Get the facts, before it’s too late

Rather than bringing us together, social media can often pull us apart. We all know this, and it seems the platforms themselves know this too.

Facebook executives shut down efforts to make the site less divisiveWSJ
“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

But of course the platforms aren’t solely to blame. The users have to take some responsibility for what they write and share. Take this user, for example, just your typical conspiracy theorist.

See those little ‘Get the facts’ warning labels, suggesting he’s spreading fake news making unsubstantiated claims?

Twitter labels Trump’s false claims with warning for first timeThe Guardian
The company’s decision on Tuesday afternoon to affix labels to a series of Trump tweets about California’s election planning is the result of a new policy debuted on 11 May. They were applied – hours after the tweets initially went out – because Trump’s tweets violated Twitter’s “civic integrity policy”, a company spokeswoman confirmed, which bars users from “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes”, such as by posting misleading information that could dissuade people from participating in an election.

He didn’t like that, as you can imagine, and is trying to retaliate.

Trump to sign executive order on social media on Thursday: White HouseReuters
The officials gave no further details. It was unclear how Trump could follow through on the threat of shutting down privately owned companies including Twitter Inc. The dispute erupted after Twitter on Tuesday for the first time tagged Trump’s tweets about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting with a warning prompting readers to fact check the posts.

But is this just the beginning?

Trump sows doubt on voting. It keeps some people up at night.The New York Times
The anxiety has intensified in recent weeks as the president continues to attack the integrity of mail voting and insinuate that the election system is rigged, while his Republican allies ramp up efforts to control who can vote and how. Just last week, Mr. Trump threatened to withhold funding from states that defy his wishes on expanding mail voting, while also amplifying unfounded claims of voter fraud in battleground states. […]

The task force began with 65 possibilities before narrowing the list early this year to eight potential calamities, including natural disasters, a successful foreign hack of voting machines, a major candidate’s challenging the election and seeking to delegitimize the results, and a president who refuses to participate in a peaceful transfer of power. Among the scenarios they eliminated when making final cuts in January, ironically, was a killer pandemic that ravaged the country and kept people homebound before Election Day.

That election’s going to be interesting, to say the least.

Fending off the Jackpot

I’m about halfway through William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, and was very happy to read somewhere that it’s part two of a trilogy. Here’s hoping we’ll all be around to enjoy the third…

William Gibson on the apocalypse: “it’s been happening for at least 100 years”New Statesman
His characters call it “the Jackpot”. “It’s multi-causal, and it’s of extremely long duration,” he explains. Over many decades, climate change, pollution, drug-resistant diseases and other factors – “I’ve never really had the heart to make up a full list, else I’ll depress myself” – deplete the human race by 80 per cent. The Jackpot is the mundane cataclysm of modernity itself. It is hundreds of millions of people driving to the supermarket in their SUVs, flying six times a year, and eating medicated animals for dinner. “If the Jackpot is going to happen,” Gibson says, “it’s already happening. It’s been happening for at least 100 years.”

As well as bringing to life an all-too-plausible future, he has a keen grasp on the present. (All science fiction is really about the present, I guess. As he has said earlier, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”)

Putin is the pre-eminent figure in the klept that Gibson sees emerging in the real world. He describes Russia’s reported attempts to influence the 2016 US election as “the most cost-efficient black op in human history. It was a long shot, but it did work, and every day since then they must have had a good laugh, and gotten ready to enjoy yet another day of watching this endlessly exploding grenade at the heart of American government. I doubt they’ve tried to control him very much. It isn’t necessary.”

This story caught my eye. Another artist inspired by a frustrating political situation to produce something positive.

Artist Whitney Bedford is drawing a portrait of Elizabeth Warren every day until she is elected presidentThe Art Newspaper
“It’s really the only currency I have,” says Bedford, fresh from a powerful paintings show at Susanne Vielmetter’s gallery that explored ideas of landscape and toxic land use. “I felt that if I did something I’m known for in public, it could be an incentive for other people to act.” She calls her project “Elizabeth Warren Wins”.

“There’s never been a candidate I’ve been so excited about. And I’ve never done something so fangirl in my life,” she adds. “I don’t get the whole Bernie tsunami because he sounds angry to me. I like how measured and intelligent she is, and I’m on board with pretty much all of her positions.”

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The beginnings of linguistic inclusion?

Bong Joon Ho’s latest film Parasite has been doing quite well recently, subtitles notwithstanding.

Trump inexplicably complains about ‘Parasite’ Oscar winsThe Wrap
“By the way, how bad were the Academy Awards? And the winner is a movie from South Korea,” said Trump. “What the hell was that all about? We got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of it, they give him the best movie of the year? Was it good? I don’t know. Can we get ‘Gone With the Wind’ back please? ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ So many great movies, the winner is from South Korea. I thought it was best foreign film, right? Best foreign movie. No! Did this ever happen before?”

I loved this take on it from Language Log, a wonderfully anachronistic-looking blog from the University of Pennsylvania.

“Overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”: The Oscars and multilingualismLanguage Log
It is well known that multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception around the world … so monolingualism in countries like the USA is at least as unnatural as subtitles on a movie, if not more so.

In his speeches and interviews, director Bong Joon Ho consistently code-switches between English and Korean (e.g. here). This is another novelty. Code-switching is not commonly seen on American TV. I loved his half-apologetic, half-cheeky laugh when he said in perfect English: “I am a foreign language filmmaker so I need a translator here. Please understand.” The interpreter herself has been in the spotlight as well.

Technologically grim tales

What a way to end 2019.

The most dangerous people on the internet this decadeWired
In some cases these figures represent dangers not so much to public safety, but to the status quo. We’ve also highlighted actual despots, terrorists, and saboteurs who pose a serious threat to lives around the world. As the decade comes to a close, here’s our list of the people we believe best characterize the dangers that emerged from the online world in the last 10 years—many of whom show no signs of becoming any less dangerous in the decade to come.

It’s not just the people that are alarming, it’s the technology too, and what can be done with it, like this investigation into the smartphone tracking industry. (I didn’t even realise there was such an industry.)

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Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacyThe New York Times
Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017.

But perhaps there’s some room for optimism? Here’s the New York Times again, gazing into their crystal ball.

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No more phones and other tech predictions for the next decadeThe New York Times
There has been a lot of gnashing and wailing about screen addiction, “sharenting” and the myriad other negative effects of all the devices we have come to rely on. (I am guilty as charged.) These gadgets have been designed to hook you, not unlike sugar or cigarettes or gambling or opiates. The well known techie Tristan Harris calls it “human downgrading” — and he’s right. But there is yet another opportunity here to push for design ethics, a movement that I think will gain traction as we all assess what our dives into digital have done to humanity. While our tech devices have, on the whole, been good for most people, there is a true business opportunity in making them work more efficiently and without a reliance on addiction. Whether we move toward more intuitively created tech that surrounds us or that incorporates into our bodies (yes, that’s coming), I am going to predict that carrying around a device in our hand and staring at it will be a thing of the past by 2030. And like the electrical grid we rely on daily, most tech will become invisible.

I love the sentiment, but remain very doubtful.

Trumped typography

Trump’s handwriting was in the news the other day, when cameras caught a glimpse of the notes he’d made for himself before meeting reporters.

Handwriting expert says Trump’s ‘I WANT NOTHING’ note bears ‘the sign of a liar’Rolling Stone
As for the large, blocky writing, Lowe attributes that to him being “someone who has a strong need for security and to be in control, to be looked up to.” The way the letters disconnect point to “someone who was unable to assimilate the difficulties he experienced in childhood, which leaves him open to life’s various adversities. He lacks good coping mechanisms and has trouble relating fully to himself and to others.”

Now you too can write like the president, though why on earth you’d want to is another matter.

Final Word From The Pres

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Write your own notes in Trump’s handwriting with this new web generatorFast Company
Part of what made the photo notable was that it revealed that the unique writing style the president uses online—the Twitter-friendly brevity of character count and a seemingly unpredictable all-caps emphasis—applies to good old pen on paper, too. For the website, called Final Word From the Pres, the Jones Knowles Ritchie team took those characteristics and automated them. The generator will autocorrect words, turning “we” to “I,” “Trump” to “Stable Genius,” “big” to “yuuge,” and “SNL” to “unfunny,” so the note you write is adapted to the president’s voice. But there are many more autocorrections, with over one hundred Easter eggs up for discovery as you uncover the distinctive language patterns of a very stable genius.

This isn’t the first time such a typeface has been created.

Tiny Hand will be your new Comic SansBuzzfeed News
I was struck not only by the peculiar delivery of the notes, but also by the idiosyncratic way Trump writes the alphabet. At that moment it was clear to me — as it surely must be to you, dear reader — I had to make a font based on Donald Trump’s handwriting.

Mad to think that’s from 2016. Here we are, nearly 2020, and he and his juvenile writing/thinking is still here.

The Twitter Presidency

Some people think Twitter’s latest announcement about banning political ads is one others should copy.

The Irish Times view on Twitter’s ad ban: over to you, Facebook
In an important announcement on Wednesday, Twitter chief executive and co-founder Jack Dorsey promised the platform would ban all political advertisements – including ads about political issues – by late November. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” he said. …

On Wednesday, Dorsey pointedly tweeted: “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.” He’s right. Facebook and others should follow Twitter’s example.

Here’s a different take on that, though.

Twitter’s political ad ban is disingenuous: The platform will continue spreading false political statements free of charge — and benefiting from it
In fact, I’d rather see a misleading statement by a politician clearly marked as an ad than endlessly replicated on my Twitter feed as organic content. It’s hard to disagree with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s contention that it makes more sense to increase political advertising transparency than to impose a complete ban on such paid content.

Of course, some “politicians” are getting their message out for free. Here’s a visually striking, in-depth article from The New York Times on how crazy Trump’s Twitter tantrums and tactics have become.

How Trump reshaped the Presidency in over 11,000 tweets
When Mr. Trump entered office, Twitter was a political tool that had helped get him elected and a digital howitzer that he relished firing. In the years since, he has fully integrated Twitter into the very fabric of his administration, reshaping the nature of the presidency and presidential power. …

“Boom. I press it,” Mr. Trump recalled months later at a White House conference attended by conservative social media personalities, “and, within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”

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Less elder-statesman, more oversugared-bullying-kid-in-sweet-shop. We’ll need to amend the dictionary definition of presidential, when all this is over.

There are other articles in this series, but I’m reluctant to subject myself to more of this craziness.

It’s rarely black and white

Taking statistics out of context to push a particular agenda is nothing new. But it’s nice to see a pushback.

Fixing the ‘impeach this’ map with a transition to a cartogram
As discussed previously, the “impeach this” map has some issues. Mainly, it equates land area to votes, which makes for a lot of visual attention to counties that are big even though not many people live in them. So, Karim Douïeb used a clever transition to change the bivariate map to a cartogram. Now you can have a dual view.

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We just need more of this kind of thing over here. For instance:

Show this chart to anyone who says Brexit is the ‘will of the British people’
This chart is not an entirely convincing argument against Leave or Remain, but it does illustrate that ‘the 52 per cent’ and ‘the 48 per cent’ actually constitute much smaller proportions of the UK population than the figure might imply.

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Falling short

I think I need to make a bigger effort to find more positive stories. Everything I read convinces me more and more that we’re a planet of idiots.

Scarecrow’ statue of Melania Trump unveiled in Slovenia to mixed reviews
“I can understand why people might think that this falls short as a description of her physical appearance,” Downey told AFP, but insisted that he found the end result “absolutely beautiful”.

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If he’s saying this isn’t a good description of her ‘physical’ appearance, does he mean he was trying to represent her — what? Intellect?

Has humanity reached ‘peak intelligence’?
Whatever the cause of the Flynn effect, there is evidence that we may have already reached the end of this era – with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing. If you look at Finland, Norway and Denmark, for instance, the turning point appears to have occurred in the mid-90s, after which average IQs dropped by around 0.2 points a year. That would amount to a seven-point difference between generations.

Making Twitter better, but why bother?

Twitter. I’m one of those boring snobs who say it was so much better in the old days, before it went all mainstream and shouty. I yo-yo a little with it; joining in, deleting everything, joining in again with a fresh account, deleting again.

I imagine someone trying to explain to me, back in 2007 when I first joined — happily twittering away to myself into the void — that in 12 years’ time it would become so embedded everywhere, its toxicity so inevitable and intractable, that Twitter would have to create specific rules to deal with hate speech from a sitting President of the United States.

Trump tweets could be restricted after Twitter moves against abusive posts by high-profile politicians
The new policy, announced by the company on Thursday, will affect world leaders and other political figures who use the platform to threaten or abuse others. It comes amid accusations Twitter has unfairly allowed the US president to tweet hateful messages other users would be censured for, and which critics say could lead to violence.

Why Twitter’s new policy on political figures’ tweets is encouraging
There is a strong argument that the rules governing everyone else’s ability to harass or spew hate should apply equally to those in power, whose harassing behavior is most likely to silence critics or cause other harm. But there’s also an argument that private companies such as Twitter have the least business meddling with the public conversation when elected or would-be-elected officials are involved. Doing so could have a dramatic impact on the democratic process, and citizens deserve to know what the people who represent them are doing and saying — perhaps even especially when their comportment is appalling.

I wonder what impact it will have on him, if any, to know that his posts have been formally categorised as hateful.

Politicians this side of the Atlantic can’t leave it alone, either.

Jeremy Hunt tweets solo Q&A after Boris Johnson skips debate
While answering Twitter users’ questions on Brexit, Hunt promised to give full rights to Europeans living in the UK and to “deliver a Brexit that works for the 48% not just the 52% — a positive, open and internationalist Brexit, Great Britain not Little England.”

What can be done? Here are a couple of suggestions.

Chrissy Teigen’s 2 suggestions for Twitter would make it 100 percent better
In a couple of tweets from Wednesday and Thursday, Teigen proposed two functions: One would create a feed for only happy posts that a user could access or view when they’re feeling emotional. The other proposed an “address book of sorts” where a user could, through typing or a link, note the reason why they started following somebody in the first place.

I use lists to help with both of those functions, but I’m not sure if I can be bothered going through the motions with it anymore. Does it bring me joy?

A week to remember

Two significant anniversaries last week. Let’s start in northern France, with some staggering numbers.

13 memorable facts about D-Day
D-Day was the opening chapter in a long campaign. The Normandy invasion was not a one-day affair; it raged on until Allied forces crossed the River Seine in August. Altogether, the Allies took about 200,000 casualties over the course of the campaign—including 4413 deaths on D-Day alone. According to the D-Day Center, “No reliable figures exist for the German losses, but it is estimated that around 200,000 were killed or wounded with approximately 200,000 more taken prisoner.” On May 7, 1945—less than a year after D-Day—Germany surrendered, ending the war in its European Theater.

Some of these images really get across the scale of that operation.

Photos: Take a look at D-Day, then and now
The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings will fall on June 6. Here, we take a look back at iconic images of the day and at modern photos related to the day’s events.

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It all looks very different now.

11 incredible D-Day Landing pictures that show the beaches then and now
The following pictures combine original photos taken on and around D-Day with others taken in 2014 and show holidaymakers in the sun, largely oblivious to the horror that took place where they stood over 70 years ago.

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And for a different, but very direct, perspective of events that day, you must take a look at these scanned documents.

Bletchley Park and D-Day
A rare collection of Enigma messages sent on D-Day by the German navy, and broken at Bletchley Park, gives a blow-by-blow account of the action. As events unfold, confusion gives way to a realisation of the scale and importance of the invasion. Intelligence from Bletchley Park played a crucial part in the operation’s planning and execution.

The D-Day commemoration coincided with Trump’s state visit. I loved the language in this view of that from across the Atlantic.

We are being embarrassed by ugly-American grifters on an ego trip to London
Referring to “the red-carpet treatment” accorded to Donald Trump and the ignominious confederacy of unindicted co-conspirators that accompanied him to London, the city’s mayor remarked, “In years to come, I suspect this state visit will be one we look back on with profound regret and acknowledge that we were on the wrong side of history.” Why wait? As an American, I’m already regretting the spectacle of the Trumps tweeting pictures of themselves stumbling around Buckingham Palace. It’s not just that, as a republican, I have no taste for the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the British royal family. It is not even that Trumps are so obviously enthralled by imperial excess.

What I have a problem with is the notion that the United States of America is being “represented” on the global stage by an ugly-American cabal of black hats in ill-fitting tuxedos. Mehdi Hasan got it brilliantly right when he said of the president’s decampment to the United Kingdom: “He’s taken four of his five kids with him, his four grifter kids with him to Buckingham Palace. They’ve been posting pictures all night on Twitter of themselves. They’re all loving it. It’s a great day for the whole grifter family.”

The other anniversary, of course, was in China.

Beijing falls silent as tight security surrounds Tiananmen Square anniversary
Thirty years after bloody crackdown in China, visitors have IDs checked and journalists are warned against taking pictures.

In the UK and elsewhere, reminders of what happened, like this one from The Guardian ten years ago, are so easy to find.

20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square: how events unfolded
Revisiting the protests, from the beginning of the student uprising to the brutal crushing of dissent by the Chinese regime.

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That’s obviously not the case in China.

A look at the many ways China suppresses online discourse about the Tiananmen Square protests
Suppression of information means that an entire generation of people know little about the events, even as the activists involved continue to suffer repercussions, including long prison sentences. In recent years, the government’s censorship apparatus has become even more powerful, with voice and image recognition and machine learning making it easier to block or remove posts at scale.

Jiayang Fan, writing in The New Yorker, was four in 1989.

Memories of Tiananmen Square
I had left China when I was too young to know about censorship, when I was just being introduced to the written word and to the stories that written words told. It would never have occurred to me, or, perhaps, to any child, to question the history books, because that would have seemed like an interrogation of reality itself. In China, the past is never past, but it is frequently purged. The story is rewritten, the narrative reframed, the villains and the heroes recast. There is a hallucinatory quality to such a society, as if you are living a life that does not and never can fully belong to you. China’s vertiginous economic growth during the last three decades, for example, has given people permission to pursue prosperity without ever granting them political autonomy, reducing them to children at the mercy of an irascible, paternalistic government.

Ilaria Maria Sala was an exchange student in Beijing at the time, just a couple of years older than me then.

The very last spring all things seemed possible in Beijing
People handed me spent bullets and bloodied items, wanting me to go back home and tell the world what the army had done. I told them that people knew, every journalist was in Beijing. I was evacuated by the British Embassy to Hong Kong in the early hours of June 7, and returned home to Italy. As soon as I could, at the end of August, I went back to Beijing again, to study, to look for friends, to try to understand what had happened.

Her story continues.

Beijing Autumn: My return to China three months after Tiananmen
Beishida felt too desolate, so I transferred to Peking University, where all the few returning foreign students seemed to have congregated. But as the students there were those most involved in the demonstrations, the authorities decided to suspend the first year, and send all the freshmen to the army instead. The notice-boards at Sanjiaodi, where the political posters had been hoisted just a few months before, where the international TV crews had filmed the students keeping up-to-date with the strike and its developments, where impromptu speeches had been given, was now a deserted triangle dotted with forlorn little posters advertising English classes, chess tournaments, and qigong demonstrations.

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Elections everywhere

Polarisation seems to be the political theme, these days.

Socialists strengthen hold in Spain election
Spain’s Socialist Party strengthened its hold on the government on Sunday in the country’s third national election since 2015, with nearly complete results showing growing political polarization and party fragmentation. … An anti-immigration and ultranationalist party, Vox, won its first seats in Parliament, a major shift in a country that long appeared to be immune to the spread of far-right movements across Europe, in part because of the legacy of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

This doesn’t sound good.

Benin’s government has shut the internet ahead of an election that has no opposition
The West African nation now joins the list of African states, including Sudan, DR Congo, and Egypt who have limited online access ahead of key elections, political referenda, or anti-government protests this year. Activists say the cut-offs usually have significant economic, political, and social costs, particularly given how popular messaging apps like WhatsApp are crucial for voters, journalists, and election observers.

Some places are getting it right, though.

It only takes India a month to set up a better election than the US
To be sure, the Indian election is a thing of wonder. Its scale alone is mind-boggling: More than a million polling stations, 900 million voters, nearly 2,300 parties. It is also an impressive work of democratic logistics that can teach a few lessons to the rest of the world, including countries with far more resources, like the US.

Meanwhile.

The French Ambassador is retiring today. Here’s what he really thinks about Washington.
Let’s look at the dogma of the previous period. For instance, free trade. It’s over. Trump is doing it in his own way. Brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right. What he’s doing with China should have been done, maybe in a different way, but should have been done before. Trump has felt Americans’ fatigue, but [Barack] Obama also did. The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over. Obama started, Trump really pursued it. You saw it in Ukraine. You are seeing it every day in Syria. People here faint when you discuss NATO, but when he said, “Why should we defend Montenegro?,” it’s a genuine question. I know that people at Brookings or the Atlantic Council will faint again, but really yes, why, why should you?

 

This report is ███████████

So what are we to make of the Mueller Report on Trump’s dealings with Russia? Here’s The Economist’s take on it.

What to make of the Mueller report: Robert Mueller’s magnum opus
The first 170 pages concern Russia. … Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s campaign chair, who was deep in debt to a Russian oligarch, shared internal polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, one of his Kiev-based employees with apparent links to both that oligarch and Russian intelligence. Even Rick Gates, Mr Manafort’s right-hand man, believed Mr Kilimnik was a “spy”. That did not stop Mr Manafort from meeting Mr Kilimnik. George Papadopoulos, a junior foreign-policy advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, tried to let the campaign know early on that the Russians had compromising material on Mrs Clinton (nobody thought to tell the FBI). Donald Trump junior arranged a meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Mrs Clinton. And of course Mr Trump himself was pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow project until just five months before the election, while simultaneously pushing for better relations with Moscow. None of this may have been illegal, but had voters known about it they might have made a different choice. …

The report’s second part deals with obstruction of justice. … The striking thing about this section, when read in full, is how self-wounding Mr Trump’s behaviour has been. Had he simply kept quiet, and let Mr Mueller complete his investigation into his campaign’s links into Russia, the obstruction investigation never would have happened. Instead, he interfered clumsily on many occasions, allowing the special counsel to amass a damning record of the president’s truculence, dishonesty and contempt for federal investigators.

The report itself is quite an important, historical document, though.

Mueller Mania is in full swing, and people are paying a pretty penny for the free report
The Mueller Report is available for free on the Justice Department’s site (here). But that didn’t stop publishers from printing it for profit.

Simon & Schuster’s Scribner published a version “presented with related materials by The Washington Post” — available for $10.22 as a paperback or $7.99 on the Kindle — that topped Amazon’s best-seller rankings. Publisher Skyhorse’s version, featuring an intro by a Harvard law professor, claimed the #2 spot (at $9.20 in paperback); publisher Melville House’s straight-up version (just $7.27) took the #3 spot. …

People aren’t buying books, they’re buying mementos
The fact that people bought enough copies of a free report to mint not 1 but 3 separate best-sellers may seem unlikely, or even downright dumb.

But it’s not the first time a government document has gone big: The Starr Report (about President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky) and the Pentagon Papers both became popular best-sellers after printing in 1998 and 2011, respectively.

Perceptive publishers know that people don’t buy these books for the info they contain, but the emotions they evoke: A physical Mueller Report meta-memorializes months of dramatic, scandalous, and conversation-starting news cycles in a single, boring book.

You would have thought we had had enough by now.

Remember when Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, shot himself in the foot with some sloppy document formatting? Mueller’s report wasn’t much better, initially — it was just a collection of scanned images.

The official PDF of the Mueller report has been updated in a subtle but important way
The decision immediately elicited groans from people trying to search the report for juicy details. A giant file of images has no text to search. It was also condemned by a group involved in setting technical specifications for the portable document format: “This deliberate and unnecessary act made the document substantially harder for anyone and everyone to use, forever,” wrote Duff Johnson, executive director of the PDF Association, in a delightful review of the file’s nerdiest details.

News organizations and Mueller fanatics quickly addressed this problem by running the PDF through a process known as optical character recognition (OCR) to add searchable text to the document. So, to review: The Mueller report was written on a computer, then printed out on paper, scanned back into digital images, and finally regenerated into text using software.

Of course, not everything in the report has been made available to us. As this image from FlowingData shows, a significant amount of redaction has taken place.

Redacted
The redacted version (pdf) of the Mueller report was released today. Here’s the thumbnailed view for a sense of the redactions.

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And as this Quartz Obsession post explains, redaction is big business.

Redaction
95 million: Documents classified by the United States in 2012

2 million: Employees the National Archives estimates it would take, given a year and a half, to review one year’s worth of current classified output of one US intelligence agency

14,462: Peak size of the US government’s World War II-era Office of Censorship, whose duties included redacting letters

But let’s end this on a more creative note.

The Trump-era boom in erasure poetry
Published less than a month after Trump’s first executive order banned citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, “Form N-400 Erasures” is an example of erasure poetry, a poetic form that has spiked in popularity since Trump’s elections galvanized a culture of resistance online. Also known as blackout or redaction poetry, this is a type of poetry created from the substrate material of an existing text. Obscure many of the words, these poems command, and you will find the sentences that have been there all along.

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While erasure can mimic the violence of the state, it can also expose the human cost of suppression, and symbolically restore a voice to the silenced.

Erasing the language of Trump, on the other hand, provides the particular satisfaction of watching Trump say exactly what he means, stripped of bombast. That perverse pleasure drives “When You Win It’s Winning,” Ariel Yelen’s erasures of four of his speech transcripts. Here, Trump is hyperbolic and boastful as ever, but in erasing certain words, Yelen has him articulate the implications of his rhetoric. “I / want / a new America / an / America / so / reckless / s / o / disastrous / s / o / chao / t / ic /,” he says. “I / am / what is wrong with this country.”

Political storytelling

Politics is all about story-telling, reframing the world around us to encourage us to think a certain way. Verso have released an extract from James Meek’s new book, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, offering an explanation of why the Brexiteers got the upper hand at the referendum.

James Meek on Brexit and the myth of St. George
Of the two folk myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is the simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Where Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over, St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, society’s problems disappear. The swish of the warrior-saint’s sword slicing through the dragon’s flesh and the great beast’s death cry are, to the oppressed, both a joy in themselves and the herald-notes of a new era of happiness. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate.

Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood–like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk narrative of England to events that can easily be held in consciousness as St George–like releases, so often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English – the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966.

The Guardian continues this look at political language with its new series on the recent shift to a certain kind of anti-elite, right-wing politics.

Revealed: the rise and rise of populist rhetoric
Major study analysing speeches of leaders from 40 countries over two decades shows surge in populism.

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It’s interesting, though, what research is suggesting about the poster boy for populist politics — it might not be all down to him.

The Teleprompter Test: why Trump’s populism is not his own
Kirk Hawkins, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said there was a “dramatic difference” in the language in Trump’s speeches, depending on whether or not they were scripted. “Trump’s speeches with teleprompters all have longer words, longer sentences, and less frequent use of his pet words. And they have much higher levels of populism,” he said. “This is powerful evidence that Trump’s populism is not entirely his own.”

He’s still full of BS, though.

President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days
The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. He hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year. So far in 2019, he’s averaging nearly 22 claims a day.

You’d think that would cheer him up a little.

A debate-watching robot learned Trump’s emotional self: sad!
A robot built around Microsoft’s Emotion API may have uncovered something surprising about the dominant emotions of either candidate. Or it may have just spat out a lot of random numbers.

No change

Another great find from Futility Closet.

Unquote
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980

I wonder why that quote, from 1980, made me think of this news item from just the other day, in 2019.

Why the attack on our cameraman was no surprise
President Trump interrupted his speech and checked that Ron was OK. But there was no condemnation. No statement that this was unacceptable. The Trump campaign issued a two-line statement on the incident, but equally did not condemn what happened. What conclusion should we draw from that? What message does it send to people who feel hostile towards the media?

Trim Trump touch-ups?

The BBC have a couple of before-and-after images of President Trump that raised a smile this morning.

Trump team accused of posting edited images on social media
Social media users were quick to point out the possible tweaks to this image, which was shared on Mr Trump’s official Instagram and Facebook accounts. […]

The ruffles in the president’s suit have been smoothed out near his shoulder and he looks trimmer, specifically around his neck. His hair also seems tidier, although this could be a result of the image being superimposed on a different background, and his face has been brightened.

One of the more unusual differences is that Mr Trump’s fingers seem to have been made longer.

How vain! I can’t replicate it properly here, but you must check out the interactive slider they have on their website, to see for yourself.

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The lost painting, the Saudi prince and the US president

Well, the ongoing mystery of Da Vinci‘s Salvator Mundi is going in a direction I hadn’t imagined.

Salvator Mundi
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have ‘lost’ the world’s most expensive painting. The Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, Salvator Mundi, may hold the key to the Trump-Russia investigation. And, the artwork itself could be evidence of collusion.

Curiously, when I last mentioned this painting here, I compared it to a painting currently in the White House. I never would have thought that Salvator Mundi and Trump would go on to be more directly connected like this.

There can be no certainty when the game is subterfuge, and we need to wait for Mueller’s final report before we reach any conclusions, but if Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi proves to be a key which helps unlock Trump-Russia, “Savior of the World” could prove to be nothing short of prophetic.

A strange morning

The Quartz Daily Brief is just one of several email newsletters I like to start my day with, on my commute to work on the number 97. A variety of topics are covered, some catch my eye more than others—politics, yes; business, not so much—but today’s ‘Surprising Discoveries’ section was so odd I just have to share it all with you.

Jack Dorsey sent his facial hair to Azealia Banks. The Twitter CEO wanted the rapper to make a protective amulet out of his beard shavings.

A judge ordered a Missouri poacher to watch Bambi on repeat. He has to watch the Disney classic at least once a month during his year-long jail sentence.

Actual witches want Trump to stop saying “witch hunt.” They say his comparison of the Mueller investigation to their painful history is disrespectful.

A diamond the size of an egg was unearthed in Canada. The value of the 552-carat “fancy yellow” gem will depend on the cutting (subscription).

The year 536 was the worst to be alive. A mysterious global fog covered half of the planet for 18 months, leading to constant darkness, crop failure, and mass starvation.

That’s quite a collection of strangeness for one morning. Sign up for your own odd start to the day.

Paintings, ridiculous and sublime

The art world is such a strange place.

Artist ‘astounded’ to see his Trump painting hung in the White House
Thomas knew Trump had received the painting as a gift – from a Republican congressman who was already a fan of the artist – because the president had recently called to congratulate him. But he only found out the painting had been hung in the White House – close to the Oval Office – when it popped up as a backdrop during a TV interview broadcast on Sunday evening.

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We’re ‘astounded’ too – why would anyone paint such a horrible thing, even with its incredibly subtle feminist message? Where are the Old Masters when you need them?

Ah, here’s one. I think. Remember that incredibly expensive Da Vinci painting I mentioned earlier, the one with its own instagram account? Well, it looks a little different now to when it was sold for nearly half a billion dollars.

The Da Vinci mystery: why is his $450m masterpiece really being kept under wraps?
It was Martin Clayton, curator of Leonardo’s drawings at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, who suggested I check out Campbell’s post and drew my attention to the startling differences between the painting after it was cleaned and its appearance now. “Photographs seem to show that, before it was touched up, it was all Leonardo,” he says. “They show the painting mid-restoration – and it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face.” Clayton is not questioning the painting’s authenticity. He’s suggesting that a very pure Leonardo has been partly “obscured”.

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This is how it was described in 2011. Not too flatteringly.

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery – the greatest show of the year?
For a long time it was assumed that Leonardo had painted a Saviour of the World, or Salvator Mundi, but that the painting was lost, and all that survived were later engravings and dubious copies, including the newly restored head of Christ here. New research published this summer has now identified this as an authentic Leonardo. Or at least some of it. Maybe. What a difficult painting this is to like, let alone to be affected by. Jesus has the glazed look of someone stoned. You can imagine the raised fingers holding a spliff. Once imagined, the image won’t go away.

That Guardian article links to this one from the Mail.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Is long-lost £120m Salvator Mundi painting authentic?
A person close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York who asked not to be identified said: ‘The painting was forgotten for years. When it turned up at auction, Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble. It had been heavily overpainted, which makes it look like a copy. It was a wreck, dark and gloomy. It had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better. Once a restorer put artificial resin on it, which had turned grey and had to be removed painstakingly. When they took off the overpaint, what was revealed was the original paint. You saw incredibly delicate painting. All agree it was painted by Leonardo.’

I hate linking to the Mail, but I felt I must because of these two images on that article. What a journey that painting’s been on.

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A dark side

Stephen Shames’ best photograph: Robert Kennedy in his final days
There are clear parallels for me with what’s happening right now. Most 21 year olds are idealistic. Everyone grows up a patriot. You’re in school, you salute the flag, you read the sanitised history in your textbooks. Then there’s a polarising moment like this that shoves you into the real world.

In the US, beyond the election of Trump, which was a fluke, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the supreme court is one such moment. Young people here having their eyes opened. They are realising there’s a dark side to the United States. Their idealism is being shaved away.

No doubt another Trump bestseller

Another book’s coming out about Trump’s train-wreck presidency. Well, at least he’s good for book sales.

Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency
The dramatic and previously untold scene is recounted in “Fear,” a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward that paints a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency, based on in-depth interviews with administration officials and other principals. […]

Woodward depicts Trump’s anger and paranoia about the Russia inquiry as unrelenting, at times paralyzing the West Wing for entire days. Learning of the appointment of Mueller in May 2017, Trump groused, “Everybody’s trying to get me”— part of a venting period that shellshocked aides compared to Richard Nixon’s final days as president.

The author is the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, so it will be interesting to see how this compares to the more gossipy Fire and Fury, from earlier this year.

But let’s not get too carried away with any possible consequences just yet. This, from The Onion, sums things up nicely.

Trump disapproval rating reaches all-time none of this matters
Offering an overview of Americans’ opinions of the commander in chief’s job performance, a new poll released Friday indicated that President Trump’s disapproval rating had reached an all-time none of this matters. The report, released by who really cares which of the utterly useless polling firms and corroborated by several leading increasingly feckless news organizations, confirmed that well over half of those surveyed for really no goddamn reason. In addition, the poll found strong support for who gives a shit, it’s just a bunch of fucking numbers. … At press time, a new poll had found that President Trump’s disapproval rating was now at, Jesus Christ, a sizable portion of the country supports and has always supported an openly white supremacist president and the party he leads, and a bunch of goddamn numerical ratings aren’t going to do a fucking thing to change that.

Update 06/09/2018: On the back of the Washington Post’s launch of Bob Woodward’s book, the New York Times have published an anonymous editorial from a senior official in the Whitehouse that could be seen to corroborate it, reassuring us there are ‘adults in the room’.

I am part of the resistance inside the Trump Administration
I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

And the race is on to find out who wrote that.

Who is the Donald Trump staffer who penned the New York Times anonymous op-ed?
Within minutes of it being published online, text alerts were buzzing on phones across Washington DC, as insiders, outsiders, reporters, and everyone else tried to answer one question: Who was the anonymous author?