homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

Entries for June 2016 (July 2016 »    August 2016 »    September 2016 »    Archives)

 

Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2016

Legendary director Terrence Malick is making a documentary about the birth and death of the universe. It looks like a Koyaanisqatsi sort of thing rather than a here’s a suburban tableau that’s a metaphor for Big Bang and everything that comes after it sort of thing.

Apparently: 1. Malick has been working on this for more than 30 years. 2. Brad Pitt is narrating a 40-minute version that will air exclusively in IMAX. 3. There will also be a feature-length version of the movie narrated by Cate Blanchett. 4. This will either be amazing or sort of, you know, eh.

Update: A second trailer:

Ok, I’m officially excited for this. Cate Blanchett’s breathy Galadriel voice over gorgeous imagery? I’m there. (via one perfect shot)

Poem from 1943 complaining about poor street sign typography in NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2016

Nyc Type Poem

In 1943, artist and poet Gelett Burgess wrote a poem to New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia complaining of the poor typography on some of the city’s street signs. La Guardia wrote back, also in verse. (via @john_overholt)

The definitive oral history of Die Hard

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2016

Die Hard

Now available as a Kindle single (71 pages): Die Hard: An Oral History.

In this definitive oral history of “Die Hard,” writers, actors, producers, and studio executives reveal behind-the-scenes stories, from the curious origins of the film’s title, to the script’s evolution from a depressing ’70s character study to an optimistic Reagan-era blockbuster, to the seminal negotiations between 20th Century Fox and Willis’s then-agent which sent his client’s career into the stratosphere, to details of moguls Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver’s famously tumultuous relationship while developing some of the ’80s most successful franchises.

The Daily Beast has an excerpt on the casting of John McClane.

They went to Arnold [Schwarzenegger]. They went to Sly, who turned it down. They went to Richard Gere-turned it down. They went to James Caan-turned it down. They went to Burt Reynolds, and all of these people rejected it because, remember, this is 1987. You had all these Rambo movies. We’ve had Commando, Predator, and in the wake of all of these, the hero, they said, was like a pussy. The reaction? “This guy’s no hero.” Right? In desperation, they went to Bruce Willis.

2016 Presidential election odds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 30, 2016

According to the first national election forecast by FiveThirtyEight, Hillary Clinton has an 80.3% chance of winning the Presidency.

538 Trump Hillary

A 20% Trump chance is waaaaay too close for my comfort…that’s better odds than ending up dead playing one round of Russian roulette. We gotta Mondale that Cheeto-faced shitgibbon.

Zootopia was going to be a much darker movie

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2016

This storyboarded scene from Zootopia shows an early and much darker direction for the plot: the predators need to wear collars that shock them if they get too excited. This reminds me that Woody was a “sarcastic jerk” in the early drafts of Toy Story. Oh, and Lightning McQueen was an asshole in Cars whose redemption the audience didn’t completely buy, which Pixar didn’t end up fixing.

Update: There’s more about how Zootopia’s story evolved in Fusion’s 45-minute feature about the production of the film. (via @luketonge)

The green screen driving machine

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2016

Creative agency The Mill has built a car called the Blackbird that, after visual effects are applied in post-production, can impersonate any sort of car in a commercial, TV show, or movie.

The Mill BLACKBIRD® is able to quickly transform its chassis to match the exact length and width of almost any car. Powered by an electric motor, it can be programmed to imitate acceleration curves and gearing shifts and the adjustable suspension alters ride height, rigidity and dampening to replicate typical driving characteristics.

The world’s first chatbot lawyer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2016

AI chatbot lawyer sounds like a SNL skit, but the DoNotPay chatbot has successfully contested 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York.

Dubbed as “the world’s first robot lawyer” by its 19-year-old creator, London-born second-year Stanford University student Joshua Browder, DoNotPay helps users contest parking tickets in an easy to use chat-like interface.

The program first works out whether an appeal is possible through a series of simple questions, such as were there clearly visible parking signs, and then guides users through the appeals process.

The results speak for themselves. In the 21 months since the free service was launched in London and now New York, Browder says DoNotPay has taken on 250,000 cases and won 160,000, giving it a success rate of 64% appealing over $4m of parking tickets.

Having spent a shitload of money on lawyering over the past few years, there is definitely an opportunity for some automation there.

Body of Theseus

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2016

How old are different parts of our bodies? Does anything stick around the entire time? The hair on our bodies lasts only a few years. Fingernails are fully replaced every six months. Your skin lasts 2-4 weeks. Even your blood and bones regenerate every so often. There’s at least one part of your body with lasts the whole time you’re alive, which I found somewhat surprising. See the ship of Theseus paradox.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

How do we know the lifespans of different cells in the body? Carbon-14 levels from nuclear testing done in the 50s and 60s.

Analysis of growth rings from pine trees in Sweden shows that the proliferation of atomic tests in the 1950s and 1960s led to an explosion in levels of atmospheric carbon 14. Now, Jonas Frisen and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have taken advantage of this spike in C14 to devise a method to date the birth of human cells. Because this test can be used retrospectively, unlike many of the current methods used to detect cell proliferation, and because it does not require the ingestion of a radioactive or chemical tracer, the method can be readily applied to both in vivo and postmortem samples of human tissues.

NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2016

Launched from Earth in August 2011, the Juno probe is due to arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Once there, it will circle Jupiter 37 times, observing its atmosphere and magnetic fields, before plunging into the giant planet so as not to contaminate Europa with microbes.

Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

With its suite of science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

Juno will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system.

Science is great. That video? Maybe not so much.

The surprising history of the infographic

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2016

1860 Slavery Map

From Clive Thompson, a history of the infographic, which was developed in part to help solve problems with an abundance of data available in the 19th century.

The idea of visualizing data is old: After all, that’s what a map is — a representation of geographic information — and we’ve had maps for about 8,000 years. But it was rare to graph anything other than geography. Only a few examples exist: Around the 11th century, a now-anonymous scribe created a chart of how the planets moved through the sky. By the 18th century, scientists were warming to the idea of arranging knowledge visually. The British polymath Joseph Priestley produced a “Chart of Biography,” plotting the lives of about 2,000 historical figures on a timeline. A picture, he argued, conveyed the information “with more exactness, and in much less time, than it [would take] by reading.”

Still, data visualization was rare because data was rare. That began to change rapidly in the early 19th century, because countries began to collect-and publish-reams of information about their weather, economic activity and population. “For the first time, you could deal with important social issues with hard facts, if you could find a way to analyze it,” says Michael Friendly, a professor of psychology at York University who studies the history of data visualization. “The age of data really began.”

Visualization of the history of cities from 3700 BC to now

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2016

Using the results of a recent report by a team of Yale researchers, this visualization shows the growth of urbanization across the globe from 3700 BC to the present day. There is an amazing flurry of activity in the last few seconds of the video because:

By 2030, 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities. Today, about 54 percent of us do. In 1960, only 34 percent of the world lived in cities.

There are now 21 Chinese cities alone with a population of over 4 million.

The evolution of Pixar’s animation from 1984 to now

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2016

Watch how far Pixar’s skill in animation has come over the past 30+ years, from their initial shorts to the nearly photorealistic animation in last year’s The Good Dinosaur to Finding Dory.

It’s incredible how dated the original Toy Story looks now. It’s going to look positively prehistoric in 20 years and it’ll be impossible for anyone who didn’t see it at the time to understand how astounding and groundbreaking it was.

Auctioneer beats

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

From the Auctioneer Beats account on Vine, auctioneer calls set to the freshest beats.

Simple and delightful. Some of these auctioneers could give Daveed Diggs a run for his money. (via @fimoculous)

Stuck in the middle with you(rself)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes about what’s going on when we become a little stubborn about not wanting to enjoy Hamilton, Ferrante, Better Call Saul, or [insert your friends’ current cultural obsession here].

Somewhere around the 500th headline I read in praise of Hamilton, the universally acclaimed Broadway musical due in Europe next year, I was struck by a deflating thought: I’ll probably never see it. Not just because it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket, but because so many people — people whose tastes I trust — have raved about it that I now regard the prospect with annoyance. Two years ago, it was the Richard Linklater movie Boyhood, which I still haven’t seen; then Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which I still haven’t read. Straw polls of friends suggest I’m not alone in this reaction — call it “cultural cantankerousness” — which seems to affect books, films, plays, holiday destinations and restaurants equally. Increasingly, my first thought on seeing something described as a “must-read” is‘“Oh really? Try and make me.”

This reaction could be a FOMO defense, but the optimal distinctiveness theory explanation is more interesting.

One explanation is what psychologists call “optimal distinctiveness theory” — the way we’re constantly jockeying to feel exactly the right degree of similarity to and difference from those around us. Nobody wants to be exiled from the in-group to the fringes of society; but nobody wants to be swallowed up by it, either.

FWIW, I have not see Boyhood or Better Call Saul yet, but I’ve read Ferrante and seen Hamilton are both are as good as advertised. (Oh, and Burkeman’s own book, The Antidote, is great as well.)

The plates are alive with the sound of food

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

For an episode of food podcast Gastropod, hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley consider how sound influences our perception of food and drink.

In this episode, we discover how manipulating sound can transform our experience of food and drink, making stale potato chips taste fresh, adding the sensation of cream to black coffee, or boosting the savory, peaty notes in whiskey.

One takeaway: don’t listen to the sound of breaking glass if you want to continue eating potato chips:

He recruited 200 volunteers willing to eat Pringles for science, and played them modified crunching sounds through headphones, some louder and some more muffled, as they ate. And he found that he could make a 15 percent difference in people’s perception of a stale chip’s freshness by playing them a louder crunch when they bit into it.

“The party version” of this trick, according to Spence, was developed by colleagues in the Netherlands and Japan. Volunteers were asked to crunch on chips in time with a metronome, while researchers played crunching sounds back, in perfect synchrony, through their headphones. All was well until the researchers replaced the crunching with the sound of breaking glass-and “people’s jaws just freeze up.”

The human brain is fascinating.

A look inside America’s assembly line prison system

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

Reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a guard in a Louisiana private prison for four months. Mother Jones devoted their entire recent issue to the story.

In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I’ll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He’s the head of Winn’s Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison’s SWAT-like tactical unit. “If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?” he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, “I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit.”

Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. “If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him,” he says, pacing slowly. “If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.” Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. “If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don’t supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I’ll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him.”

He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.

“I’d probably call somebody,” a cadet offers.

“I’d sit there and holler ‘stop,’” says a veteran guard.

Mr. Tucker points at her. “Damn right. That’s it. If they don’t pay attention to you, hey, there ain’t nothing else you can do.”

He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said, ‘Stop fighting.’” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ to stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!”

“Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.

Fusion has a summary of Bauer’s reporting, which you really should actually read in its entirety. America’s prison system is shameful; its reform is one of the biggest issues facing our nation in the future.

The winners of the 2015 50 Books/50 Covers competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2016

The AIGA and Design Observer have announced the results of the 50 Books/50 Covers competition for books published in 2015. The competition recognizes excellence in design of books and, separately, book covers. Here are a couple of my favorite covers:

50books Covers 2015

50books Covers 2015

Oreo by Fran Ross was designed by Erik Carter and Moon-Kie Jung’s Beneath the Surface of White Supremacy was designed by Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein.

Perhaps Britain won’t leave the EU after all?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2016

Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking or the social media filter bubble I’m in, but there seems to be a more-than-zero chance that Britain won’t actually leave the European Union, despite last Thursday’s vote. For one thing, as I mentioned in my Friday AM post about Brexit, the vote is not legally binding. The Prime Minister needs to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which has not happened yet.

But there’s no requirement that the UK invoke Article 50 in a timely fashion. Indeed, both Cameron and Johnson have said they think it’s appropriate to dawdle; Cameron says he’ll leave the decision to invoke to his successor, and Johnson has said there’s no rush.

It wouldn’t be tenable for the government to just completely ignore the vote forever, even though that is legally permissible.

But perhaps not untenable. A Guardian commenter speculates that Cameron did something politically canny when he passed the buck to his successor. As the full ramifications of Leave become apparent, it may be that the consequences of leaving will be transferred from the voters to the person who decides to invoke Article 50…i.e. it may become politically untenable to leave.

Throughout the campaign, Cameron had repeatedly said that a vote for leave would lead to triggering Article 50 straight away. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the image was clear: he would be giving that notice under Article 50 the morning after a vote to leave. Whether that was scaremongering or not is a bit moot now but, in the midst of the sentimental nautical references of his speech yesterday, he quietly abandoned that position and handed the responsibility over to his successor.

And as the day wore on, the enormity of that step started to sink in: the markets, Sterling, Scotland, the Irish border, the Gibraltar border, the frontier at Calais, the need to continue compliance with all EU regulations for a free market, re-issuing passports, Brits abroad, EU citizens in Britain, the mountain of legistlation to be torn up and rewritten … the list grew and grew.

The referendum result is not binding. It is advisory. Parliament is not bound to commit itself in that same direction.

The Conservative party election that Cameron triggered will now have one question looming over it: will you, if elected as party leader, trigger the notice under Article 50?

Who will want to have the responsibility of all those ramifications and consequences on his/her head and shoulders?

There’s also been talk that Scotland could veto Brexit.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told the BBC that Holyrood could try to block the UK’s exit from the EU.

She was speaking following a referendum on Thursday which saw Britain vote by 52% to 48% to leave Europe.

However, in Scotland the picture was different with 62% backing Remain and 38% wanting to go.

SNP leader Ms Sturgeon said that “of course” she would ask MSPs to refuse to give their “legislative consent”.

But perhaps the most heartening bit of information comes courtesy of David Allen Green: that boat never did get named “Boaty McBoatface”, vote or no vote. Prime Minister David Attenborough anyone?

Update: From Gideon Rachman at the FT: I do not believe Brexit will happen.

Any long-term observer of the EU should be familiar with the shock referendum result. In 1992 the Danes voted to reject the Maastricht treaty. The Irish voted to reject both the Nice treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon treaty in 2008.

And what happened in each case? The EU rolled ever onwards. The Danes and the Irish were granted some concessions by their EU partners. They staged a second referendum. And the second time around they voted to accept the treaty. So why, knowing this history, should anyone believe that Britain’s referendum decision is definitive?

Update: John Cassidy writing for the New Yorker:

As reality sets in, E.U. leaders may well be content to let the Brits stew in their own juices for a while. Initial talk of forcing the U.K. to begin the process of leaving straight away has been replaced by calls for patience. Monday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal quoted Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, as saying, “Politicians in London should have the possibility to think again about the fallout from an exit.” To leave now, he added, “would be a deep cut with far-reaching consequences.” A majority of the politicians at Westminster probably agree with Altmaier’s analysis. But what, if anything, can they do to reverse the march toward Brexit?

RIP Bill Cunningham

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2016

Bill Cunningham

Sad news from the NY Times: legendary street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has died today at the age of 87.

In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham operated both as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.

At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.

I saw Cunningham out on the streets of NYC twice and both times chills ran up my back watching a master at work. Unless Cunningham had something in the can before he died, it looks as though the last of his On the Street features is about black and white fashion. Tonight might be a good time to watch the documentary Bill Cunningham New York — it’s available on Amazon (free with Prime).

A new DJ Shadow album: The Mountain Will Fall

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2016

Out just yesterday, DJ Shadow’s new album is pretty great so far.

The Industrial Revolution, climate change, and Brexit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Coalbrookdale

The Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century in Great Britain. To provide power for the wondrous new inventions producing marvelous new goods and services, coal (and later oil) was dug out of the ground and burned, releasing billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide. In time, the speedy introduction of all this new carbon into the atmosphere caused the Earth’s climate to change.

In order to procure new resources for manufacturing and gain access to new markets for finished goods, the British Empire expanded across the globe. At some point, Great Britain invaded nearly 90% of the world’s countries. The expansion fueled climate change and created avenues for immigration to Britain from their colonies. Their activities eventually bring them to the Middle East in search of oil.

Fast forward to 2006. Drought exacerbated by climate change is one of many factors that pushed Syria into a prolonged civil war. The war triggered a humanitarian crisis and millions flee the country, becoming refugees, and some are able to migrate to Europe and other countries around the world, including Britain. The Syrian immigration issue fueled British nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, triggering a vote about whether Britain should leave the European Union. Yesterday, more than 17 million Britons voted to leave, with strong support for Leave in areas with now-empty coalfields and declining industrialization.

Coincidence? Not even close. More than 250 years on, Britain is still dealing with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. (via @EricHolthaus, @johnupton, @MichaelEMann, @chucktodd)

Newspaper front pages about Brexit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Economist Brexit

Buzzfeed has a collection of newspaper front pages and magazine covers related to Brexit. Newseum has a more extensive collection (900+ newspapers) and the Guardian has a nice selection as well.

Out of all of them, I think the cover for next week’s issue of the New Yorker is perhaps my favorite:

New Yorker Brexit

Ah, Monty Python.

Six million years of human history, explained in 10 minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Kurzgesagt gives us a short tour of human history, from the six different species of human that existed 100,000 years ago to the present. If you found that interesting and want more detail, you should read Sapiens…Kurzgesagt used it as a major reference here.

Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.

Boston Dynamics’ new house-trained robot

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Boston Dynamics has a new 55-pound robot with an arm that looks like a head. It gets up after slipping on banana peels and can load your delicate glassware into the dishwasher.

Do they deliberately make these videos unsettling and creepy? Or is that just me? That last scene, where the robot kinda lunges at the guy and then falls over…I might have nightmares about that.

Britain votes to leave the EU

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

I awoke at 3am last night, perhaps having sensed a disturbance in the Force, read a late-night text from a friend that said, “BREXIT!!” and spent the next two hours reading, shocked and alarmed, about Britain’s voting public’s decision to leave the European Union. Although according to a piece by David Allen Green in the FT, the decision is not legally binding and nothing will immediately change with regard to Britain’s laws or EU member status, the outcome is nevertheless distressing for the reasons outlined succinctly by an FT commenter.

A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term from the dearth of jobs and investment. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another one. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages, and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Well novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?

Reading this and casting your mind to Trump and the upcoming US election is not that difficult.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a book I read several years ago by Robert Wright called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. In it, Wright argues that cooperation among individuals and ever-larger groups has been essential in pushing biological and cultural evolution forward. From the first chapter of the book:

The survey of organic history is brief, and the survey of human history not so brief. Human history, after all, is notoriously messy. But I don’t think it’s nearly as messy as it’s often made out to be. Indeed, even if you start the survey back when the most complex society on earth was a hunter-gatherer village, and follow it up to the present, you can capture history’s basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential — that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth.

This isn’t to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes. Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naive; parasitic behavior is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offers no shortage of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence.

The atmosphere of xenophobia on display in the US, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe is affecting our ability to work together for a better future together. World War II ended more than 70 years ago, long enough in the past that relatively few are still alive who remember the factors that led to war and the sort of people who pushed for it. Putin, Brexit, Trump, the Front National in France…has the West really forgotten WWII? If so, God help us all.

P.S. I also have a couple of contemporary songs running through my head about all this. The first is What Comes Next? from the Hamilton soundtrack:

What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?

You’re on your own
Awesome. Wow
Do you have a clue what happens now?

And the second is a track from Beyonce’s Lemonade, Don’t Hurt Yourself:

When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Try not to hurt yourself
When you play me, you play yourself
Don’t play yourself
When you lie to me, you lie to yourself
You only lying to yourself
When you love me, you love yourself

Britain just played itself.

Update: Excellent op-ed in the LA Times by Brian Klaas and Marcel Dirsus.

This is the glaring contradiction in the muscular nationalism of right-wing populism, blended with isolationism, that seeks to withdraw from international unions: It cannot shape a better world by shutting the world out. The same people who cheer when Trump laments the decline of American leadership want to ignore key global issues and put “America First.” The people who voted for Brexit, attempting to create a border between Britain and challenges such as the refugee crisis, seem to think Britain can solve such problems without consulting Germany or France or, worst of all to them, Brussels.

The world doesn’t work that way, and it hasn’t for decades. Ever-increasing globalization has created an unprecedented surge in prosperity, but it has also ushered in jarring changes. The rough edges of those changes can only be overcome with more aggressive cooperation and engagement, not less. Whether it’s the risks of terrorism, the tragic flow of refugees, or economic shocks, Britain cannot solve problems alone and neither can the United States.

The Floating Piers by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2016

The Floating Piers is a new art installant from Christo and Jeanne-Claude consisting of massive floating bridges and docks covered in yellow fabric that connects a pair of islands to the mainland in Italy’s Lake Iseo. The video above offers an aerial view of the installation.

Visitors can experience this work of art by walking on it from Sulzano to Monte Isola and to the island of San Paolo, which is framed by The Floating Piers. The mountains surrounding the lake offer a bird’s-eye view of The Floating Piers, exposing unnoticed angles and altering perspectives. Lake Iseo is located 100 kilometers east of Milan and 200 kilometers west of Venice.

“Like all of our projects, The Floating Piers is absolutely free and accessible 24 hours a day, weather permitting,” said Christo. “There are no tickets, no openings, no reservations and no owners. The Floating Piers are an extension of the street and belong to everyone.”

The Floating Piers

This is very reminiscent of The Gates, which is one of my favorite pieces of art. (via tksst)

On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2016

Big Picture Carroll

After an unbelievably stressful and busy winter/spring, I am hoping to find some time to read this summer. One of the books on my short list is Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture, one of those “everything is connected” things I love. From a post by Carroll on what the book’s about:

This book is a culmination of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve loved physics from a young age, but I’ve also been interested in all sorts of “big” questions, from philosophy to evolution and neuroscience. And what these separate fields have in common is that they all aim to capture certain aspects of the same underlying universe. Therefore, while they are indisputably separate fields of endeavor — you don’t need to understand particle physics to be a world-class biologist — they must nevertheless be compatible with each other — if your theory of biology relies on forces that are not part of the Standard Model, it’s probably a non-starter. That’s more of a constraint than you might imagine. For example, it implies that there is no such thing as life after death. Your memories and other pieces of mental information are encoded in the arrangement of atoms in your brain, and there’s no way for that information to escape your body when you die.

Yeah, that sounds right up my alley.

The Amazon Echo

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2016

Amazon Echo

It’s been very interesting to see the Amazon Echo not only succeed as a consumer product but to enter the realm of pop culture (see also also also). Somehow, the Echo is officially A Thing.

But Amazon doesn’t make Things. Apple makes Things…Amazon just sells stuff for cheap. Aside from the Kindle,1 many of their other consumer products have not taken off (the Fire Tablet, despite the 7” model selling for only $50 now) or have plain flopped (hello Fire Phone). But somehow, the Echo became a surprise hit.

When it launched, Amazon’s critics jumped to mock the company. Some called it a useless gimmick; others pointed to it as evidence of Amazon’s Orwellian tendencies. Then something weird happened: People decided they loved it. Amazon never releases data about how its products are selling, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners issued a report this month saying that Amazon had sold more than 3 million devices, with 1 million of those sales happening during the 2015 holiday season. About 35,000 people have reviewed the speaker on Amazon.com, with an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5.

Perhaps even more important to Amazon is how dozens of independent developers are writing apps that work with the speaker’s voice controls. You can use Alexa to turn off the lights, ask it how much gas is left in your car, or order a pizza. This is doubly surprising given how far behind Apple and Google the company was in the area of voice control when it started. The Echo may have seemed like a superfluous toy at first, but it now looks like a way for Amazon to become the default choice in a whole new era in the way people interact with computers and the Internet.

One the Echo’s fans is my friend Anil Dash, who wrote about it last night:

More positively, Echo is meaningful because it’s also the first hugely popular smart device that’s connected to a place rather than a person. (Video game consoles are obviously dedicated to the living room, too, but they’re a purpose-specific device, and none have crossed over into general app platforms.) Apps for places are different than apps for people.

Tressie McMillan Cottom picked up on something Dash wrote about dads loving Echo and wrote about modern families and equality.

One of the great debates around family, the social institution, is that gender parity cannot be achieved unless men are held as responsible for managing the second shift as are women. And, data show that many men are making that shift. It’s not yet a staggering number. It’s not a tipping point. But there’s maybe enough data for social scientists to agree that its a nascent trend: some men are becoming more involved in the critical minutiae of the second shift.

Maybe Dads love Alexa because Dads are suddenly as responsible for ordering the paper towels as Moms.

I don’t have one and I don’t think I’ll buy one anytime soon, but all this interest sure does make me curious.

  1. The Kindle is sort of A Thing, but only because you can’t read the books sold for it using anyone else’s device or app…you have to use a Kindle or the Kindle app on iOS or Android. I mean, I love my Kindle, but if Amazon had any compelling competition in the e-reader space, it (or someone else’s reader) might be a lot better.

A deeper metaphor

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2016

Former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch on approaching problems head on:

That might be the best answer to any interview question ever. (via digg)

Documentary on Dieter Rams

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2016

Gary Hustwit, director of Helvetica and Objectified, is directing a movie on legendary product designer Dieter Rams. Here’s the Kickstarter campaign.

This Kickstarter campaign will fund the film and also help to preserve Dieter’s incredible design archive for the future. There’s a trove of drawings, photographs, and other material spanning Dieter’s fifty plus years of work, and it needs to be properly conserved.

To that end, we’re working with the Dieter and Ingeborg Rams Foundation to help them catalog, digitize, and save these documents. The public has never seen most of this material, and we intend to share some of these discoveries with our backers during the process of making the film.

Rams’ designs have influenced an entire generation of designers, including one Jony Ive from a small company called Apple.

British F1 Sidecar racing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2016

They race motorcycles with sidecars and it is the nuttiest thing: the sidecar passengers throw themselves all over the place in order to shift the center of gravity of the bike in the turns. (via digg)

Update: Ok, Sidecar Motocross might be even nuttier:

(thx, david)

A tour of some of the world’s most famous houses

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2016

John Green shares delightful and interesting stories about 21 of the world’s most famous houses, including the Playboy Mansion, Winchester Mystery House, and Graceland.

Identity, names, and personal reputation management in Inglourious Basterds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2016

The Bear Jew. Hugo Stiglitz. The Jew Hunter. Bridget von Hammersmark. Names, identity, and personal reputation management are important elements in Inglourious Basterds, as they are in all of Tarantino’s films (Vincent Vega, our man in Amsterdam; Mr. Pink; The Bride / Beatrix Kiddo / Black Mamba). In this video essay, Drew Morton shows how Tarantino’s characters assert their identities over and over again, with varying results.

How do airplane black boxes work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2016

First of all, they’re not actually black. (They’re orange.) They capture more than 80 types of on-board information, including the last two hours of cockpit voice communications. And someday, they might get replaced by uploading data to the cloud (a secure cloud, one hopes).

The fashionable peacocks of Pitti Uomo

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2016

Aaron Christian shot footage of the fashionably dressed gentlemen attending the Pitti Uomo menswear trade show and paired it with David Attenborough-esque commentary about peacocks.

Unlike the cues outside of the city shows, where photographers have a few seconds to snap their favourite look. Pitti Uomo is a four day long menswear trade show, in Florence, Italy.

It’s a vast space where attendees spend all day walking around, visiting stands, eating in the sun or catching up with fellow fashion colleagues — and so consequently it has become a prime spot for the worlds top street style photographers to document and shoot some of the most stylish men on the planet.

It’s become a peacock parade where the men show off their outfits in all their glory hoping to get snapped by the top photographers.

It’s quite comical, the way the fully grown men pace around subtly trying their best to get snapped, and it’s the perfect location for this wildlife style mockumentary to take place.

Live: Sigur Ros circles Iceland with generative soundtrack

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2016

Icelandic band Sigur Rós is doing a live slow TV event: a broadcast of a drive around the entirety of Iceland with a soundtrack generated by software based on a new song of theirs.

driving anti-clockwise round the island, the journey will pass by many of the country’s most notable landmarks, including vatnajökull, europe’s largest ice-sheet; the glacial lagoon, jökulsárlón; as well as the east fjords and the desolate black sands of möðrudalur.

the soundtrack to the journey is being created moment-by-moment via generative music software. the individual musical elements of unreleased song, and current sigur rós festival set opener, óveður, are seeded through the evolving music app bronze, to create a unique ephemeral sonic experience. headphones, external speakers and full-screen viewing are recommended.

LittleSis database of biz/gov’t connections

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2016

Littesis

LittleSis is a freely available database that documents personal and business connections in the worlds of government and business. For instance, here’s George Soros. And Dick Cheney. Love the Lombardi-esque influence maps. (via @kellianderson)

(P.S. Does anyone remember the name of a similar project done in Flash many years ago by one of the hotshot Flash developers? Can’t find it…)

Update: The Flash site was They Rule by Josh On “with the indispensable assistance of LittleSis.org”. Well, how about that. (via @ajayskapoor)

Incredible breakdancing crew from Korea

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2016

Morning of Owl is a dance crew from Korea and they are from The Matrix, I think?

How did you do that? You moved like they do. I’ve never seen anyone move that fast.

Amazing athleticism and coordination. (via @aaroncoleman0)

Time lapse of two hydroelectric dams being torn down

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2016

Two hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River in Washington were removed in order to restore the river’s ecosystem — in particular, the salmon habitat. It was the largest dam removal in the US history and, as the video explains, has been successful so far in attracting fish back to its waters. But for our purposes here today, the first 30 seconds shows how the dams were unbuilt and the rivers reshaped.

See also this time lapse of another Washington dam being disabled and its reservoir drained:

A collection of maps of the languages and ethnic groups of Asia

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2016

Language Map China

Language Map India

Language Map Indochina

Tim Merrill is using Pinterest to collect maps showing where ethnic groups live and what languages are spoken in Asia.

The anxiety of Father’s Day cards

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 17, 2016

All greeting cards are bad, but can we agree that Father’s Day cards are particularly bad?

Cards for dads are a lot like T-shirts for toddlers: aggressively, relentlessly gendered. It’s telling many of the sports-themed cards look like wallpaper you might find in a child’s bedroom. As it turns out, the blue-is-for-boys, pink-is-for-girls anxiety doesn’t end in childhood. Now it’s beer-is-for-dads, wine-is-for-moms. To that end, Mother’s Day cards aren’t much better — hope you like flowers! — but there’s something striking about cards for dads, as though they exist to remind dads they are Manly Men Who Like Things For Manly Men, As Randomly Determined By Popular Culture.

A greeting card is a strange commercial product for lots of reasons, not least because of agency problems. By definition, the person buying a card is pretty much never the person whom it’s for. Add in whatever traditions are associated with the occasion, gaps in power or familiarity between the gifter and giftee, and it’s practically a recipe for people to tighten up and go super-conservative.

This does remind me of a thread in the webcomic Achewood where Roast Beef is inspired to create his own line of greeting cards for everyday occasions. By the end, he and his friend Ray are coming up with “Dude-to-Dude” cards like “Dogg Let’s Go Eat Dishes With Chorizo When Our Ladies Aren’t Around” or “Dogg It Must Feel Sick As Hell To Recieve A Card From A Dude.” (If I were to ever receive either of these cards from my son for Father’s Day, I’d be thrilled.)

Earth has a new(ish) quasi-moon

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 17, 2016

About a hundred years ago, a tiny asteroid making its way around the sun got caught in Earth’s gravity well. Now it’s locked in an irregular orbit far around our planet, between 38 and 100 times the distance between the Earth and its proper moon.

quasi-moon.JPG

As it orbits the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth, and passes ahead of our planet. The other half of the time it falls behind.

It’s also in a tilted orbit, which causes it to weave up and down on the orbital plane like a bob on choppy waters. As NASA’s Paul Chodas put it in a press statement, “In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

In another couple of centuries, the asteroid will probably get far enough away that it’ll leave Earth behind forever. I wonder how many times this has happened — how many times the asteroids have been bigger, closer, but still not big or close enough to stay.

The early works of the D’Aulaires

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 17, 2016

Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, a married team of writer-artists, are best known for their popular late works on Greek and Norse mythology. (After Calvin and Hobbes, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was probably the most important book of my childhood.) But after some early works on Norse folktales (Ingri was Norwegian, Edgar German/Swiss; they met in Germany and emigrated to the US in the 1920s), the D’Aulaires made a series of award-winning books on American history and folklore, much in the mythic, dreamy style of their later work.

Like any mythological hero, the D’Aulaires’ George Washington has powers beyond those of ordinary men. He’s stronger than other boys and rides his horse more skillfully. He can hurl a rock across the width of the river. He’s shot, but unharmed. Lincoln is also demigod-like, when they tell of how he “wrestled with the strongest and toughest of them all, and threw them to the ground.”

Daulaires-Lincoln.jpg

The limits of forensic science, and beyond

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 16, 2016

Veronique Greenwood’s story on a new method to infer someone’s physical appearance from DNA evidence doubles as a skeptical mini-history of forensic science:

In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences released a blistering report calling into question the scientific validity of the analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, blood spatters, clothing fiber, handwriting, bullet markings, and many other mainstays of forensic investigation. It concluded that with one exception [DNA evidence], no forensic method could be relied on with a high degree of certainty to “demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

And even with DNA, it’s tricky. The common theme: academics doing pure research have a better track record than criminal investigators trying to prove or crack a case, or companies trying to develop a product. (See also: everything.)

How to tell left from right

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 16, 2016

Not everyone can distinguish between left and right. Besides natural affinity (or lack of it), health, drug use, other chemical changes, and stress can all cause our basic body compass to break down.

Telling left from right necessitates complex brain processes that include spatial perceptions, memory, language, and the integration of sensory information. The task is made increasingly complex when a person must identify laterality on someone else. Yoga teachers and other fitness instructors have it extra rough: While calling out to students to bend their left knee, the instructor has to raise their own right to mirror the class…

However, the field under the most pressure to avoid lateral confusion is medicine. In the dentist’s chair, there’s money wasted when hygienists x-ray the wrong tooth. It’s even worse when a left-right-disoriented dentist pulls one or more teeth from the incorrect side of the mouth. It’s even more serious in general surgery: A 2011 report estimates that there are 40 wrong-site surgeries done weekly in the U.S., and many of those involve mixing up a patient’s left and right. This is a devastating problem: If a doctor removes the healthy kidney and not the cancerous one, the results can be fatal. Wrong eye? Now we have a fully blind patient.

There’s nothing inherent about left, right, up, and down — or what are sometimes called “egocentric coordinates.” Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr in Australia famously use a coordinate system that leans much more heavily on absolute geocentric references at right angles (their equivalent of north, south, east, and west).

This plays a little easier when you’re playing off objects with fixed positions, like landmarks, or especially, the sun, than it does in big twisty-turny cities. But you could imagine in a world with ubiquitous handheld maps and compasses that a north/south/east/west orientation might make more sense.

What’s more, some of the old tech people used to train themselves to distinguish or remember left and right — miming handwriting, or wearing a wristwatch on one arm — aren’t as common or dominant as they once were. See also: distinguishing angular position by analogy with the face of an analog clock.

Either we come up with new tricks and new metaphors, or it’s conceivable that what’s seemed like an intuitive, natural way to think about the relative position of bodies in space could become a whole lot less intuitive for more and more people.

A calendar for fictional holidays

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 16, 2016

I love James Joyce’s Ulysses, spent a huge chunk of my life in grad school trying to figure out that book, still follow a ton of modernist scholars and Joyce freaks on social media, and even I managed to forget that today was Bloomsday, the anniversary of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold and Molly Bloom’s treks across Dublin in that book.

I also love Star Trek: The Next Generation, probably even more than I do James Joyce, and I had no idea that today was also “Captain Picard’s Day,” when the children on the Enterprise honor him (and make him deeply uncomfortable) by presenting him with arts and crafts.

What I needed (for a peculiar definition of “need”) was a calendar plugin, something to put the anniversary of Terminator 2’s Judgment Day, The Simpsons’ Whacking Day, and Roy Batty’s inception date directly into my stream of doctor’s appointments, scheduled phone calls, NBA games shown on broadcast basic cable, and Facebook friends’ birthdays.

And that’s exactly what the staff at Atlas Obscura made: a pop culture calendar of imaginary holidays. It doesn’t solve real problems, unless those problems include properly commemorating The Purge. But it is pretty fun.

Gravity is the new light

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 16, 2016

Gravitational waves from two colliding black holes were first detected last September and announced in February. This week, the same science team announced a second wave detection of two smaller black holes in December.

If the first one confirmed the long-held predictions of general relativity, the new detections are a signal to get started on some all-new science.

A black hole’s gravity is so strong that even light can’t escape, so black holes are essentially impossible to see with telescopes. But they do give off gravitational waves.

“Light’s always been how we do astronomy,” Professor Jo Dunkley, an astrophysicist at Oxford University who didn’t work on the experiment, told BuzzFeed News. “Everything we know about space, we’ve got from light. This can show the stuff you can’t see with light.”

Counting black holes, combining telescope with gravitational measurements to better understand neutron stars, all the usual origin-of-the-universe stuff.

If gravitational waves don’t require cataclysmic collisions between enormous black holes for us to measure them, but can be detected on the regular, we can use them to try to figure out a whole lot more than just whether or not Einstein was totally right. That is a very nice tool to have in your pocket.

Science and storytelling in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 16, 2016

Adam Summers is a biomechanist who worked as a consultant on fish behavior and anatomy for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory. How do you figure out where and how to stick to the known science (or sneak it in sideways) in a movie about talking fish? It’s not an easy question to answer.

This question is very important for the entertainment industry: does it matter whether you’re right, when you’re telling a story to entertain? Under some circumstances, I don’t think it matters. But with an animated movie about real, living systems, when you use the truth — their complexity and beauty — as a springboard for the story, you add a level of gravitas that is vitally important to creating a broad and deep appeal. A young audience is much more sophisticated than you think, and a story informed by a lot of facts alerts them to the presence of real concepts. I got an e-mail from an eight-year-old about Finding Nemo, explaining that characters could not emerge from a whale’s blowhole if they were in its mouth, because there is no link between the trachea and the oesophagus.

There are over 100 inaccuracies in Finding Nemo, but Summers says only one is a genuine error. (He doesn’t name it, but it might be Mr. Ray, who lists names of classes in his song about aquatic species.) Everything else, from the whale’s blowhole to ignoring clownfish’s ability to switch between male and female (although what if Marlin does become female, but just never spawns again?) is an intentional gloss or omission for storytelling purposes.

Or aesthetic ones. “The claspers — external, stick-like sexual organs on sharks — were cut off Bruce the great white shark,” says Summers, “not because of family values, but because he’s spherical, and when you add a bunch of sticks to spherical sharks, they look really stupid.” Noted.

Summers admits there’s also just a lot about the species in Pixar’s fish movies that nobody really knows.

They did ask me some questions about the biology of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) that we just don’t know the answers to. It’s the largest fish in the sea, yet I think there’s just one record of a pregnant female, which revealed that they can have more than 300 pups at a time. That’s not much to know about the reproductive biology of such an iconic fish.

Facebook is wrong, text is deathless

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 15, 2016

It’s a throwaway line in a longer talk and we probably shouldn’t make too much of it, but I will anyway.

In five years time Facebook “will be definitely mobile, it will be probably all video,” said Nicola Mendelsohn, who heads up Facebook’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at a conference in London this morning. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has already noted that video will be more and more important for the platform. But Mendelsohn went further, suggesting that stats showed the written word becoming all but obsolete, replaced by moving images and speech.

“The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” Mendelsohn said. “It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.”

Maybe this is coming from deep within the literacy bubble, but:

Text is surprisingly resilient. It’s cheap, it’s flexible, it’s discreet. Human brains process it absurdly well considering there’s nothing really built-in for it. Plenty of people can deal with text better than they can spoken language, whether as a matter of preference or necessity. And it’s endlessly computable — you can search it, code it. You can use text to make it do other things.

In short, all of the same technological advances that enable more and more video, audio, and immersive VR entertainment also enable more and more text. We will see more of all of them as the technological bottlenecks open up.

And text itself will get weirder, its properties less distinct, as it reflects new assumptions and possibilities borrowed from other tech and media. It already has! Text can be real-time, text can be ephemeral — text has taken on almost all of the attributes we always used to distinguish speech, but it’s still remained text. It’s still visual characters registered by the eye standing in for (and shaping its own) language.

Because nothing has proved as invincible as writing and literacy. Because text is just so malleable. Because it fits into any container we put it in. Because our world is supersaturated in it, indoors and out. Because we have so much invested in it. Because nothing we have ever made has ever rewarded our universal investment in it more. Unless our civilization fundamentally collapses, we will never give up writing and reading.

We’re still not even talking to our computers as often as we’re typing on our phones. What logs the most attention-hours — i.e., how media companies make their money — is not and has never been the universe of communications.

(And my god — the very best feature Facebook Video has, what’s helping that platform eat the world — is muted autoplay video with automatic text captions. Forget literature — even the stupid viral videos people watch waiting for the train are better when they’re made with text!)

Nothing is inevitable in history, media, or culture — but literacy is the only thing that’s even close. Bet for better video, bet for better speech, bet for better things we can’t imagine — but if you bet against text, you will lose.

This and only this is a sandwich

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 15, 2016

In today’s post on “What is barbecue?” I skipped past “is a hot dog a sandwich?” so quickly that I forgot to answer the question. So in the same spirit in which someone can boldly declare that only smoked, slow-cooked pork is barbecue, here is my minimal definition of a sandwich:

A sandwich is any solid or semi-solid filling between two or more slices of bread. Not a roll, not a wrap, not a leaf of lettuce: sliced bread. What is inside far less than the container.

Consequently:

Alternatively, “sandwich” is a family-resemblance concept and we can’t appeal to definitional consistency to get away from the fact that language is a complex organism and its rules don’t always make perfect sense.

(PS: I do not speak for Jason or Kottke.org on this matter, please do not argue with him about sandwiches)

Update (from Jason): Boy, you leave Tim to his own devices for a few hours and he establishes the official kottke.org stance on sandwiches. [That new emoji of the yellow smiley face grabbing its chin and looking skeptical that you might not have on Android IDK I’m Apple Man] I was just talking to my kids the other day about this important issue and Ollie, who is almost 9, told me that both hamburgers and hot dogs are sandwiches because “the meat is sandwiched in between the bread; it’s right there in the word”. When Ollie and Minna take over the family business in 2027, they can revisit this, but for now, Tim’s definition stands.

What is barbecue?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 15, 2016

At Eater, Chris Fuhrmeister hits on another topic near to my amateur linguist heart: policing the word “barbecue”:

When it comes to American barbecue — I certainly won’t attempt to set ground rules for other barbecue cultures across the globe — there are absolute rights and wrongs. Sure, there’s some room for interpretation, but good-intentioned “barbecue” lovers across this country are blaspheming day in and day out. Before declaring what barbecue isn’t, it’s best to define what it is: pork that’s slow-cooked with smoke.

This is controversial, because “barbecue” is also used to mean:

It’s also odd because, as Fuhrmeister notes, it’s an American controversy, and Americans tend to play faster and looser with food words than people elsewhere. Cognac has to be from Cognac, champagne from Champagne, and so on. Americans have lots of different regional words and practices when it comes to food (soda vs pop, sub vs hoagie, etc.), and we’re definitely competitive when it comes to where and how food is made best, but we’re generally pretty pluralist about definitions. Which is probably why “barbecue” has metastasized to mean so many different but related things.

I tried to come up with a shortlist of honest-to-goodness American food word debates.


  1. What is barbecue?

  2. Is a hot dog a sandwich?

  3. Is Chicago-style pizza really pizza?

  4. Is it donut or doughnut?

  5. Is a wrap a burrito?

  6. Why do we say “chai tea” when “chai” means “tea”?

From here you start to get into all the ways Americans abuse imported food words, which is a much longer list. British English also has a debated distinction between cake and biscuit that I don’t fully understand. Some of us like “is a patty melt a hamburger?,” because the ontology of hamburger is pretty complex stuff. But this is enough to get started.

Donut/doughnut is a straight-up style dispute, and doesn’t have anything to do with definitions. “Are hot dogs sandwiches?” is almost too much about definitions — there’s no history, no implied values, or real stakes. Chicago vs NYC pizza is a regional value rivalry posing as a definitional one: press people, and they’ll say, “yeah, what they make is pizza, it’s just not as good as ours.”

Barbecue is the debate that has everything. It’s a regional rivalry with value attached to it, that’s making definitional claims. And there are so many possible distinctions! Texas and Carolina partisans might unite to reject “barbecue” to mean “cookout,” but fall apart again over the merits of beef vs pork. You can even vote on it; the voting will decide nothing. It is an infinite jewel.

X marks gender-neutral

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 15, 2016

“Mx.” (pronounced “mix” or “mux”) is a gender-neutral honorific. It’s used by people who don’t want to be identified by gender, whether their gender identity isn’t well-represented by the older forms, or they just don’t want to offer that information or assume it when addressing someone else. “Mx.” was added to Merriam Webster’s unabridged dictionary in April, has begun to be used on official forms in the UK (the Royal Bank of Scotland has been an early adopter), and appeared in two recent stories in the New York Times, once as a preferred honorific for a Barnard College student who doesn’t identify as male or female, and once in a story about “Mx.” itself.

Linguistic experts say it is harder to change usage habits of words uttered frequently in speech, such as “she” and “he.” But a realignment in honorifics may be more quickly achieved because courtesy titles are less often spoken than written, like in the completion and mailing of government, health care and financial documents, as well as in newspapers and other media publications.

This second story, quoting Oxford University Press’s Katherine C. Martin, also notes that some of the earliest uses of “Mx.” were in the 1980s, “when some people engaged in nascent forms of digital communication and did not know one another’s gender.”

Likewise, “Latinx” aims to be more comprehensive and more inclusive than the older terms Latino and Latina. “The ‘x’ makes Latino, a masculine identifier, gender-neutral,” writes Raquel Reichard. “It also moves beyond Latin@ - which has been used in the past to include both masculine and feminine identities - to encompass genders outside of that limiting man-woman binary.”

This lights up my amateur linguist brain in all sorts of ways, but here’s one of them: the telescoping (maybe kaleidoscoping?) between usage, in all its messiness, and forms, in their desire for clear standards and finite options.

You can break that down further into usage within a community or group versus usage outside that community, and the formal protocols a publication like a newspaper or dictionary might follow versus paperwork or a database run by a business or government office. They all interplay with each other, and linguistic change happens or doesn’t happen through all of them.

And I guess the last thought is about how digital culture, by expanding and transforming the kinds of communities, identities, forms, and publications that are possible, can accelerate those changes or hold them back.

This tweet by NBC News is a good example: the tweet uses “Latinx” (and “Hispanic”) — the linked story, like the name of the news vertical and twitter account, overwhelmingly uses “Latino,” in both the body and the headline.

Or take Planned Parenthood. Many of the health provider’s affiliates have updated their intake forms and other paperwork and communication. The new language is more gender-neutral, gender-inclusive, and more specific, separating anatomy, sexual activity, and gender identity. The national office is working on a new style guide to help other affiliates make their own changes.

Language about certain kinds of birth control has changed as well. “Male condoms” and “female condoms” are now referred to as internal and external condoms at Planned Parenthood of New York City.

“The language we’re using today reflects the fact that gender is a spectrum and not a simple system, a binary system of male and female,” says [PPNYC’s Lauren] Porsch. “We really talk about having sexual and reproductive health services: women who have penises, men who have vaginas, and there are people with all different types of anatomy that may not identify with a binary gender at all,” she says.

Again, while the changes eventually get reflected in Planned Parenthood’s intake forms and other official language, it was implemented early in digital and social media — specifically, in response to users on Tumblr.

“The Tumblr audience is smart. They understand feminism. They understand that sex ed isn’t one-size-fits-all—even though that’s what they were taught in school,” says Perugini. “And they know that words matter. They didn’t see themselves reflected in the language we were using on our social media pages or our website, and they let us know.”

This is happening. It’s happening in progressive, diverse, digital communities first. And for all their fractiousness, and the inherent difficulty in dealing with areas as complex and personal as identity, gender, and sexuality, it does feel like some standards are emerging. These are words worth watching. If you work with digital technology and people (and yeah, that’s almost everyone), I hope you’re paying attention.

Wild ideas to slow or reverse climate change

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

Fake trees to pull carbon dioxide out of the air, sun shields to deflect heat and radiation without damaging the atmosphere, giant ice cubes mined from comets to cool down the oceans. Okay, that last one is from a Futurama episode. But some researchers really do think we can try to slow or reverse climate change with technology built for that purpose — and that we’ve already changed the Earth’s environment so much that we may have no choice. I guess it’s worth a try.

What if all the alien civilizations are dead?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

This essay by astrophysicist Adam Frank in the New York Times is upbeat, confident: “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.” Basically, he argues that we’ve now observed enough Earth-like planets outside our solar system that unless the odds of life (and intelligent life, and intelligent life capable of radio communications, etc.) coming into being are much, much smaller than most scientists have believed, then alien civilizations that are at least something like our own have appeared before elsewhere in the galaxy.

But! Frank and his colleague Woodruff Sullivan get to this conclusion in a way that’s pretty distressing. They relax any assumptions about how long such a civilization might last.

See, if you’re trying to figure out the odds of contact between humans and aliens, you need to have some idea about how long alien civilizations stick around. If, in general, civilizations last a long time and keep moving up the Kardashev Scale, they’re more likely to bump into each other. If, on the other hand, they usually wipe out their own species with nuclear weapons, global climate change, gamma rays, or (insert calamity here) shortly after getting a little light industry going, then they’ll keep missing each other.

In his treatment of the Fermi Paradox, Tim Urban calls this “The Great Filter.” We don’t know if the Great Filter is ahead of us or behind us. If it’s behind us, then complex/intelligent life is super rare — much smaller than even Frank and Sullivan’s consensus low estimates. If it’s ahead of us, then we, or any other species lucky enough to make it this far, will most likely die off or (best case scenario) get stuck more or less where we are now.

In short, humanity may not be first, but it might very will be next.

Coming out to immigrant parents

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

My friend Matt Thompson grew up in Orlando, and like many of the shooters’ victims, he’s gay, a person of color, and a child of immigrants to the US. His wonderful essay grapples with the shooting and tries to untie the fear and risk and hope and community that’s knotted up in those identities.

My own parents were the very last people in my life I was out to, years after I’d been out to friends and colleagues. I didn’t know how they’d react to the fact of my sexuality, and among my friends, there was often impatience with that uncertainty. If they’re good parents, these friends would say, they will love you without conditions and without hesitation.

But this reaction was rare among those of us who grew up, like me, knowing that our parents left their homes and settled here mainly in pursuit of visions of what their children’s lives would be. They had imagined their sons as men with wives, and their daughters as women with husbands, and cultivated these visions throughout our adolescence and beyond. Some of our parents had tended to these visions so zealously that they missed all the signs that these weren’t, in fact, the people we’d become. When we came out, they were forced both to reckon with these people they no longer recognized and mourn the visions of us they had nurtured all those years.

“I can’t stop thinking about the possibility that someone like us was hurt or murdered at Pulse on Sunday morning,” Matt writes. “outed in the very worst way, in a phone call every family dreads. For some parents, such a call would be a double heartbreak.”

How “My Boo” got its name

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

This is fun: an oral history of Ghost Town DJ’s 1996 hit “My Boo.” Did you know that Lil Jon started out in A&R for So So Def? Or that he picked the title “My Boo” over “I Want To Be Your Lady” and pushed to include it on an early label comp? (I did not.)

#RunningmanChallenge ???? @jerrygunnz ???? By @malachi_variations IB By @Rah2bandz

A video posted by Kevin Sözé ???????? (@11.oo7) on

I was also very late to hear about the Running Man Challenge, which put “My Boo” back into circulation and the sales charts back in April, but in my defense: I am old.

You may also like: this oral history of hyphy and the Bay Area hip-hop scene at the turn of the millennium. It’s a little distended and the photo layout almost feels like Beats By Dre sponsored content, but it’s a loving look at a moment that’s gone.

And who shows up halfway through, helping to break hyphy nationwide? Lil Jon! That guy is everywhere.

(Hat-tip: @xohulk, @myhairisblue)

Microsoft/LinkedIn fan fiction

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 13, 2016

Microsoft is buying LinkedIn, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather read thinking through what that might mean more than Paul Ford.

Microsoft is a software company, sure, but it’s also a bit of a nation-state with an enormously broad mandate. LinkedIn is an unbelievable data-mining platform; it has the ground truth about the global economy, especially around the technology industry, and it has a lock on that data. Microsoft will know what’s going with Facebook before Zuckerberg does; it’ll know what skills are being added to Googlers’ resumes; it’ll know what kind of searches HR departments are doing across the world, and it can use that information to start marketing its own services to those companies…

It’s…terrifying. And we’ll never really know what’s going on. Which makes it kind of brilliant. But still terrifying.

Filled with straightforward observations (hey, Microsoft now has a huge, well-targeted advertising network to match Google’s and Amazon’s) to delightfully bizarre ones, like LinkedIn’s secret synergy with Minecraft (!), 9 Things Microsoft Could Do With LinkedIn blends consulting memo, standup routine, and Borgesian counterfiction. I’ve always aspired to this sort of thing, and Paul just rattles it off. Dang it.

Food truck wars

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 13, 2016

Mister Softee used to dominate ice cream sales on Manhattan’s streets. Now Midtown is run by a splinter group called New York Ice Cream, former Softee franchisees (for a little while the trucks read “Master Softee”) who cut out the overhead but kept their corners.

The New York Times ran a story about the ice cream turf wars in late May:

“Let me tell you about this business,” Adam Vega, a thickly muscled, heavily tattooed Mister Softee man who works the upper reaches of the Upper East Side and East Harlem, said on Wednesday. “Every truck has a bat inside.”

Mr. Vega, 41, said that if he comes across a rival on his route, “I jump out and say, ‘Listen young man, this is my route, you gotta get out of there.’”

The same day that story was printed, a New York Ice Cream driver was arrested for attacking a pretzel vendor in Midtown with a baseball bat.

This week, Crain’s New York had a deep-dive into the nitty-gritty of NYC food carts, from managing licenses and fees, dealing with wholesalers, appealing tickets, and paying taxes. The wholesalers run out of Hell’s Kitchen; the expediters and permit brokers are in Astoria.

A thousand and one systems, legal, quasi-legal, and extra-legal, overlapping each other like nervous and circulatory networks in a body. All of the unseen navigation that makes a city run.

Cars are getting weird

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 13, 2016

Tesla has two cars, the S60 and the S75, that are physically more or less identical, but one costs $8500 more than the other. The cheaper car ($66K base price) has a software block on its battery which limits its range to 208 miles on a full charge. Pay $8500 up front, or $9000 for an over-the-air update later, and you get an extra 40 miles.

Same car, same battery. About 20 percent more efficient, for $9000. Better software license.

Cars are big computers, and have been for a while, but we’re slowly starting to treat them like it. Different expectations, different pricing, different ownership structures, different usage; different everything.

Here’s another story on managing expectations for cars, about steering wheels. Steering wheels have a basic function; they control the car. But if a car is capable of driving itself, and is also an interface for a wide range of general computing tools, what does that mean?

Volvo’s Concept 26 vehicle, which debuted in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, features a retractable steering wheel. Robin Page, Volvo chief of interior design, says Volvo chose to keep the familiar shape of the steering wheel.

“We wanted to keep that recognition of a round steering wheel,” he said. “People need to get used to autonomous drive, so being able to get back to that steering wheel and grab hold of it, that’s comforting. We decided to have it there as a recognizable icon.”

The steering wheel becomes a skeuomorph. It becomes a surveillance device, registering pressure to tell whether you have both hands firmly on the wheel, or if you’ve fallen asleep or are in distress. It becomes an entertainment console. It transforms and retracts into the dash to signal when you’ve shifted between user-controlled and autonomous modes. Its familiar presence soothes you through the transition. Eventually, you forget it was ever there at all.

This week’s guest host: Tim Carmody

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 13, 2016

Hello, Kottke readers! Jason has the week off, so he asked me to fill in. He’s given me the keys to the shop about once a year since 2010, and it’s always been a treat. Sometimes I have themes or a plan; this time, I have a few ideas, but I’m mostly just going to try to write loose and think through some connections. If you have any tips or see any problems, let me know (you should be able to figure out how). Please read and share and enjoy.

Motion capture dance madness

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2016

People are doing amazing things with motion capture these days. (via colossal)

Space Story

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2016

Luc Bergeron’s Space Story is a mashup of more than 20 movies that take place in space, from Alien to Apollo 13 to 2001 to Star Trek to Moon. Stick with it for a couple minutes…it starts slow but gets going around then.

See also Star Wars x Star Trek: The Carbonite Maneuver.

Time travel in Game of Thrones

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2016

[Spoilers!] This season, Game of Thrones is experimenting with time travel. A few years ago, Harrison Densmore created a chart showing the three kinds of time travel that happens in movies: fixed timeline (as in 12 Monkeys), dynamic timeline (as in Back to the Future), and multiverse (as in Terminator 2). So which kind of time travel is happening in Game of Thrones?

P.S. In addition to the extensive spoilers about what’s already happened on the show, the latter moments of the video also offers some fan theories about what might happen on the show in the future. If that sort of thing bothers you, maybe stop watching around the 4:05 mark.

What’s the most “normal” place in the US?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2016

There’s been a lot of talk in this election cycle about “average Americans” and “real Americans”. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Jed Kolko used age, education, and race & ethnicity to find the city most demographically similar the US as a whole. Here’s his top 5:

1. New Haven-Milford, CT
2. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
3. Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT
4. Oklahoma City, OK
5. Springfield, MA

Economist Lyman Stone thought Kolko’s methodology was flawed:

See, he used 3 variables: race, education, and age, to proxy for “normalcy.” His method looked at how typical a given “race” group in a given city was on educational/age factors, and a given educational group in a given city on race/age factors, etc. In other words, he didn’t truly ask “What city is most normal?” He asked “In what city is each group of people most typical of that group of people nationally?” That’s a cool question, but it’s totally not “normalcy.” The reason is simple: as best I can tell, Jed doesn’t fully capture the role of aggregate composition. He’s trying to get specific and avoid calling a place “abnormal” just because it has one weird demographic lump; he wants cell-specific abnormality. But nobody cares if Graduate-Degree-Holding Native Americans happen to be much younger in St. Louis than elsewhere. We care if St. Louis has a weirdly large number of Graduate-Degree-Holding-Native-Americans. Composition of the population is the most important measure of normalcy, and one that Kolko’s method will tend to under-emphasize.

Stone ran his own analysis with that in mind, using 20 different demographic variables, and came up with a different list of the most normal places in America:

1. Oklahoma City, OK
2. Tulsa, OK
3. Jacksonville, FL
4. Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA
5. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ

The above table shows the places with the lowest weirdness-scores. Two of them are in Oklahoma. I’ll talk about them together. Oklahoma City is less than 1 standard deviation from the mean on every single variable. It is exactly the mean for the poverty rate, and almost exactly the mean for educational attainment. It’s biggest oddity is housing costs compared to income, which are a bit high, and the percent of households with a car, which is also just a teentsy bit high. Other than that? If you’re looking for “Normal America” then look to Oklahoma City. Tulsa’s story is the same, except it also has a bit of a low share of civilian government workers.

Among the weirdest places on Stone’s list? San Jose, NYC, and Jacksonville, NC.

New York is up next. Again, a large foreign-born share makes New York weird. But the real weirdness is actually in New York’s transit access. New York’s car-ownership share is a whopping nine standard deviations below the national average. New York’s housing costs also make it weird, as does the percent of people who are renting. In other words, New York is weird because it’s just so darn urban.

Behind the scenes of Legoland’s model workshop

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2016

Wired recently talked to a couple of Lego Master Builders about how they create new pieces for display at Legoland. They have a custom CAD program for making Lego structures (and people and animals) which can show MRI-like slices for whatever thing they’re working on for ease of construction. The subway station mosaic detail at the end is super cool.

World map of the origin of agricultural crops

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2016

Crop Map

From the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, a map showing where the world’s most used crops originated. Potatoes and tomatoes are from the Andes, watermelon from southern Africa, bananas from south & southeast Asia, and blueberries from North America. (via @CharlesCMann)

2001: A Picasso Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2016

Bhautik Joshi took 2001: A Space Odyssey and ran it through a “deep neural networks based style transfer” with the paintings of Pablo Picasso.

See also Blade Runner in the style of van Gogh’s Starry Night and Alice in a Neural Networks Wonderland.

An atlas of audiovisual artifacts and glitches

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2016

Skew Error

The AV Artifact Atlas keeps track of the anomalies that can affect audio and visual signals. Start at the table of contents…all of the glitchy video effects have names! Like quilting, carrier leak, and DV record head clog.

The most frequently stolen books

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2016

Most Stolen Books

Vintage/Anchor Books recently tweeted out a photo of a Most Stolen Books shelf at a bookstore. Some of the books on the shelf include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (one of many Murakamis), Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

According to research by Candice Huber, books by Bukowski and Kerouac are indeed popular targets for theft from bookstores, along with those by Hemingway, David Sedaris, and The Great Gatsby. All of the books listed are by men, and most by “manly” men. This 2009 list from the UK is slightly different: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book both rank high.

Libraries are a different story. According to Huber, the most frequently stolen library books are the Guinness Book of World Records, which is a favorite around our house,1 and The Bible. Thieves could use the Good Book’s wisdom more than many, I guess. Art books, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and test prep books are also popular with the light-fingered. Judging from my personal experience hanging around garages and auto mechanics when I was a kid, Chilton’s Auto Repair manuals were also lifted quite often.

  1. “Daddy, our copy is from 2014. We should get the one from this year, so we can check if any of the records have been broken.”

The changing American diet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2016

American Eating Habits Infoviz

From Flowing Data, an animated infographic that shows how the American diet has changed since 1970. We eat less beef, potatoes, margarine, and whole milk than we used to, but more chicken, cooking oil, bananas, and Italian cheese.

The best rule-breaking films of all time

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2016

From Cinefix, a list of 10 movies (plus dozens more runners-up) that broke the rules of filmmaking most effectively by using jump cuts, nonlinear narrative, lack of plot, surrealism, and breaking the fourth wall.

A video essay on video essays

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2016

Jarrett Fuller examines the video essay, typically used for film criticism (e.g. Every Frame a Painting, F is for Fake), and argues for its use in design criticism. (via @tonyszhou)

Today on the grammar rodeo: that vs. which

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2016

New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris explains when the magazine uses “which” and when it uses “that”, a distinction I confess I had little knowledge of until just now.1 A cheeky example of the difference by E.B. White:

The New Yorker is a magazine, which likes “that.”
The New Yorker is the magazine that likes “which.”

(via df)

  1. This is why, when anyone asks me what I do for a living, the answer is never “writer”. Writing for me is a brute-force operation; I’ll use whatever is necessary to make it sound like I’m talking with you in person. (Wait, is a semicolon appropriate there? Should I have used “as though” instead of “like”? Who gives a shit!) I use too many commas (but often not between multiple adjectives in front of nouns), too many “I”s, too many “that”s (OMG, the thats), too many weirdo pacing mechanisms like ellipses, dashes, & parentheses, mix tenses, overuse the passive voice, and place unquoted periods and commas outside quotation marks like the Brits, although I was doing it before I learned they did because it just seemed to make sense. So, anyway, hi, I’m not a writer…who writes a lot.

A visual comparison of Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2016

The films of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick share some interesting visual similarities. Any influence was a one-way street, of course. With the exception of Bottle Rocket, which was cinematically spare compared to his later work, all of Anderson’s films were shot after Kubrick finished shooting Eyes Wide Shut.

The legally blind astronomer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2016

Tim Doucette is a legally blind astronomer. A pair of surgeries when he was younger to help improve his vision left him with a superpower: because his pupils were permanently dilated, he could see in the dark better than other people. He built an observatory and with the aid of his telescope, he can see details of far-off stars and nebula that no one else can, including UV and infrared light.

Super sad supercut

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2016

A collection of super sad moments from movies like The Iron Giant, E.T., Wrath of Khan, Up, and Old Yeller. This’ll have you sobbing in 3 minutes or your money back.

Michael Lewis on irrationality in human decision-making

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2016

Michael Lewis Undoing

Michael Lewis (c’mon, you know, Moneyball, The Big Short) is coming out with a new book in December called The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds about the flaws that crop up in human decision-making.

Forty years ago, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of breathtakingly original studies undoing our assumptions about the decision-making process. Their papers showed the ways in which the human mind erred, systematically, when forced to make judgments about uncertain situations. Their work created the field of behavioral economics, revolutionized Big Data studies, advanced evidence-based medicine, led to a new approach to government regulation, and made much of Michael Lewis’s own work possible. Kahneman and Tversky are more responsible than anybody for the powerful trend to mistrust human intuition and defer to algorithms.

Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 and is the author of the well-regarded Thinking, Fast and Slow. (via nytimes)

John Oliver takes on the debt buying industry

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2016

On Last Week Tonight last night, John Oliver not only blasted the debt buying industry but ended up starting a company, bought $15 million worth of medical debt from Texas, and forgave it.

Update: I forgot to add, Occupy Wall Street did a similar thing back in 2012.

OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it - traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

Update: It’s disappointing that Last Week Tonight did not acknowledge the work and assistance of the Debt Collective and their Rolling Jubilee.

At the last minute Wilson told us LWT did not want to associate themselves with the work of the Rolling Jubilee due to its roots in Occupy Wall Street. Instead John Oliver framed the debt buy as his idea: a giveaway to compete with Oprah. The lead researcher who worked on this segment invoked the cover of journalism to justify distancing themselves from our project.

Why is Game of Thrones stuck in medieval times?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2016

Riffing on Ken Mondschein’s Strategies of War in Westeros, Evan Puschak explores why Westeros seems culturally and technologically stuck in the Middle Ages.

Update: Or does Game of Thrones depict the early modern period?

What Martin actually gives us is a fantasy version of what the historian Alfred Crosby called the Post-Columbian exchange: the globalizing epoch of the 16th and 17th centuries. A world where merchants trade exotic drugs and spices between continents, where professional standing armies can number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, where scholars study the stars via telescopes, and proto-corporations like the Iron Bank of Braavos and the Spicers of Qarth control global trade. It’s also a world of slavery on a gigantic scale, and huge wars that disrupt daily life to an unprecedented degree.

(via @arbesman)

A tour of the Svalbard Seed Vault

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2016

Tucked away in a mountain located on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, also home to The Northmost Town on Earth, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Vault is home to more than 860,000 plant seed samples deposited by dozens of different countries from around the world (even North Korea) and is closed to access about 350 days per year. But the folks from Veritasium were able to finagle a tour of the facility during one of its rare open days.

This facility was built to last about 200 years and withstand earthquakes and explosions. It was placed on the side of a mountain so even if all the ice on Earth melts, it will still be above sea level.

Other fun facts about the Vault: the temperature in the storage rooms are kept at minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit to hinder seed growth/deterioration, the permafrost in which the Vault is built will maintain the low storage temp in case of electrical failure, GMO seeds are forbidden due to Norwegian law, and the first withdrawal was made last year by Syria because of the civil war.

From Winnie Cooper to math whiz

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2016

As a child, Danica McKellar played Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. After the show was over, McKellar had difficulty breaking away from other people’s perceptions of her. But in college, she discovered an aptitude for mathematics, went on to have a theorem named after her — not because she was famous but because she’d helped prove it — and forged a new identity. (via @stevenstrogatz)

What would happen if all humans disappeared?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2016

If all humans just up and disappeared one day, life on Earth would suffer in the short term but fare much better in the long run.

The Gene: An Intimate History

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer and one of my favorite recent reads, is out with a new book called The Gene: An Intimate History.

Siddhartha Mukherjee has a written a biography of the gene as deft, brilliant, and illuminating as his extraordinarily successful biography of cancer. Weaving science, social history, and personal narrative to tell us the story of one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times, Mukherjee animates the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices.

The book comes recommended by Tyler Cowen, who IIRC also recommended Emperor of All Maladies to me.

This book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge, plus it is engaging to read. Overall it confirmed my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use.

This is on the must-read list this summer. Somehow. When I get a second.

On bullshit and Donald Trump

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

In this video, Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, talks about what bullshit is and how dangerous it is to society.

The reason why there’s so much bullshit I think is that people just talk. If they don’t talk, they don’t get paid. The advertiser wants to gain sales. The politician wants to gain votes. Now, that’s ok but they have to talk about things that they don’t really know much about. So, since they don’t have anything really valid to say, they just say whatever they think will interest the audience, make it appear they know what they’re talking about. And what comes out is bullshit.

The bullshitter is more creative. He’s not submissive. It’s not important to him what the world really is like. What’s important to him is how he’d like to represent himself. He takes a more adventurous and inventive attitude towards reality, which may be sometimes very colorful, sometimes amusing, sometimes it might produce results that are enjoyable. But it’s also very dangerous.

It’s at this point that the video cuts to Donald Trump, who is the Lionel Messi of bullshitting; it is his singular dazzling gift. He cultivates convenient facts and deliberately remains ignorant of inconvenient ones so as to be most effective. As Frankfurt notes, bullshit is a serious threat to the truth because it’s not the opposite of truth…it cannot be refuted like a lie can:

Liars attempt to conceal the truth by substituting something for the truth that isn’t true. Bullshit is not a matter of trying to conceal the truth, it is a matter of trying to manipulate the listener, and if the truth will do, then that’s fine and if the truth won’t do, that’s also fine. The bullshitter is indifferent to the truth in a way in which the liar is not. He’s playing a different game.

It is Trump’s indifference to the truth that makes him so effective and so powerful. Much of what I read from people who oppose Trump attempts to counter his rhetoric with facts. That hasn’t worked and is not going to work. The truth is not the antidote for bullshit. So how do you defeat the bullshitter? This has been a genuine problem for his political opponents thus far. Frankfurt doesn’t offer any advice in the video (perhaps his book does?), and I’m at a loss as well, but I do know that factual refutation will not make any difference. I hope someone figures it out soon though.

The Star Wars prequels predicted our current political moment

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Cass Sunstein, author of the recently published The World According to Star Wars, says that while most people might dislike the three Star Wars prequels, they function well as “a quick guide to current political struggles”.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, paralyzing political divisions threatened democratic governments. Disputes over free trade, and the free movement of people and goods, were a big reason. Stymied by polarization and endless debates, the Senate proved unable to resolve those disputes.

As a result, nationalist sentiments intensified, leading to movements for separation from centralized institutions. People craved a strong leader who would introduce order — and simultaneously combat growing terrorist threats.

A prominent voice, Anakin Skywalker, insisted, “We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the interest of all the people, and then do it.” And if they didn’t, “they should be made to.”

Eventually, something far worse happened. The legislature voted to give “emergency powers” — essentially unlimited authority — to the chief executive. An astute observer, Padme Amidala, noted, “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”

Well, that was kind of terrifying to read. My ill-feeling peaked at “a democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody’s squabbling” as a cause of Hitler’s rise in Germany. As Sunstein notes, the parallels between that situation and our do-nothing Congress & the authoritarian gentleman currently running for President are obvious and possibly significant.

The 50 greatest films by black directors

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Slate gathered a panel — made up of people like film critic Dana Stevens, Selma director Ava DuVernay, and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. — to choose The Black Film Canon, the 50 greatest movies by black directors.

We must recognize that even with the financial and systemic odds stacked against them, black filmmakers have long been creating great and riveting stories on screen. The academy’s failure may have inspired a memorable hashtag, but that failure is deeply linked to the way nearly all movie fans remember cinematic history. In our never-ending conversation — or argument — about which films deserve to be remembered, which films are cultural touchstones, which films defined and advanced the art form, we habitually overlook stories by and about black people.

Included on the list are 12 Years a Slave, Boyz n the Hood, Killer of Sheep, and Do the Right Thing.

Hussam and the Death Way

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Hussam Death Way

From comic artist Toby Morris, a harrowing tale of Hussam and his family, who escaped the civil war in Syria to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Update to Alto’s Adventure adds endless Zen Mode

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Altos Adventure

One of my all-time favorite iOS games1 receives a big update today. Alto’s Adventure has added two new modes, an endless relaxing Zen Mode and a Photo Mode for sharing your favorite moments.

Zen Mode is a new way to experience the game. We’ve stripped away many things from hillside; no scores, no coins, no powerups, and distilled the game down to its purest elements. There’s no on-screen UI competing for your attention — it’s just you and the endless mountain.

The developers were persuaded to add this mode because of letters from fans who liked the relaxing aspect of the game. An excerpt from one such letter:

I play games as a way to calm me down when I’m feeling anxious or down. But it’s been difficult to find games at the moment that don’t feel aggressive and violent (not that I’m against dealing out justice as Batman or taking out bad guys as Nathan Drake, they are good fun!)

Your game offers something different. Alto’s Adventure doesn’t make me more stressed than I already am. Skiing down a mountain is calming (especially helped by the music, props to your music maker!). It makes me feel as if I’m progressing and being productive without the frustrations of getting to that next level in narrative games or other mobile games.

I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious.1 It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.

So thanks to Snowman for building such a great game…I truly don’t know what I would have done without it.

Update: From Sherry Turkle’s 1984 book The Second Self, a video gamer talking about how playing games make him feel:

Well, it’s almost, at the risk of sounding, uh, ridiculous, if you will, it’s almost a Zen type of thing… where I can direct myself totally and not feel directed at all. You’re totally absorbed and it is all happening there. You know what you are supposed to do. There’s not external confusion, there’s no conflicting goals, there’s none of the complexities that the rest of the world is filled with. It’s so simple. You either get through this little maze so that the creature doesn’t swallow you up or you don’t. And if you can focus your attention on that, and if you can really learn what you are supposed to do, then you really are in relationship to the game.

And Turkle adds (emphasis mine):

When he plays video games, he experiences another kind of relaxation, the relaxation of being on the line. He feels “totally focused, totally concentrated.” And yet David, like Marty and Roger, indeed like all successful players of video games, describes the sense in which the highest degree of focus and concentration comes from a letting go of both.

I feel exactly that while playing Alto’s Adventure. Total relaxed concentration.

Also, after this post alerted Corey Glynn to the existence of a global high score list (on which he held 15th place), he went out and absolutely crushed the high score by more than 2 million points. I bow to your superior skill, sir. (via @mznewman)

  1. The others are Kingdom Rush and Drop7 (Area/Code represent!).

  2. When I say I’ve played a lot, I mean I’ve played so much that I’m #50 on the global high score list out of ~480,000 players. (Used to be in the high 30s.) That should give you a little taste at how stressful life’s been for me recently. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

All of Star Wars Ep. IV in one infographic

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2016

Star Wars Infographic

Star Wars Infographic

Star Wars Infographic

Swiss illustrator Martin Panchaud created a massive infographic that tells the entire story of the first Star Wars movie. How massive? It’s 465152 pixels long.

This long ribbon reminds the ancient Chinese script rolls that had to be rolled in and rolled out simultaneously in order to be read. I like this stretch between ages, cultures, and technologies.

So cool. The style reminds me a bit of Chris Ware in places.

A supercut of Stanley Kubrick references in The Simpsons

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2016

There are tons of movie references in The Simpsons, but the show leans more heavily on referencing Stanley Kubrick’s films than perhaps any other director. As you can see in the video, there are dozens of references to 2001, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, and even Eyes Wide Shut sprinkled throughout the series.

Archives    May 2016 »    April 2016 »    March 2016 »