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Time capsule: the best media of millennium

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2017

Back in 2000, Amazon ran a poll asking their customers what they thought were the best books, music, and movies of the past 1000 years. The results, archived by the Internet Archive, are a time capsule not only of recently popular works (Braveheart, Millennium by the Backstreet Boys, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling) but also of who was on the internet at that time. It’s interesting that Harry Potter made the list; the first book had only been out in the US for less than a year and a half and the 2nd and 3rd books had been out for less than 6 months.

The winners in each category were The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, and Star Wars. The author of the millennium was J.R.R. Tolkien (runner-up: Ayn Rand), The Beatles and Pink Floyd were the top musical artists, and the directors were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Here are the full top 10 lists:

Books
1. The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
2. Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
3. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
4. The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone - J.K. Rowling
6. The Stand - Stephen King
7. Ulysses - James Joyce
8. Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand
9. The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
10. 1984 - George Orwell

Music albums
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles
2. The Beatles (The White Album) - The Beatles
3. Millennium - Backstreet Boys
4. Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd
5. Abbey Road - The Beatles
6. Thriller - Michael Jackson
7. The Joshua Tree - U2
8. The Wall - Pink Floyd
9. Kind Of Blue - Miles Davis
10. Nevermind - Nirvana

Movies
1. Star Wars
2. Titanic
3. Citizen Kane
4. Gone With the Wind
5. The Godfather
6. Schindler’s List
7. The Matrix
8. Saving Private Ryan
9. Casablanca
10. Braveheart

We Work Remotely

Footage from new Super Mario game clearly shows that Mario isn't a human being

Study: strict US voter ID laws are racially discriminatory

One of the world's best collections of maps lies underused in Milwaukee, WI

MLKSHK is shutting down. Goodbye old friend, thanks for everything.

I don't care about this white supremacist troll at all, but this piece by @PennyRed is FIRE

Maps of a single square mile shows the differences in street networks in cities

Sure, "readable" books are easy to get through, but are they good literature?

Someone trained Google's machine learning software to turn illustrations of cats, bldgs, and handbags into photos

Surprise Maps: Showing the Unexpected

Ballet dancers spin clockwise while athletes (gymnasts, figure skaters, divers) tend to spin counter-clockwise

There's no quick links archive yet. If you'd like to see 'em all, follow @kottke on Twitter.

How to be a stoic

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2017

Elif Batuman wrote a short piece about how she discovered stoicism for The New Yorker.

The first line of Epictetus’ manual of ethical advice, the Enchiridion — “Some things are in our control and others not” — made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we will live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”

I’m still struggling with recalling Epictetus’ advice when I need to, but I can identify with Batuman’s feeling of a weight being lifted when I do. I’ve noticed that the more central the notion of a lack of control is to my thinking, the more productive, more caring, more mindful, and (perhaps paradoxically) more willing to take risks I become.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted on top of water

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2017

Artist Garip Ay recently painted van Gogh’s Starry Night (along with his self-portrait) on top of water. Ebru, or paper marbling, is an art form where paint or ink is splattered or “painted” on the surface of water. Typically the painted scene is then transferred to paper with the finished product resembling polished marble stone. But Ay records his marbling on video and the effect is pretty cool.

See also the art of making marbled paper, which is well worth your attention.

Ocean-like abstracts by Samantha Keely Smith

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2017

Samantha Keely Smith

I love these abstract paintings by Samantha Keely Smith. The paintings are Smith’s attempt at representing our inner emotional worlds using imagery resembling oceans, clouds, and even nebulas. From Colossal:

Smith refers to her paintings as ‘internal landscapes,’ part of an ongoing examination of an externalized inner conflict. “My newer works try to boldly portray the struggle I’ve always tried to address in my work between order and chaos, dark and light, and positive and negative impulses,” Smith shares, “along with addressing what feels like a shifting and unpredictable landscape due to global warming.”

A few prints of the original paintings are available through Smith’s website.

How technology amplifies authoritarianism

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

Jason Ditzian writes about how the Nazis used new technological advances — high-fidelity microphones, public address systems, magnetic tape recording — to rise to power.

And since this amplification invention was new, the novelty added to the mesmerizing effects of a little man shouting atop the biggest soapbox that had ever existed. The quality of sound had a mystical effect upon listeners. It imbued Hitler with godlike powers, making him a deity who could project himself everywhere at once, whether one was standing amid a vast audience or sitting in one’s living room listening to the radio. Sometimes the voice was live; sometimes the voice was recorded in life-like clarity by another cutting-edge German innovation — a reel of magnetic tape.

He compares it to Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, which allows him to instantly soapbox to his millions of followers at all hours of the day and night — “a deity who could project himself everywhere at once” indeed.

With Twitter, every moment is a Trump rally. Everyone in the connected world knows what this unhinged narcissistic compulsive liar is thinking at any given moment. More time, energy, thought and commentary have been given to his minute-by-minute inane bullshit than any other issue of the last two years. And a lot of important things happened in the last two years.

Do robots deserve rights if they achieve consciousness?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

A new video by Kurzgesagt explores the question of machine’s rights. Do machines deserve rights? Perhaps not right now, but what about if they achieve consciousness at some point in the future? (And what does that even mean?) If machines are programmed to feel pain and suffering, do they deserve protection? Or will machines not be allowed to be programmed to suffer and therefore be exempt from rights, for the potential benefit of humans? One thing seems certain: when the shift from machine as thing to machine as thinking, feeling being occurs, it will happen pretty quickly and humans will handle it poorly.

See also The Philosophy of Westworld and Bill Gates’ assertion that the robots who replace people in the workplace should pay taxes.

In a recent interview with Quartz, Gates said that a robot tax could finance jobs taking care of elderly people or working with kids in schools, for which needs are unmet and to which humans are particularly well suited. He argues that governments must oversee such programs rather than relying on businesses, in order to redirect the jobs to help people with lower incomes.

Nicholas Winton saved 100s of children from the Holocaust

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

In 1938-39 on the eve of World War II, Nicholas Winton established an organization to rescue Jewish children living in Czechoslovakia from the Holocaust by giving them safe passage to Britain, which had recently approved a measure allowing refugees younger than 17 entry into the country. Winton’s organization ended up saving 669 children — future poets, politicians, scientists, and filmmakers among them. Getting these children out of Czechoslovakia was literally a matter of life and death. From Winton’s Wikipedia page:

The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun. Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war.

Although he continued his humanitarian work after the war, Winton rarely spoke of his efforts in saving the children. The full scope of what he had done was revealed only after his wife found a scrapbook in 1988 of the children’s names and the names of the British families that had taken them in. The public learned of Winton’s efforts on a TV show called That’s Life. Winton believed he was attending the show as an audience member, but it was revealed that he was actually sitting amongst about 2 dozen of the now-grown children that he had saved:

For his efforts, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. He died just a year and a half ago, at the age of 106.

Bach’s Crab Canon is a musical palindrome

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

In a series of pieces written for King Frederick II of Prussia in 1747 called The Musical Offering, Johann Sebastian Bach included a canon that is popularly referred to as the Crab Canon. The piece is a puzzle to be worked out by the reader/player.

You may notice that the Crab Canon is performed by two instruments, but only one line is notated. What’s the deal?

Bach published the canons in the Musical Offering as puzzles, giving the reader the minimum amount of information with which they can figure out the piece as long as they understand its structure. To “solve” a puzzle canon is to give it a structure that makes it fit together in pleasing harmony.

The solution to the Crab Canon is that it can be played forwards or backwards or forwards and backwards together in accompaniment. It’s a musical palindrome of sorts. (via open culture)

Photos of NYC in the early 1970s

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Vergara NYC

Vergara NYC

Vergara NYC

In the early 1970s, Camilo José Vergara trained his camera on scenes of everyday street life in New York City. His photographs captured kids playing on the street, subway cars before graffiti, sections of the Bronx that look bombed out, and the construction of the World Trade Center in progress.

See also his Tracking Time project, specific locations around the US photographed repeatedly over periods of up to 40 years. Vergara was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2002 for this work.

Using data science to find the most depressing Radiohead songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Saddest Radiohead Song

Radiohead is data scientist Charlie Thompson’s favorite band and he recently employed his professional skills to determine Radiohead’s most depressing songs and albums. Using data from Spotify and Genius, he analyzed and weighted how sad each song sounded musically and the sadness of the lyrics.

While valence serves as an out-of-the box measure of musical sentiment, the emotions behind song lyrics are much more elusive. To find the most depressing song, I used sentiment analysis to pick out words associated with sadness. Specifically, I used tidytext and the NRC lexicon, based on a crowd-sourced project by the National Research Council Canada. This lexicon contains an array of emotions (sadness, joy, anger, surprise, etc.) and the words determined to most likely elicit them.

Unsurprisingly, True Love Waits is Radiohead’s saddest song and Moon Shaped Pool its saddest album. You can play with this interactive chart to see all of the results. I thought Videotape would score lower on the Gloom Index…along with True Love Waits, it’s my go-to Radiohead song for wallowing in the darkness of my life. (via @RichardWestenra)

NASA has found 7 Earth-like planets orbiting a single nearby star

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Trappist 1

Today NASA announced the discovery of seven planets “that could harbor life” around a dwarf star called Trappist-1.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or about 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets - planets around stars other than the sun - in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

“This is the first time so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” said Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of an international team that has been observing Trappist-1.

Here’s the paper published in Nature.

The civics test for US naturalization

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Among the requirements that all immigrants must meet to become a naturalized US citizen is a civics test covering US history and government. The test contains 100 questions, 10 of which are verbally posed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer…no multiple choice. Applicants must answer 6 out of 10 correctly to pass. The questions include:

What is the supreme law of the land?
What is freedom of religion?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the President of the United States now?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
When must all men register for the Selective Service?
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?
Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
Name two national U.S. holidays.

You can take a 20-question multiple choice test on the USCIS website or if you want to see how many you can answer out of 100 with no multiple choice, I knocked up a Google Sheets version here — access is read-only but you can make a copy and take the test by choosing File / Make a copy… from the menu. Here’s a full list of the questions and suggested answers to check your work. Without studying, some of the questions are more difficult than you’d think, particularly if your last political science and American history classes were 25 years ago in high school.

And like all tests, this one is imperfect.1 In 2001, Dafna Linzer wrote about her test-taking experience.

Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?

I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.

There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”

Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”

The Simpsons lampooned this aspect of the test in 1996 when Apu answered a question about the Civil War2 during his civics test.

Examiner: “Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?”

Apu: “Actually there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international…”

Examiner: “Hey, hey…”

Apu: “Yep?”

Examiner: “Just… just say ‘slavery’”.

Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”

This would never happen in a million years, but I would love for someone to sit down with Donald Trump to see how many of these he could answer. Like I said, if you haven’t studied, some of the questions are not that easy. But surely the President of the United States should be able to get almost all of them correct…

  1. I was always good at tests in school because I learned early on the difference between the correct answer and the answer you’re supposed to give. Most of the time, they’re the same but not always.

  2. The question from the actual test reads “Name one problem that led to the Civil War” and the three suggested answers are “slavery”, “economic reasons”, and “states’ rights”.

Auto-generated maps of fantasy worlds

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Uncharted Atlas

Uncharted Atlas

Uncharted Atlas

Martin O’Leary is a research scientist who studies glaciers, but in his spare time, he built Uncharted Atlas, a program that auto-generates maps of fantasy lands (like from Game of Thrones or LOTR) and posts them to a Twitter account. The explanation of how the terrain is generated is quite interesting and includes embedded map generators that you can play around with (i.e. prepare to lose about 20 minutes to this).

There are loads of articles on the internet which describe terrain generation, and they almost all use some variation on a fractal noise approach, either directly (by adding layers of noise functions), or indirectly (e.g. through midpoint displacement). These methods produce lots of fine detail, but the large-scale structure always looks a bit off. Features are attached in random ways, with no thought to the processes which form landscapes. I wanted to try something a little bit different.

There are a few different stages to the generator. First we build up a height-map of the terrain, and do things like routing water flow over the surface. Then we can render the ‘physical’ portion of the map. Finally we can place cities and ‘regions’ on the map, and place their labels.

And here’s how the languages for the place names are generated; each map has its own generated language so all of the place names are consistant with each other and different from those regions shown on other maps.

I wanted to produce something which was a step above the usual alphabetic soup of generated placenames, and which was capable of producing recognisably distinct languages. The initial idea was that different regions of each map would have different languages, but I abandoned this because it was too hard to make it clear that this was what was going on, while still having the languages themselves be interesting.

The problem is to generate something like what the constructed languages (conlang) community call a ‘naming language’. This is a light sketch of a language, focusing purely on the parts which are necessary to produce names. So there’s little to no grammar, but a good sense of what the language sounds like, and how it’s written.

Computer Show is back! (As an ad for HP printers.)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

Missed this early this month while I was on vacation: Computer Show is back with a new episode, partnering with HP to showcase one of their fast color printers. Yes it’s an ad, but yes it’s still funny.