steamboats, and a dock and pier.”

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How an infamous Greek bank robber became a folk hero

From the BBC: “A masked man drove a stolen van through the quiet streets of Aspra Spitia in central Greece. Parking outside a branch of the National Bank, he forced his way inside carrying an AK-47 rifle. He ordered staff to open the ATM, and snatched 150,000 euros. Then he took 100,000 euros from the cash boxes, and in moments he was gone. It was February 2010, and the Greek economy was in crisis caused, many believed, by greed and corruption in the banks. One man was making them pay. In October, he robbed two banks in the same day. In Eginio, near Thessaloniki, a robber smashed through the windows of the National Bank, then did the same at the Agricultural Bank just 100 yards down the street, escaping with 240,000 euros. In a crime spree spanning three decades, the man known to many as the Greek Robin Hood has taken millions from state-owned banks and kidnapped industrialists, while liberally distributing cash to the needy.”

Etidorhpa: One of the earliest works of psychedelic fiction by a US pharmacologist

John Uri Lloyd's *Etidorhpa* (1895) – The Public Domain Review

From Public Domain Review: “The book is Etidorhpa; or, the End of the Earth: the Strange History of a Mysterious Being and the Account of a Remarkable Journey. Imagine the progeny of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and an experiment in automatic writing by a member of Havelock Ellis’ peyote-munching cohort. Now steep that vision in Masonic paranoia, fringe geological theories, and a surprisingly earnest account of spiritual longing. Published by the Cincinnati-based pharmacologist John Uri Lloyd in 1895, the novel features psychonautical learning long before Albert Hofmann discovered LSD. Lloyd breezily describes evaluating “the alkaloidal salts of morphine, quinine, cocaine, etc.” The author dined with Mark Twain, fished with Grover Cleveland, was employed by the Smithsonian to survey the licorice yields of the Ottoman Empire, and left behind one of the most remarkable private libraries in the United States.”

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