What Happened Today: November 22, 2022
ADL says Amazon to blame for Irving’s antisemitism; Iran bulks up on uranium; Life in the Metaverse
The Big Story
Following a Sunday rally in Brooklyn in which hundreds of Black Hebrew Israelites chanted “We are the real Jews!” in a show of solidarity with Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, broke his silence on the matter on Tuesday. The problem, according to Greenblatt, wasn’t Irving, who had been suspended by the league for failing to fully acknowledge the problem with his promotion of a virulently antisemitic documentary on Twitter. Nor was the issue the protestors, members of a known extremist group, chanting racist anti-Jewish slogans through the streets of Brooklyn. Rather, the responsibility rested upon Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who Greenblatt urged in a letter to remove the film that “has recently received significant attention due to a now-deleted tweet by basketball star Kyrie Irving.”
In the letter, signed by several other leaders of major U.S. Jewish institutions, Greenblatt goes to considerable lengths to avoid placing any blame on Irving, even as he acknowledges that the film Irving promoted—which the Nets player still has yet to repudiate—includes content that “actively endanger[s] Jewish safety here and now.” Minimizing Irving’s role in promoting anti-Jewish beliefs, Greenblatt suggests that the film would not have circulated if it hadn’t been listed on Amazon’s platform.
“After Irving’s social media posts, the antisemitic book and film shot to #1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list, and a number of the signatories here immediately called for its removal and collectively mobilized tens of thousands of our constituents,” Greenblatt writes. “By continuing to platform this film, and other clearly hateful content, Amazon is knowingly and willingly propagating antisemitism.”
There are possible explanations for why Greenblatt took so long to weigh in, however tangentially, on the highest-profile antisemitic march on U.S. soil since the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Shortly after the Brooklyn march, Greenblatt was occupied with condemnations against Elon Musk for allowing Donald Trump and other banned users back onto the platform, writing on Sunday night that Musk is not “remotely serious about safeguarding the platform from hate, harassment, and misinformation.”
In the Back Pages: Life in the Metaverse
→ Iran is now producing weapons-grade enriched uranium at its carefully guarded subterranean Fordow nuclear facility, officials told Iranian state media on Tuesday. A stockpile of enriched uranium held at Iran’s primary facility, Natanz, would already be enough to fuel at least one nuclear weapon. The announcement of the multisite nuclear material development comes after the United Nations condemned Iran for failing to cooperate with its investigation of the country’s nuclear material production last week. Iran has used the ongoing, stalled investigation as a pretext for refusing to come back to the negotiating table with U.S. and European representatives to revive the Iran deal. But as Tablet’s Levant analyst Tony Badran writes in Tuesday’s edition of Tablet, the difficulty in signing Iran back up to a nuclear deal has more to do with the leverage Iran has over the Biden administration in the era of the Abraham Accords, which has seen the White House struggling to realize its “vision for the region, which is centered around an American alliance with Iran.”
→ Highlight of the Day:
It wasn’t in the realm of possibility—right until it actually happened: Saudi Arabia defeated Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2 to 1 on Tuesday in the World Cup. In the lead up to Messi’s final showing in soccer’s premier event, Argentina had won 35 straight games since 2019 and one of the game’s greatest of all-time players was poised to add to his legacy, starting with the breezy match against Saudi Arabia. In fact, even the Saudi crown prince said the team should just focus on “enjoying themselves” rather than worry about winning. Certainly the Saudi victory wasn’t on the mind of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, who had spent $20 billion finagling the totally improbable bid to host the Cup, and who was hoping to watch his rival routed by Messi’s crew. But Messi, Argentina, and maybe the Emir as well, ”must now face the haunting possibility that it will forever be synonymous with one of its darkest humiliations,” as the Times put it. “One of the greatest upsets in the World Cup’s history.”
→ Quote of the Day:
I don’t know exactly what I did, I just went into combat mode. … I just know I have to kill this guy before he kills us.
That’s Richard Fierro, a brewery owner and Army veteran out for an evening at Club Q in Colorado Springs with friends, his wife, and daughter, when a gunman suddenly began firing inside the club. Tapping into instincts forged over four tours of combat duty, Fierro says he tackled the gunman before beating him with his own weapon. As Fierro held the gunman down, he called out to those around him to help subdue the attacker, including a drag dancer wearing heels who began stomping the shooter. The shooter was soon taken into custody by police, but the longtime boyfriend of Fierro’s daughter was one of the five people killed during the shooting.
→ Hundreds of anti-war protestors from across the political spectrum have been gathering for weekly events in Germany to critique what they view as the failed sanctions regime against Russia that’s also pushing Germany further into an economic crisis. “The embargo policy against Russia has failed completely and is being directed catastrophically against ourselves,” one protestor said at a recent rally. Not ideologically pro-Russia, the rally organizers and those attending are nonetheless advocating for a rapid closure of the war, pulling in a growing number of left and right populists who consider the West to be “Nato warmongers … creating a conflict between Germany and Russia, between Ukraine and Russia,” as protestor Sabine Kunze put it to the Financial Times. With sanctions against Russia leading Europe into an energy emergency this winter, “ordinary Germans are paying because America wants to interfere in Russia,” said another protestor.
→ Video of the Day:
Though likely to face repercussions back home, the captain of the Iran football team told reporters at the World Cup on Monday that he and his teammates chose not to sing the Iranian national anthem ahead of their opening game against England in solidarity with the anti-regime protests that have engulfed Iran over the past several weeks. According to Iran’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, the team players wanted to offer their support to the families of those among the hundreds who have been killed or injured during the state crackdowns on demonstrations. Iran had lost its match against England, a team that, along with several others playing their opening games, gave up its plans to wear rainbow armbands in support of LGBTQ rights after FIFA, the soccer organizing body, threatened that players who did so would be hit with yellow cards on the field.
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→ Sports fans are living in the new world shaped by the landmark 2018 Supreme Court decision to allow states to legalize sports betting. With major sports books like FanDuel and DraftKings leading a marketing push that saw the gambling industry drop nearly half a billion dollars on new ads between November 2020 and November 2021, sports commentators, team beat journalists, fantasy sport leagues, and even college campuses are rushing to get their taste of the gambling gravy. In 2021, Michigan State University scored an $8.4 million deal with Caesars Sportsbook to promote online gambling on campus—just one of eight schools to ink such a deal, with many more likely to follow. Though the big-ticket gambling contracts will help universities that struggled with dips in tuition and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, some members of college communities wonder if promoting online betting among young students is such a good idea. “It just feels gross and tacky for a university to be encouraging people to engage in behavior that is addictive and very harmful,” LSU journalism professor Robert Mann told The New York Times. The money, of course, is hard to pass up, even for those at the Grey Lady. Over the summer, after it acquired digital sports website The Athletic, where writers and podcast hosts regularly discuss their own sports gambling strategies, the Times updated its strict, anti-gambling rules for the first time in 20 years. Now, those in the newsroom “may place occasional recreational wagers on sports they do not cover, in line with the laws where they live.”
→ Number of the Day: $226,280,000
That is how much one individual says they lost in the collapse of the FTX marketplace. The name of the customer has not been made public, but they remain the largest single creditor seeking damages in the ongoing FTX bankruptcy case now being litigated in Wilmington, Delaware. On Tuesday, the legal representatives of the newly installed executives taking over FTX from co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried told the Wilmington judge that a “substantial amount” of the assets held by FTX remain missing and might have been stolen at the 11th hour before the company imploded. That will make life more difficult for the new management as it tries to unearth all of the platform’s assets, once estimated to amount to $16 billion before its collapse in early November. “What we have here is a worldwide, international organization, but which was run as a personal fiefdom of Sam Bankman-Fried,” said James Bromley, the attorney representing FTX.
→ With the drug-overdose epidemic showing no signs of slowing, the Food and Drug Administration, along with some state officials, has given the green light to nonprofits to start stocking free Narcan, the overdose-reversal nasal spray, in vending machines. Nonprofit groups say distributing Narcan through vending machines could help reverse more overdose deaths, particularly if the machines are in high-traffic public areas frequented by drug users. A 2021 University of Washington study found that more than 9 out of every 10 overdoses that were reversed were administered by drug users. One Cincinnati-area nonprofit said that a vending machine dispensing Narcan near its office helped reverse more than 590 overdoses since it was installed last year.
→ Graph of the Day:
What difference does a decade make on the Billboard Hot 100? Quite a bit, actually, especially after 1990, as almost all No. 1 hits stopped incorporating key changes. That’s according to Chris Dalla Riva at Tedium, who broke down the content of the 1,143 No. 1 songs between 1958 and 2022 and found that, while 52% of all No. 1 songs between the 1960s and 1990s used key changes, the practice was almost entirely abandoned in the 1990s. Around that time, Riva notes, songwriters transitioned from using just a few keys to all the keys with equal frequency. Part of the shift, Riva says, was because of hip-hop, and songs that were more focused on rhyme and lyrics than a key change to communicate emotion.
TODAY IN TABLET:
The Original Puritans by Maggie Phillips
At Thanksgiving, Americans recount a lot of mythology about the Pilgrims and their religious ideology. But what did they actually believe?
Nedarim 28: Shakespeare scholar Dr. Shaina Trapedo joins us to discuss The Merchant of Venice, vows taken under duress, and the Kol Nidre prayer.
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Life in the Metaverse
Mark Zuckerberg’s $36 billion wager on virtual reality will affect billions of people’s lives whether or not it succeeds
By Ross Anderson
Charging in its little hub, the Meta Quest Pro is smaller than a stack of books and, for $1500 bucks, promises to be the future of Meta—nay, of the world. “Metaverse isn't a thing a company builds,” Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s founder and CEO said in March. “It's the next chapter of the internet overall." The Quest Pro is Zuckerberg’s effort to commodify that next chapter, and might be one of the most significant consumer technologies produced since the iPhone, promising to change the lives of nearly three billion current Facebook users—what they buy, how they work, whom they date, how they vote, and what kinds of information about their lives gets collected and sold in data markets or shared with governments.
Formerly known as Facebook, Meta is all in on a future lived virtually. “From now on, we will be Metaverse first,” Zuckerberg said last year as he announced his company’s rechristening. “Not Facebook first.” The Quest is a crucial first step in Zuckerberg’s wager to win the virtual reality space race, and Meta has already invested $36 billion in Reality Labs, a division focused on the Metaverse and wearable VR tech.
The scale of Zuckerberg's wager has not prevented it from seeming utterly ridiculous to the many tech reporters and Twitter commenters who have mocked the Metaverse’s schlocky sci-fi branding and sloppy execution. “‘Mark Has Surrounded Himself with Sycophants’: Zuckerberg’s big bet on the Metaverse is backfiring,” read the headline of a Vanity Fair article published earlier this month. Yet despite a rocky start and months of bad media coverage, Meta might still succeed by providing consumers with a virtual reality experience that—whatever its pitfalls—delivers a much-needed upgrade to the current architecture of the internet.
On the other hand, given that Meta’s current business model is based on collecting as much user data as possible and then selling that data to third parties, it is possible that a successful Metaverse would plunge billions of users deeper into a dystopian hellscape where the dazzling simulations of the virtual world transform ever more aspects of human experience into profitable data sources.
Virtual Reality – be it StarTrek’s Holodeck or Ready Player One headsets – is an old staple of the imagined future. Pop on a headset and you can visit anywhere you like, real or fantastical. Want to walk around 1st century Pompeii? See inside an atom? Bowl with friends who live a world away? The Metaverse taps into such collective fantasies: a three-dimensional version of the internet, with vast numbers of intersecting virtual worlds, ecosystems, and economies. In the Metaverse, you can go ahead and bowl atoms in Pompeii with all your far-flung friends.
To achieve such a world, VR headsets like Meta’s new Quest Pro would need to become household items. There are various theses for how VR will go mainstream, and Zuckerberg’s is that it will be the same as the PC—normal people will get used to a professional device and then want—or better yet, need—that convenience at home.
For such a strategy to succeed, VR devices can’t simply replicate something you already have. They must provide an experience that is so appreciably improved that you feel you are missing out by not using it; soon enough, you intuitively reach for a headset instead of a laptop. A similar dynamic applies to the workplace. If VR devices can add enough extra efficiency or convenience to become indispensable to employees, companies will make them standard tools.
Having tried the device, I cannot say the Quest Pro feels essential but it does feel a tad wonderful. There are few tech experiences I can compare to the thrill of turning on the headset and finding myself in a quality, detailed 3D virtual space where I can lift a digital paper plane and toss it across the sky. Also awesome: working with huge display windows you can instantly resize, add, or move. It did feel like glimpsing the future, which is exactly what Zuckerberg is selling.
But aside from throwing paper airplanes across fantasy worlds, what will people actually do in the Metaverse? The most immediately compelling use case for VR is projecting infinitely adjustable monitors into the air. Theoretically, digital monitors have more flexibility, customization, and privacy than physical monitors, without requiring any more desk space and whilst providing adjustability and privacy.
VR may also be able to improve that most miserable institution of modern life: the office meeting. While in-person meetings are inefficient and increasingly unrealistic at companies where employees work remotely, Zoom meetings are somehow even worse. Here the Metaverse promises to offer some real, concrete improvements to people’s daily lives. Using VR allows participants to recreate the social presence of physical meetings, while retaining the digital world’s informational efficiency and customization. In a VR meeting, you can lean over and whisper to someone “beside” you, but you can also instantly share information.
Beyond business, another potentially transformative application for collaborative virtual meetings is in education. In The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, Matthew Ball argues that VR can fundamentally transform the experience of going to school. Rather than websites and whiteboards, children and adults might someday learn through 3D demonstrations or virtual trips to exotic locations—think, once more, about stepping into ancient Pompeii or swimming across an atom.
“Everything once imagined in The Magic School Bus … will become virtually possible—and at a greater scale, too. Unlike a physical classroom experience, these lessons will be available on demand, from anywhere around the world, and fully accessible (and more easily customized) to those students with physical or social disabilities. Some classes will include presentations from professional instructors whose live performances were motion captured and audio recorded. And as these experiences have no marginal costs—that is, they do not require extra time from a teacher, nor do they deplete supplies no matter how many times they’re run—they can be priced at a fraction of the costs associated with learning that occurs in the classroom. Every student will be able to perform a dissection, no matter how wealthy their parents or the funding of their local school board. Indeed, these students will not even need to attend a school.”
Such benefits, however, would come at other costs, and the dystopian aspects of a future in which children strap on headsets and further remove themselves from the physical world are hard to avoid. Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer who has long evangelized that VR would be a more humane and empowering alternative to the current social media-based internet has emerged as a harsh critic of Zuckerberg’s project. “What’s going on today with a company like Google or Meta is that they’re getting all this data for free from people who don’t understand the meaning or the value of the data and then turning it into these algorithms that are mostly used to manipulate the same people,” Lanier told Kara Swisher on “The Metaverse: Expectations vs. Reality,” a New York Times podcast. For Lanier, the ultimate point of the Quest Pro is not to provide users with a valuable experience but to popularize a tool that can collect their data at the source. Meta will “need to win the next device war so that [they’ll] be able to get the data,” Lanier argued. “It would be nice if [they] owned smart speakers and doorknobs or whatever, but Amazon got those. So let’s go for headsets.” (Lanier, it should be pointed out, works for Microsoft, one of Facebook’s chief competitors in the emerging VR space.)
This race to monopolize data undercuts one of the central myths about the “Web3” Metaverse, which is that it will operate as a decentralized internet where NFTs and micropayments made though cryptocurrencies will replace the corporate-dominated ad and subscription funded internet. Evidence suggests that the Metaverse, if it ever emerges, will be dominated by a few giant tech companies in much the same way that social media is.
This is not simply a function of Big Tech’s desire to control the market; it also reflects the underlying technology. Consider the challenges of video game streaming, where you play a game on your device but outsource the processing power to a server, inputs getting uploaded and footage downloaded. This massively increases latency, delaying the time between your input and the outcome being shown in the game, and requires visual data to be massively compressed. For competitive racing games and shooters, where timing and clarity is key, that makes it a dead-end, at least currently.
Compression and latency are even greater technical issues for VR, so a Web3 Metaverse would be far more demanding than any video game whilst running on the least efficient server in the world: a blockchain. As the venture capitalist-cum-essayist Rohit Krishnan told me, “making a metaverse work requires relentless customer focus, which I don't see Web3 being very good at. It needs a centralised genius like Jobs.”
Complicating matters further, Meta doesn’t sell its own phones or run its own apps store, which leaves the company vulnerable to the policy changes of those who do—namely, its chief competitors, Google and Apple. In 2021, Apple rolled out ‘Ad Tracking Transparency’ (‘ATT’), which allows iPhone users to restrict third party app access to their data. The move instantly obliterated Meta's bottom line, costing the company an estimated $10 billion in ad revenue in 2022 alone, and causing their share to fall more than 70% since, from $303.34 on April 26, 2021, the day ATT released, to roughly $109 dollars today. On November 9th, Zuckerberg announced that Meta would be laying off over 11,000 employees, 13% of the company's workforce.
Apple claims the ATT policies helped protect user privacy. During this period, however, Apple has rapidly and massively expanded its own ad network, which now has about $4B in annual advertising revenue, according to Bloomberg, with a target of over $10B per annum. On October 24th, Apple announced that social media companies would need to pay 30% of any 'boosted' posts shown on their devices—a direct shot at Meta, the only major company that refused to use Apple's in-app purchasing system for promoted posts. In a counter move, many Meta products including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp have introduced alternative revenue streams—notably, online shopping. Yet without its own hardware, operating system, and app store, Meta will not be able to keep up. In VR, however, and with its Quest products, Meta is hoping to achieve an aggressive first-mover advantage over competition like Apple, which industry insiders expect will announce its own VR headset within a year.
U.S. based tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are already competing with Meta in the VR market, but soon China will be getting in on the action as well. On November 1st, the Chinese government released a plan stating they aimed to ship more than 25 million VR devices by 2026. China is hoping to corner the VR market too—and the CCP shares Meta’s understanding of the value of user data. A few weeks before Meta unveiled its long-awaited Quest Pro on September 22nd, ByteDance, the parent company that owns TikTok, introduced its own Pico 4—a flagrant rip-off of Meta’s popular Quest 2.
TikTok, which has more than a billion monthly users, has already emerged as the social media site of choice for the internet’s youngest users. ByteDance surely knows what Meta does: that by strapping on a VR headset and exploring astonishing virtual worlds, you are transforming the entirety of your life—the inside of your home, the surface of your body, the tendencies of your mind—into data. The Meta Quest Pro has three cameras to track your eyes, and two to track facial expressions; necessary for creating realistic avatars, but also handy for establishing exactly what mood you’re in, how long you look at certain items, and what products most interest you. Your face, your eyes, your unconscious movements—all rendered as data and sold to the highest bidder.