John von Neumann was a real-life Doctor Strangelove

“More than anyone else, John von Neumann created the future. He was an unparalleled genius, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, and he helped invent the world as we now know it. He came up with a blueprint of the modern computer and sparked the beginnings of artificial intelligence. He worked on the atom bomb and led the team that produced the first computerised weather forecast. In the mid-1950s, he proposed the idea that the Earth was warming as a consequence of humans burning coal and oil, and warned that ‘extensive human intervention’ could wreak havoc with the world’s climate. Colleagues who knew both von Neumann and his colleague Albert Einstein said that von Neumann had by far the sharper mind.” via The Spectator

Barcelona’s “Block of Discord”

The Illa de la Discòrdia or Mansana de la Discòrdia — which translates as “Block of Discord” — is a city block in the Eixample district of Barcelona, in Spain. The block is famous for having buildings designed by four of the city’s most important modern architects: Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Enric Sagnier, right next door to each other. As the four architects’ styles were very different, the buildings clash with each other and the neighboring buildings.

European civilization is built on ham and cheese, including books

This Twitter thread is a persuasive argument that most — if not all — of the important parts of European civilization are built on ham and cheese, and that includes books, which were originally printed on vellum, a material made from the skin of young male sheep and cows (females being too valuable for breeding). Hardback books were invented because vellum tended to buckle and ripple, so boards were sewn into the cover to keep them straight. Furthermore, books also were built on snails.

These blinking tubes are the most important device in the universe

If you’ve ever heard of “the Whilhelm Scream” — an audio file of a man screaming, which has been used in literally thousands of movies and TV shows — this prop, with its blinking neon light tubes, could be the physical equivalent. It has appeared in dozens of science-fiction TV shows and terrible movies, and has become such a ubiquitous player in various versions of Star Trek that it should have its own trailer by now. According to a comment on this YouTube clip — which is part one of a three-part series — Modern Props owner John Zabrucky designed it, and it dates to about 1977 or so, but was updated several times.

It’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers

One great thing about fall is it’s a chance to post this timeless classic from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency — “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers”

“I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. I’m about to head up to the attic right now to find that wicker fucker, dust it off, and jam it with an insanely ornate assortment of shellacked vegetables. When my guests come over it’s gonna be like, BLAMMO! Check out my shellacked decorative vegetables, assholes. Guess what season it is — fucking fall. There’s a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant fucking squash.”

“We salted Nannie” — a real-life Southern ghost story

In September of 2014, Tom Maxwell moved with his family into a large, historic home in Hillsborough, North Carolina. With its affordable rent and lush surroundings, it seemed too good to be true. Nine months later, they broke their lease, loaded up the truck, and ran away as fast as they could from the spirits and apparitions that had tortured them. Only afterward would Maxwell learn about the 300 years of bad mojo that had piled up in the house they called Nannie.

“The old and sturdy house, set on rolling pastureland alongside a placid river, appeared safe and calm. It was not. Nannie, and the land around her, was thoroughly haunted. In less than a year we would break the lease, perform a binding ritual, and leave.

As the nature and intensity of the hauntings increased, an elongate man appeared downstairs, almost two-dimensional in his flatness. He would peep at you from around corners or through doorways, just inside your peripheral vision. When you looked at him, he would flash a toothy smile, flatten into the wall and vanish. Scratches appeared on Brooke’s back several times, before my eyes, as we showered.

A hooded thing with long, thin arms began standing over Brooke as she slept. We discussed the possibility of night-hag syndrome, a particularly unpleasant type of sleep paralysis. Whatever it was, it was recurring and utterly terrifying. We had a list of nicknames for our tormentors: Smokey, Spaghetti Arms, The Spook Parade, Bonnet Lady, Smiley, Buckskin Man, Kitchen Lady, The Upstairs Thing.”

This apartment hides your belongings in the ceiling

In this new apartment complex in Harlem, some experimental apartments are fitted with a structural system designed by former Apple and Tesla engineers, which hides most of the resident’s belongings — including their bed — in the ceiling. Drawers filled with clothing and other articles drop down on command, using a smartphone, and according to the designers the app remembers where the owner put all of their clothing, so a user can request a certain hat or sweater and the system will bring down that drawer. Not a bad way of making a 500-square-foot apartment seem a lot larger!

Facebook hearing sparks talk of a social media regulator

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

Last week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee about the company’s propensity for disregarding its own research into the harms done by its content algorithms, particularly among young girls who use Instagram, its photo-sharing site. One of the solutions that Haugen recommended is something a number of other Facebook critics have also proposed over the past several years: regulatory oversight that would impose standards of behavior on the social network (and presumably other social networks such as Twitter and YouTube) in an attempt to minimize their various harms. “Right now, the only people in the world who are trained to … understand what’s happening inside of Facebook, are people who grew up inside of Facebook or Pinterest or another social media company,” Haugen told the Senate subcommittee on **. She said the company’s profit motive was so strong that Facebook would not change unless it was subjected to pressure from a government regulator. “Until incentives change at Facebook, we should not expect Facebook to change,” she said. “We need action from Congress.”

There are plenty of critics of this idea, but there’s also one somewhat surprising supporter: Facebook. In a March, 2019 op-ed in the Washington Post, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, argued that government regulation is necessary and that he welcomes it: “Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks,” he wrote. “But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone. “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators.” Among other things, Zuckerberg said he agreed with the need for a data protection law similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. “I believe it would be good for the Internet if more countries adopted regulation such as GDPR as a common framework,” he wrote.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, reiterated this line of argument in interviews following Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview. The algorithms the company uses “should be held to account, if necessary by regulation so that people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens,” Clegg said on CNN. He also said the company is open to amending Section 230 of the Communictions Decency Act, which protects platforms from liability for what their users post. “We’re not saying this is a substitution of our own responsibilities,” Clegg told NBC, “but there are a whole bunch of things that only regulators and lawmakers can do. I don’t think anyone wants a private company to adjudicate on these difficult trade-offs between free expression on one hand and moderating or removing content on the other. Only lawmakers can create a digital regulator.”

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The Kinks song “Lola” was banned by the BBC, but for the reason you think

The Kinks song “Lola” was banned by the BBC when it came out, but not because the song was about a relationship between a man and a trans person — it was banned because the lyrics originally mentioned Coca-Cola, which was seen as product placement and therefore unacceptable. Ray Davies had to fly back to Britain in the middle of a US tour to record a new version of the single that mentions “cherry cola” instead.

Source: BBC Four – More Dangerous Songs: And the Banned Played On – 16 songs banned by the BBC