New updates: Life in a time of COVID

November 2021 update: As of November 26, the WHO said that there have been a little less than 260 million cases worldwide, and more than 5 million deaths — a number that most experts believe significantly understates the total amount of COVID-related deaths. When I looked at the data on November 28, there had been more than 600,000 new cases in the past 24 hours. In many places, vaccination rates are high — more than 85 percent of Canadians are double vaccinated, and many have also had boosters — so while cases are rising, the number of hospital admissions and deaths is not rising as quickly.

Nevertheless, some countries, including Germany, started locking down again even before the new Omicron variant was discovered and labeled a “variant of concern” by the WHO, which happened on November 26. The new variant was first isolated in South Africa, which led a number of countries to stop allowing any incoming flights from that country, even though the variant is likely already elsewhere, and experts say the only reason South Africa found it is that their detection and analysis systems are first rate. Cases have already been detected in the UK and a number of other countries.

One of the reasons the Omicron variant is seen as concerning is that it has a far greater number of mutations than other variants, and many of them appear to be similar to mutations that have allowed the Delta variant to infect people despite the fact that they are vaccinated. There is also some evidence that the Omicron variant spreads quickly, but there are still a lot of unknowns, including how severe the infections are in those who have been vaccinated. Experts say we should know more within a couple of weeks, and that Pfizer and Moderna believe they can easily create new vaccines to attack the new variant.

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My first website — or one of them, anyway

I was looking through some files I had stashed in a backup folder on an old hard drive, and I came across an almost complete reproduction of one of my first websites, which I hand-coded in an HTML editor around 2003 or so. It was called “A Complete Waste of Time,” and most of what it contained was links to weird Internet sites and pages that I collected at the time (and still do, in case you come across any). But it also had indexes of useful pages as well, including a lot of media-related links, and a lot of financial links — stock-quote sites, etc. — because at the time I was the business columnist for the website of the Globe and Mail, a daily national newspaper based in Toronto.

The first “live” version of the Globe‘s website had just launched in 2000, and I was one of a team of about seven or eight people who worked for it, in a separate area on the third floor. This was around the time I discovered “blogs,” and started my own, which would gradually evolve into the site you’re on now. At the time, the Globe had put all of its columnists behind a paywall, which cut my readership by about 90 percent, but at some point it dawned on me that a blog could be like a column — but with more interactivity — and it wasn’t behind a paywall!

Thus began my career as a “blogger,” which ultimately led to a job doing social media for the Globe (imagine explaining to a senior executive that people should be “tweeting”), and then a job at my friend Om Malik’s site GigaOM, a technology blog network based in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the site ran out of money and shut down rather suddenly in 2015 (someone bought the domain name and kept running a kind of zombie version), and then I joined Fortune magazine, and finally joined the Columbia Journalism Review.

Anyway, this is the version of my site from 2003, which I’ve recreated more or less accurately (the original was only 600 pixels wide, since not a lot of graphics cards or monitors could display anything wider, so I widened it a bit). This was actually an upgrade from my first site, which I called “World Wide Weirdness.” As far as I can recall, I created that one in the mid-1990s, but I can’t find any record of it. It was very much like the one I’ve linked to here, but more of a hodge-podge of links to weird things and odd news items. In the intro, I wrote: “Here’s a picture of me at work,” but it was actually a screenshot taken from the game DOOM.

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The consumer web was still relatively young in 2003, but it was old enough that I included a bunch of humorous elements at the bottom making fun of various web and blog standards — including badges making fun of the awards and other ephemera that some sites displayed (“Top 10 Sites on the Web” etc.) and a counter that just rotates randomly, poking fun at sites that actually kept track of the thousands who had visited them. Later versions included links to a “web-ring,” which was a way of linking to other blogs you liked, and links to sites like Del.icio.us, which I used to keep track of interesting things (I use Instapaper now for much the same thing).

One of the fascinating things about putting my old site back together is seeing how many of the links are still around — most of them have disappeared, not surprisingly, due to “link rot” and other phenomena, and I haven’t really tried to update them. But some of the weirder sites remain, which is hilarious to me. I mean, it’s not a surprise that Bert Is Evil or Hillbilly Hercules no longer exist, but I definitely didn’t expect the Church of the Blind Chihuahua to still be around. And yet, there it is (the blind dog is a metaphor, in case you were wondering). The Smoking Gun is still around too, although it’s not as relevant as it used to be, since everyone just posts dirt about celebrities etc. to Twitter.

I have corrected some of the links — including one of the first weird sites I ran across in my earliest days on the web, Strawberry Pop-Tart Blowtorches, which was created in 1994 by a university student named Patrick Michaud and built around testing a single premise: namely, that “toasters which fail to eject Pop Tarts cause the Pop Tarts to emit flames 10-18 inches in height.” Based on the video evidence, this appears to be accurate. Another was a site that contained video of the indescribable moment when a bunch of engineers decided to blow up a whale carcass using half a ton of dynamite. I remember showing people in the Globe newsroom this video in 1994, because at that time I was one of the few reporters with Internet access at their desk.

In many ways, the site is like a time capsule — a glimpse of a simpler time on the Internet, before the invention of social media and the dominance of trillion-dollar platforms like Google and Facebook, and the disinformation maelstrom we’ve lived in for the past several years. I often wish we could go back to the days of link-blogs, when all I cared about was trolling through the web looking for interesting sites like Strawberry Pop-Tart Blowtorches. Are we better off now? I honestly don’t know. Things have definitely gotten more complicated! But here we are.

Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch and the golden years of British folk

I regret to say that I was unaware of either Sandy Denny — former singer with the Fairport Convention — or Anne Briggs, or finger-style folk guitarist Bert Jansch, but I have rectified that thanks to Max Read and his excellent newsletter:

I started getting into this stuff a few years ago, after hearing Sandy Denny’s incredibly beautiful “False Bride,” from 1967, and falling in love with her voice. Denny, a former nurse, started singing on England’s folk-club circuit in the mid-1960s; she rose to become the leading vocalist of English folk-rock music — no mean feat in a staggering generation of talent that also included Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, June Tabor, and Maddy Prior. She died in 1978, apparently from a fall, after struggling with alcohol addiction.

I tend to associate Denny with fall, maybe because her favorite themes as a songwriter were passing time, changing seasons, and growing darkness. Though the seasonally appropriate original here is “Late November,” my favorite Sandy song is the gorgeous, bitter “Blackwaterside” she recorded live at the Paris Theatre for the BBC in 1972, which can be listened to at 16:25 below. It’s the story of a woman seduced and discarded by an man she meets on the banks of the River Blackwater

The Greatest Unsolved Heist in Irish History

King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, and Princess Victoria were due to visit on July 10, to make an appearance at the exhibition and perform some various royal duties. The political relationship between Ireland and Great Britain was fraught, with a rising tide of Irish nationalism competing with unionists who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown. There had already been debate about how Irish—or British—the International Exhibition should be. (There were separate pavilions for Ireland and Great Britain; the Irish War of Independence would erupt just over a decade later.) On top of that, the king’s nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, had just months before endured a massive political scandal. King Edward was sensitive to controversy. He needed this visit to go smoothly.

It did not go smoothly.

Four days before the king was due to arrive in Dublin, the jewels went missing. The story of this theft would eventually involve a sex scandal, conspiracies that pointed the finger at both sides of the political spectrum, the occult, drunken pranks, bankrupt celebrities, sham trials, and an incredibly effective hush campaign from the top rung of the political ladder. The jewels have never been recovered.

Via: The Greatest Unsolved Heist in Irish History – Atlas Obscura

Is Thomas Pynchon tweeting his Hollywood memories?

Some people with way too much time on their hands have apparently come up with a theory that legendary author and semi-recluse Thomas Pynchon is on Twitter, posting gossip and memories of Hollywood in the 1970s in the guise of a fictional producer-director named Sam Harpoon, who happens to be a character with a bit part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie “Licorice Pizza.”

From Reddit:

“It’s fairly obvious this is a legit account – it’s followed by most of the cast/crew from the film, as well as other directors like Rian Johnson and the Safdie Brothers (one of which stars in the film). […] Besides these tweets all reading exactly like Pynchon – the account also has an odd number of references to his work, including an homage to the 50th anniversary of Gravity’s Rainbow in his Twitter bio. […] We know TP and PTA are friends, and him secretly tweeting a micro novel’s worth of fictional 70’s film history feels so Pynchonesque I can’t help but believe it’s him.”

P.S. I got all of this from Max Read’s excellent newsletter, which you can find here.

The true story behind TV’s strangest space Jew

Eight years ago, Atlantic writer Yair Rosenberg started trying to figure out why an obviously Jewish character suddenly showed up in a minor role in the science-fiction show Firefly, but no one in the show ever mentioned the fact that he was Jewish. He wound up interviewing the actor who played the character, who said the role triggered a desire to learn more about Judaism, and finally tracked down the producer to find out why the show chose to make the character Jewish.

I also learned from this piece that the term “Kwisatz Haderach,” which author Frank Herbert used in Dune to refer to Paul Atreides and the myth of a messiah, is a transliteration of a Jewish term, term kefitzat haderech (קפיצת הדרך), which means the “shortening of the way” or “leaping of the path.” As Rosenberg describes it, “the messiah, in other words, is the one who propels humanity forward to its ultimate destination.”

On journalistic books and withholding information

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

Even before Donald Trump lost the presidential election in 2020, books about him and his administration had already become a cottage industry—books about the chaos and turmoil at the White House during his term, books about his impeachment trial, books looking at his tangled relationship with questionable characters like Steve Bannon, and more. Bob Woodward, the legendary reporter for the Washington Post, has done more than his fair share to help expand this cottage industry by writing three of them. In one of the latest in this genre, entitled “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show,” Jonathan Karl—the Washington correspondent for ABC News—chronicles the post-election intrigue inside the White House, including a memo written by Jenna Ellis, a legal advisor to the Trump campaign, about how Trump might be able to reject the results of the election and have Mike Pence declare him the winner.

It says a lot about the Trump administration that this wasn’t the only such memo that circulated at the White House. In his third book on the Trump presidency, released in September and entitled “Peril,” Woodward and his co-author Robert Costa reported that John Eastman, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote a similar memo outlining how Pence could simply disregard the electoral votes from states that Trump didn’t win and then use the Republican majority in Congress to ratify his “victory.” Both of these memos also had something else in common: for some critics, they represented potentially critical information about the health of American democracy, information that should have been reported when it happened, rather than saved for the publication of a book.

Steve Inskeep, an NPR host who recently interviewed Karl about his book, responded on Twitter to some of these arguments by saying that as a society, “our most pressing need is for context, careful reporting, understanding. It’s not to file stories instantly on every incremental tidbit.” Reporters like Karl and Woodward, he suggested, need time to put things into context, especially the chaos of the Trump White house. “When journalists report the very latest bit, that may serve the audience well, or may not. Our demand for instant answers is not often consistent with wisdom,” Inskeep added. Erik Wemple, the media critic for the Washington Post, defended Woodward in a similar way when he was criticized for withholding information for his book.

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What can we do about society’s ‘information disorder’?

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

In January, the Aspen Institute set up a Commission on Information Disorder, and announced a star-studded group of participants — including co-chair Katie Couric, former global news anchor for Yahoo, as well as Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex — to look at solutions to the problem of rampant disinformation. Other not-so-famous members of the commission include Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute; Yasmin Green, director of research at Google’s Jigsaw project (who took part in CJR’s symposium on disinformation in 2019); Alex Stamos, founder of the Stanford Internet Observatory; and Dr. Safiya Noble, co-founder of UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. The commission was funded by Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist (who is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers). On Sunday, the group released its final report, with 15 recommended steps that it says could be taken by governments, technology companies, and others to help address the problem of disinformation.

In their introduction to the report, the commission’s three co-chairs—Couric, along with Chris Krebs, co-founder of Aspen Digital, and Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change—say information disorder slows down our response time on issues such as climate change, and also “undermines democracy [and] creates a culture in which racist, ethnic, and gender attacks are seen as solutions, not problems.” They add that while in the past, there was a belief that in order to fight bad information, all we need is more good information, “in reality, merely elevating truthful content is not nearly enough to change our current course.” In some cases, if promoting more factual information involves debunking hoaxes and conspiracy theories, those practices can actually exacerbate the problem, as Data & Society researcher Whitney Phillips (now a professor of media studies at Syracuse University) pointed out in a 2019 report on “The Oxygen of Amplification.”

The Aspen report notes that “there is an incentive system in place that manufactures information disorder, and we will not address the problem if we do not take on that system.” Some of the major players in that incentive system, according to the group, are large tech platforms such as Facebook, which it says have “abused customers’ trust, obfuscated important data, and blocked research.” The commission mentions one example CJR has also highlighted: the fact that Facebook shut down a research project run by scientists from New York University by turning off their access to the social network. “Critical research on disinformation—whether it be the efficacy of digital ads or the various online content moderation policies—is undercut by a lack of access to data and processes,” the report states. Several of its recommendations are aimed at solving this problem, including one that asks the government to require platforms to “disclose certain categories of private data to qualified academic researchers, so long as that research respects user privacy, does not endanger platform integrity, and remains in the public interest.”

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