Disney turned a Clinton robot into an animatronic Trump

Alex Goldman writes: “For years, there has been a popular conspiracy theory that goes like this: in 2016 the folks in charge at Disney, much like large swaths of the country, believed Hillary Clinton would win, and even before she was elected were hard at work on a Hillary animatronic for the Walt Disney World Hall of Presidents attraction. When they were surprised by a Donald Trump victory, they were forced to hastily repurpose the Hillary animatronic as a Donald Trump one, to comedically grotesque effect. When I tweeted about it, I ended my tweet with an ask that any imagineers with information on the veracity of this theory to reach out. Imagine my delight when one did.”

Editor’s note: My apologies for missing yesterday’s newsletter – my granddaughter, who just turned one, was visiting us and so I got distracted and forgot to send the newsletter 🙂

In the early 2000’s, the Earth shifted on its axis, and scientists finally figured out why

Raymond Zhong writes for the New York Times: “Around the turn of the millennium, Earth’s spin started going off-kilter, and nobody could quite say why. For decades, scientists had been watching the average position of our planet’s rotational axis, the imaginary rod around which it turns, gently wander south, away from the geographic North Pole and toward Canada. Suddenly, though, it made a sharp turn and started heading east. In time, researchers realized melting of the polar ice sheets had changed the way mass was distributed around the planet. And now they’ve identified another factor: colossal quantities of water pumped out of the ground for crops and households.”

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Cycloramas were the virtual reality of the 19th century

From Allison Meier at JSTOR Daily: “In the fall of 1886, New Yorkers were transported to the Battle of Gettysburg. That is to say, they flocked to a circular structure in downtown Brooklyn. The inside walls of the curious room were covered with a 360-degree painting, on which soldiers charged and cannons fired. As Scientific American described at the time, the floorboards were covered with sod and “real trees, evergreens and others, with shrubbery, portions of fences, and the like are set about, and tufts of grass, wheat, and similar things, lend their aid to fill up the scene.” Skylights illuminated the canvas and props while leaving the spectator area dark, and mannequins were posed alongside the painted scene. So convincing were these dummies that the police got called one evening to stop a robbery and apprehended two fake soldiers.”

What medieval manuscripts reveal about the hidden history of whales

New Whale Behavior May Be Inspiration For Ancient Norse Sea Creature Myth |  IFLScience

From Nina Goldman for the Smithsonian magazine: “The creature was enormous. Sailors said it “looked more like an island than a fish.” When feeding, according to a 13th-century Old Norse manuscript, the beast, known as the hafgufa, would rest with its mouth open wide, luring in unsuspecting fish, then snap its jaws shut to capture them. Hair-raising accounts of a similar sea monster were recorded by Alexandrian scribes as early as the second century A.D.; these accounts spread through Europe and Asia in Arabic, Coptic, Latin and Old English translations. Now researchers argue the mighty hafgufa, and similar sea monsters described by the ancients, were not mythical creatures but rather whales engaged in a behavior that was only recently documented: “trap feeding.”

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What it’s like to steal and eat a $120,000 banana

Noh Hyun-soo writes for The Guardian: “I’d been to Seoul’s Leeum Museum of Art years ago, but last Aprilwas my first visit to see the artwork Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan, which is a banana duct-taped to a wall. It’s a work of conceptual art and comes with a certificate of authenticity giving precise diagrams and instructions for its correct display. It was famously sold for $120,000 at Art Basel Miami in 2019. The banana is changed every few days. There were a lot of visitors, and about 10 people were standing around Comedian. The atmosphere inside the museum was calm. Interestingly, when I got close to another artwork to see it more clearly an alarm sounded and the guards stopped me. But when I approached Comedian, there was no alarm. So there was nothing stopping me when I pulled off the tape to remove the banana from the wall and peeled it.”

How I helped create the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” Internet meme

The Pink Floyd and 'Wizard of Oz' collaboration is twisted

From Charlie Savage for the New York Times: “The phenomenon of watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ while listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is sometimes called ‘The Dark Side of the Rainbow’: If you start the album at just the right time, the music and lyrics uncannily align with the movie’s visuals. Some coincidences are lyrical, as when Dorothy runs away from home at the line ‘No one told you when to run.’ Some are tonal, as when the tornado sequence seems practically choreographed to Clare Torry’s wordless vocals in ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ — rising to a frenzy as the twister rolls in and then shifting to dreaminess just as Dorothy is knocked unconscious.”

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How a former car dealer has flown 23 million miles for free

From Rick Reilly for the Washington Post: “His name is Tom Stuker, and he’s the biggest mistake United Airlines ever made. In 1990,United offered a lifetime pass for $290,000. Stuker jumped on it and has pretty much lived in seat 1B — his favorite — ever since. He once went 12 straight days without sleeping in a bed. Just kept jetting from Newark to San Francisco to Bangkok to Dubai and back again, the equivalent of four trips around the world, leaving the sky only for the airport lounge. Why? Duh. For the miles. Once you get them, you can sell them, trade them, win auctions with them. Stuker has lived like a sultan on United miles ever since — lavish hotel suites all over the world, weeks-long Crystal cruises, gourmet meals from Perth to Paris.”

A little-known local surfer beat out the world’s biggest surfing superstars

From Gabriella Paiella for GQ Sports: “How did a North Shore local named Luke Shepardson win the most prestigious big-wave competition on the planet, beating some of surfing’s brightest stars? Even on an ordinary day, surfing is imbued with the mystical, every wave hinging on chance and elemental collision—a storm in Japan will create a swell thousands of miles away in Hawaii. But the waves produced during the Eddie are perhaps the most sacred on earth. To be invited to ride them means being one of the 40 most-esteemed surfers in the world, as chosen by a committee of your peers. On the beach and along the cliffs that line Waimea Bay, some 50,000 spectators would soon squeeze together for a chance to see greatness, to witness ineffable bravery, and to take part in the grand human tradition of watching some guys (and a few women) do truly crazy shit.”

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Hey Dad, can you help me return the Picasso I stole?

Dan Barry writes for the New York Times: “The Picasso fell off the proverbial truck. It vanished from a loading dock at Logan International Airport in Boston and wound up where it didn’t belong, in the modest home of one Merrill Rummel, also known as Bill. In fairness, this forklift operator had no idea that the crate he tossed into his car trunk contained a Picasso until he opened its casing. In fairness, he didn’t care much for it; he preferred realism. But now things had turned all too real. F.B.I. agents were hot on the trail of a hot Picasso unavailable for public viewing, as it was hidden in Rummel’s hallway closet. He and his fiancĂ©e, Sam, began to panic. “How do we get rid of it?” she recalled thinking. “We couldn’t just give it back. It was a pain in our butt.” Fortunately, Rummel knew a guy.”

TikToker arrives at his own funeral in helicopter after faking his death

From Mary Walrath-Holdridge for USA Today: “TikToker David Baertan, 45, pulled what he called a prank on his friends and family members earlier this month, faking his own death with the help of his wife and kids. Baertan and his family arranged a funeral near Liege, Belgium after his daughter created a post on Facebook mourning her father’s apparent loss, telling him to rest in peace and notifying people of his death. Videos of the funeral show a small crowd gathering as a helicopter hovers for a landing over a grassy field. Confused bystanders look on as the helicopter lands, rushing out onto the grass as they realize that Baertan is the one stepping out of it.”

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Reddit goes to war with its volunteer moderators

If you use the internet, you may think of Reddit—if you think of it at all—as a largely harmless repository of discussion forums about nerdy topics like Star Wars. Last week, however, even those who don’t follow news about the platform may have seen a blizzard of articles about a “moderator revolt” that caused thousands of its most popular forums, or “subreddits,” to go offline by changing their status to private, a process the moderators referred to as “going dark.” The unlikely-sounding catalyst for this uprising was a change to the company’s application programming interface, or API, a set of software instructions that allow third-party apps to access Reddit’s data. Reddit had announced plans to start charging for access to its AP, which used to be freeI. On June 8, Christian Selig, the creator of Apollo, a popular app used for browsing Reddit, said that the new rates would cost him at least twenty million dollars a year. He had no choice, he said, but to shut down his app.

In interviews with The Verge and CNBC, Steve Huffman, the co-founder and CEO of Reddit, suggested that the company decided to implement the API changes because it didn’t want to continue subsidizing third-party apps like Apollo, which essentially compete with Reddit’s official app. But some of the volunteers who moderate the site’s most popular forums seemed to see things differently: they have argued that they rely on third-party apps like Apollo to do the work of moderating posts, because such apps are faster and have more features than the official one. Some critics have also speculated that the API changes—which reportedly involve fees that are hundreds of times higher than those charged by other social-media services—have been driven not by a desire to improve the site, but by to boost revenue so that Reddit can go ahead with an initial public offering, a step that it has been eyeing since 2021.

Reddit was founded in 2005 by Huffman and his college roommate, Alexis Ohanian. In 2006, it was acquired by the magazine publisher Condé Nast, which is owned by the Newhouse family, through their holding company, Advance Publications (the site was spun off as an independent unit in 2011, but Advance is still the majority shareholder). Huffman left Reddit for a time to start a travel company called Hipmunk, but he returned as CEO in 2015. Some still see Reddit as little more than an overgrown discussion forum or a politer version of extremism-riddled communities like 4chan. But according to one estimate, the site has more than five hundred million visitors per month, which would make it the sixth most popular website in the US, behind Google and Facebook but ahead of Amazon and Yahoo. Some observers argue that Reddit now going dark not only affects regular users of the site, but could also mean lower-quality results for some Google searches, which draw on user-generated content from such communities.

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

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The tech platforms have surrendered in the fight over election-related misinformation

Last week YouTube announced that it will no longer remove videos that say the presidential election in 2020 was fraudulent, stolen, or otherwise illegitimate. The Google-owned video platform wrote in a blog post that it keeps two goals in mind when it develops policies around content, one of which is to protect users, and the other to provide “a home for open discussion and debate.” Finding a balance between the two is difficult when political speech is involved, YouTube added, and in the end, the company decided that “the ability to openly debate political ideas, even those that are controversial or based on disproven assumptions, is core to a functioning democratic society.” While removing election-denying content might curb some misinformation, the company said, it could also “curtail political speech without meaningfully reducing the risk of real-world harm.”

YouTube didn’t say in its blog post, or in any of its other public comments about the change, why it chose to make such a policy decision now, especially when the US is heading into another presidential election in which Donald Trump, the man who almost single-handedly made such policies necessary, is a candidate. All the company would say is that it “carefully deliberated” about the change. It’s not the only platform to decide that the misinformation guardrails it erected after the Capitol riots in 2021 are no longer required. Twitter and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, dismantled most of their restrictions related to election denial some time ago.

Twitter announced in January of 2022 that it would no longer take action against false claims about the legitimacy of the election. At the time, a spokesperson told CNN that Twitter had not been enforcing its “civic integrity misleading information” policy, under which users could be suspended or even banned for such claims, since March of 2021. The spokesperson said the policy was no longer being applied to election denial because it was intended to be used during an election or campaign, and Joe Biden had already been president for over a year at that point. Twitter added that it was still enforcing its rules related to misleading information about “when, where, or how to participate in a civic process.”

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

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Meta ramps up threats to block access to the news

In 2021, the Australian government proposed a law called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which forced large tech companies such as Google and Meta to negotiate payment deals with news publishers. In response, Meta not only blocked users in Australia from seeing news content on Facebook but prevented them from posting links to any news stories, regardless of where they were published. The platform also blocked pages belonging to hospitals and emergency services, which Meta described as a mistake but insiders alleged was a deliberate negotiating tactic. Fast forward two years, and Meta says that it is now prepared to block news in Canada in response to a bill in that country that is based on Australia’s bargaining code. (I wrote about the bill back in March.) Although Meta is not currently blocking all news from its platform in Canada, it is blocking access for what it described as a small percentage of users—and if the law is passed, the company said that it intends to “end the availability of news content in Canada permanently.”

In a statement earlier this month, Meta described Canada’s bill, which is called the Online News Act, as “fundamentally flawed legislation that ignores the realities of how our platforms work [and] the value we provide news publishers.” In a more in-depth statement last fall, Marc Dinsdale, the company’s head of media partnerships in Canada, said that the bill is unacceptable, in part, because it “misrepresents the relationship between platforms and news publishers.” The legislation is based on the presumption that Meta unfairly benefits from its relationship with publishers, Dinsdale wrote, “when in fact the reverse is true.” Meta says that its internal data shows that posts with links to news articles make up less than three percent of what people see in their Facebook news feeds, and that the majority of links to news content are posted by the publishers themselves.

Rachel Curran, the head of public policy for Meta Canada, said that users will be included in the current news-blocking test on a random basis, and will only be informed that they are blocked from sharing news if they try to post a link to a news story. According to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the number of news publishers whose content will be affected by the test will not be made public, with inclusion in the test also randomized. “We believe that news has a real social value,” Curran told the Canadian Press news agency. “The problem is that it doesn’t have much of an economic value to Meta. So we are being asked to compensate news publishers for material that has no economic value to us.” In the past, Meta said that it cared about funding journalism. As I noted in a recent piece for CJR, it seems to have changed its mind.

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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In Warsaw, clams help protect the city’s water supply

From Judita at Bored Panda: “While most people probably think of clams and mussels as a part of some fancy dinner, it appears they have a much higher significance in some places. For example, the water quality in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, is monitored by… well, yes, clams. The city of Warsaw gets its water from a river and the main water pump has 8 clams that have triggers attached to their shells. If the water gets too toxic, they close, and the triggers shut off the city’s water supply automatically. Apparently, the mollusks first undergo an acclimatization process after being caught and brought to the laboratory. During that time, scientists also determine the natural opening of their shell—clams leave a slight opening and feed by filtrating water. Within one hour, one clam can filter and thus analyze the quality of 1.5 liters of water.”

The story behind the Chicago newspaper that bought a bar

From Andy Wright at Topic.com: “By 1976, reporter Pam Zekman was well-acquainted with the everyday corruption that permeated Chicago. Zekman was part of a four-person Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team at the Chicago Tribune, where she had gone undercover in a nursing home, for a collections agency, in a hospital, and at a precinct polling place, exposing wrongdoings ranging from medical malpractice to election fraud. When Zekman was poached by a rival paper, the feisty Chicago Sun-Times, she proposed a daring project that would go down in the annals of journalism history as both a feat of reporting and a focal point for ethics debates still raging today.”

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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Is Twitter the new Fox?

Last week, Twitter hosted a live interview with Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, who used the platform’s audio feature, known as Twitter Spaces, to launch his presidential campaign. Instead of being a triumph for both the company and DeSantis, the event was an unmitigated disaster: the first twenty minutes or so were mostly dead air—punctuated by occasional comments from Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner, who was to interview DeSantis alongside David Sacks, an investor and DeSantis donor—before the Space restarted with what appeared to be a dramatically smaller number of listeners. Twitter and the DeSantis campaign both tried to portray the technical problems as a sign of how many people were trying to participate in the event, but ZoĂ« Schiffer and Casey Newton reported, in their Platformer newsletter, that the problems were more likely the result of Musk’s staffing cutbacks. The team working on Twitter Spaces once had as many as a hundred employees. It now has around three.

Glitches aside, some observers saw the event as the latest in a series of moves, on Twitter’s part, to position itself as the network of choice for the American right, the most significant of which arguably came last month when Tucker Carlson announced that he would bring his show to the platform. (Technically, he remains under contract with Fox News, which ousted him in April in the aftermath of its defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems for reasons that remain unclear.) “There are not that many platforms left that allow free speech,” Carlson said in a video. “The last big one remaining is Twitter.” Reports circulated that Musk had discussed the move with Carlson prior to his announcement, though Musk denied cutting any kind of deal, insisting that Carlson will be “subject to the same rules & rewards of all content creators” and that he hoped “many others, particularly from the left,” would join the party. In addition to the Carlson and DeSantis moves, the Daily Wire, a right-wing operation staffed by commentators including Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh, announced that it will be bringing its slate of podcasts to Twitter.

When he took over Twitter last April, Musk said that he wanted to make it a non-partisan space for “free speech,” unlike the left-leaning network that he said it used to be. In order for Twitter to earn the trust of the public, he said, “it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally”; he later added that his acquisition was “not a right-wing takeover.” And yet evidence soon mounted that he was moving the platform inexorably to the right. Shortly after he acquired the company, the idea that Musk personally was a political moderate became “untenable,” Philip Bump wrote for the Washington Post, noting that Musk “endorsed Republicans in the midterm elections, suggested that Anthony Fauci should be prosecuted, and elevated baseless conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi” (the husband of Nancy, the former House speaker, who was beaten with a hammer by an intruder to his home in October). Musk also repeatedly engaged with fringe far-right voices on Twitter and allowed both disinformation and hate speech to proliferate, Bump noted.

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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