Entries for February 2017
Jason Ditzian writes about how the Nazis used new technological advances — high-fidelity microphones, public address systems, magnetic tape recording — to rise to power.
And since this amplification invention was new, the novelty added to the mesmerizing effects of a little man shouting atop the biggest soapbox that had ever existed. The quality of sound had a mystical effect upon listeners. It imbued Hitler with godlike powers, making him a deity who could project himself everywhere at once, whether one was standing amid a vast audience or sitting in one’s living room listening to the radio. Sometimes the voice was live; sometimes the voice was recorded in life-like clarity by another cutting-edge German innovation — a reel of magnetic tape.
He compares it to Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, which allows him to instantly soapbox to his millions of followers at all hours of the day and night — “a deity who could project himself everywhere at once” indeed.
With Twitter, every moment is a Trump rally. Everyone in the connected world knows what this unhinged narcissistic compulsive liar is thinking at any given moment. More time, energy, thought and commentary have been given to his minute-by-minute inane bullshit than any other issue of the last two years. And a lot of important things happened in the last two years.
A new video by Kurzgesagt explores the question of machine’s rights. Do machines deserve rights? Perhaps not right now, but what about if they achieve consciousness at some point in the future? (And what does that even mean?) If machines are programmed to feel pain and suffering, do they deserve protection? Or will machines not be allowed to be programmed to suffer and therefore be exempt from rights, for the potential benefit of humans? One thing seems certain: when the shift from machine as thing to machine as thinking, feeling being occurs, it will happen pretty quickly and humans will handle it poorly.
See also The Philosophy of Westworld and Bill Gates’ assertion that the robots who replace people in the workplace should pay taxes.
In a recent interview with Quartz, Gates said that a robot tax could finance jobs taking care of elderly people or working with kids in schools, for which needs are unmet and to which humans are particularly well suited. He argues that governments must oversee such programs rather than relying on businesses, in order to redirect the jobs to help people with lower incomes.
In 1938-39 on the eve of World War II, Nicholas Winton established an organization to rescue Jewish children living in Czechoslovakia from the Holocaust by giving them safe passage to Britain, which had recently approved a measure allowing refugees younger than 17 entry into the country. Winton’s organization ended up saving 669 children — future poets, politicians, scientists, and filmmakers among them. Getting these children out of Czechoslovakia was literally a matter of life and death. From Winton’s Wikipedia page:
The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun. Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war.
Although he continued his humanitarian work after the war, Winton rarely spoke of his efforts in saving the children. The full scope of what he had done was revealed only after his wife found a scrapbook in 1988 of the children’s names and the names of the British families that had taken them in. The public learned of Winton’s efforts on a TV show called That’s Life. Winton believed he was attending the show as an audience member, but it was revealed that he was actually sitting amongst about 2 dozen of the now-grown children that he had saved:
For his efforts, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. He died just a year and a half ago, at the age of 106.
In a series of pieces written for King Frederick II of Prussia in 1747 called The Musical Offering, Johann Sebastian Bach included a canon that is popularly referred to as the Crab Canon. The piece is a puzzle to be worked out by the reader/player.
You may notice that the Crab Canon is performed by two instruments, but only one line is notated. What’s the deal?
Bach published the canons in the Musical Offering as puzzles, giving the reader the minimum amount of information with which they can figure out the piece as long as they understand its structure. To “solve” a puzzle canon is to give it a structure that makes it fit together in pleasing harmony.
The solution to the Crab Canon is that it can be played forwards or backwards or forwards and backwards together in accompaniment. It’s a musical palindrome of sorts. (via open culture)
In the early 1970s, Camilo José Vergara trained his camera on scenes of everyday street life in New York City. His photographs captured kids playing on the street, subway cars before graffiti, sections of the Bronx that look bombed out, and the construction of the World Trade Center in progress.
See also his Tracking Time project, specific locations around the US photographed repeatedly over periods of up to 40 years. Vergara was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2002 for this work.
Radiohead is data scientist Charlie Thompson’s favorite band and he recently employed his professional skills to determine Radiohead’s most depressing songs and albums. Using data from Spotify and Genius, he analyzed and weighted how sad each song sounded musically and the sadness of the lyrics.
While valence serves as an out-of-the box measure of musical sentiment, the emotions behind song lyrics are much more elusive. To find the most depressing song, I used sentiment analysis to pick out words associated with sadness. Specifically, I used tidytext and the NRC lexicon, based on a crowd-sourced project by the National Research Council Canada. This lexicon contains an array of emotions (sadness, joy, anger, surprise, etc.) and the words determined to most likely elicit them.
Unsurprisingly, True Love Waits is Radiohead’s saddest song and Moon Shaped Pool its saddest album. You can play with this interactive chart to see all of the results. I thought Videotape would score lower on the Gloom Index…along with True Love Waits, it’s my go-to Radiohead song for wallowing in the darkness of my life. (via @RichardWestenra)
Today NASA announced the discovery of seven planets “that could harbor life” around a dwarf star called Trappist-1.
The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or about 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.
One or more of the exoplanets - planets around stars other than the sun - in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.
“This is the first time so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” said Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of an international team that has been observing Trappist-1.
Here’s the paper published in Nature.
Among the requirements that all immigrants must meet to become a naturalized US citizen is a civics test covering US history and government. The test contains 100 questions, 10 of which are verbally posed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer…no multiple choice. Applicants must answer 6 out of 10 correctly to pass. The questions include:
What is the supreme law of the land?
What is freedom of religion?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the President of the United States now?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
When must all men register for the Selective Service?
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?
Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
Name two national U.S. holidays.
You can take a 20-question multiple choice test on the USCIS website or if you want to see how many you can answer out of 100 with no multiple choice, I knocked up a Google Sheets version here — access is read-only but you can make a copy and take the test by choosing File / Make a copy… from the menu. Here’s a full list of the questions and suggested answers to check your work. Without studying, some of the questions are more difficult than you’d think, particularly if your last political science and American history classes were 25 years ago in high school.
And like all tests, this one is imperfect.1 In 2001, Dafna Linzer wrote about her test-taking experience.
Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?
I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.
There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”
Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”
The Simpsons lampooned this aspect of the test in 1996 when Apu answered a question about the Civil War2 during his civics test.
Examiner: “Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?”
Apu: “Actually there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international…”
Examiner: “Hey, hey…”
Examiner: “Just… just say ‘slavery’”.
Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”
This would never happen in a million years, but I would love for someone to sit down with Donald Trump to see how many of these he could answer. Like I said, if you haven’t studied, some of the questions are not that easy. But surely the President of the United States should be able to get almost all of them correct…
Martin O’Leary is a research scientist who studies glaciers, but in his spare time, he built Uncharted Atlas, a program that auto-generates maps of fantasy lands (like from Game of Thrones or LOTR) and posts them to a Twitter account. The explanation of how the terrain is generated is quite interesting and includes embedded map generators that you can play around with (i.e. prepare to lose about 20 minutes to this).
There are loads of articles on the internet which describe terrain generation, and they almost all use some variation on a fractal noise approach, either directly (by adding layers of noise functions), or indirectly (e.g. through midpoint displacement). These methods produce lots of fine detail, but the large-scale structure always looks a bit off. Features are attached in random ways, with no thought to the processes which form landscapes. I wanted to try something a little bit different.
There are a few different stages to the generator. First we build up a height-map of the terrain, and do things like routing water flow over the surface. Then we can render the ‘physical’ portion of the map. Finally we can place cities and ‘regions’ on the map, and place their labels.
And here’s how the languages for the place names are generated; each map has its own generated language so all of the place names are consistant with each other and different from those regions shown on other maps.
I wanted to produce something which was a step above the usual alphabetic soup of generated placenames, and which was capable of producing recognisably distinct languages. The initial idea was that different regions of each map would have different languages, but I abandoned this because it was too hard to make it clear that this was what was going on, while still having the languages themselves be interesting.
The problem is to generate something like what the constructed languages (conlang) community call a ‘naming language’. This is a light sketch of a language, focusing purely on the parts which are necessary to produce names. So there’s little to no grammar, but a good sense of what the language sounds like, and how it’s written.
Missed this early this month while I was on vacation: Computer Show is back with a new episode, partnering with HP to showcase one of their fast color printers. Yes it’s an ad, but yes it’s still funny.
Before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, most women seeking abortions in the US had to get them illegally. Illegal abortions were often unsafe & painful, and many women died, were injured, or were sexually assaulted by the men performing the procedures. In this video, three women who had abortions before 1973 and a woman who worked at a Brooklyn hospital in that era described their experiences.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to give you any anesthetic’ and he said ‘If you scream, they will hear you.’”
That’s how Connie described the illegal abortion she received in 1953 when she was 16 years old. Now a retired teacher, mother and grandmother, Connie said that after she received the abortion, the man who performed the procedure proceeded to sexually assault her as she lay bleeding on the table.
Last week Charles C. Mann, author of the excellent 1491 (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and 1493, tweeted what looked like a completed manuscript of a new book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Aside from a pub date (Oct 5), Mann was coy about details in the thread and there’s not a lot of information about the book on the internet. But there is a little. From the Books on Tape website:
From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493 — an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.
In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups — Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, non-polemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces — food, water, energy, climate change — grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.
In 2012, Orion Magazine published a piece by Mann called State of the Species, which was nominated for a 2013 National Magazine Award and is said to be “an early version of the introductory chapter” to The Wizard and the Prophet.
How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?
Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise — a daunting, hideously expensive task.
Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.
I’m very eager to tear into this book. The Prophets vs. The Wizards debate lies at the heart of issues about economic equality, climate change, and the future of energy (both electrical and nutritional). I see people having some form of this debate on Twitter every day, whether it’s about GMO crops, nuclear power, animal extinction, or carbon offsets.
Four years ago, Bill Gates, a Wizard to the core, talked to a small group of media about his most recent annual letter. I can’t recall exactly what Gates said — something like “you can’t tell a billion Indians they can’t have flatscreen TVs”1 — but I do remember very clearly how emphatically he stated that the way forward was not about the world cutting back on energy usage or consumption or less intensive farming. I think about his statement several times a week. I was unconvinced of his assertion at the time and still am. But my skepticism bothers me…I’m skeptical of my skepticism. Technology and progress have done a lot of good for the world — let’s talk infant mortality and infectious diseases for starters — but I am also sympathetic to the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”. So yeah, I’m keen to see what Mann adds to this debate.
In this short video, Josh Begley shows all of the front pages of the NY Times in chronological order from 1852 to the present. The Times began publishing in 1851 so not every front page is represented, but that’s still more than 50,000 pages in less than a minute. Since they go by so quickly, here are some highlights:
Dec 11, 1861: The Times publishes their first illustrations on the front page. One is a map of Virginia and the other two are political cartoons lampooning James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, one of the Times’ main rivals.
Apr 15, 1865: The front page columns were lined with black as they reported on the assassination of Lincoln.
Dec 1, 1896: The hyphen is dropped from “The New-York Times”.
Feb 10, 1897: The slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” appears for the first time on the front page.
May 30, 1910: The first news photograph appears on the front page, a photo of aviator Glenn Curtiss flying from Albany to NYC at the blistering pace of 54 mi/hr.
May 1, 1926: The Times prints the first photo “radioed” to the newspaper from London. Transmission time: 1hr 45m.
Jul 21, 1969: The first use of 96 pt. type on the front page announces the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and subsequent moonwalk. The large type will also be used to announce Nixon’s resignation, the first day of 2000, 9/11, and the election of Barack Obama.
Sept 7, 1976: The columns on the front page are widened, reducing their number from 8 to 6.
Oct 16, 1997: The first color photo is printed on the front page of the Times. (The Times Machine scan is in B&W for some reason, but the photo was in color.)
Begley also made Best of Luck With the Wall, a video showing the entire extent of the US-Mexico border.
Since 2001, the Oscars have awarded The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The video above shows a scene from each of the winning movies: Shrek, Spirited Away, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Happy Feet, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Rango, Brave, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Inside Out….as well as 2016’s five nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, and Zootopia. Pixar has dominated the category with 8 wins (and 10 nominations) out of 15 years, but the strong field this year meant the studio’s critically acclaimed blockbuster Finding Dory wasn’t even nominated, joining Cars 2, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur as the only Pixar films made during that period not to be nominated.
In the first of a three-part video series, Vox’s Joss Fong looks at how the technology used to film nature documentaries has changed over the past 50 years and how the producers of Planet Earth II used contemporary image stabilization techniques to make the series with a more cinematic style.
In the 1970s and ’80s, it was enough for the NHU to show people a creature they’d never seen before and provide the details in the narration. The films were illustrated zoology lectures. Since then, the producers have become sticklers for capturing specific behaviors, and in Planet Earth II, they showcase the drama of those behaviors. Each scene sets up the characters to perform something - something brave, something brutal, something bizarre. They’ve made room for our emotions; that’s what cinematic storytelling means.
And visually, the cinematic approach means the camera is often moving.
Hollywood filmmakers have kept the camera in motion for decades, but for obvious reasons, it’s much more difficult when your subject is wildlife. As we explain in the video at the top of this post, NHU producers used new stabilization tools throughout the production of Planet Earth II to move the camera alongside the animals.
The program doesn’t make you wait long to showcase this new approach. The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. — but this is really some next-level shit. The kids were more excited after watching it than any movie they’ve seen in the past 6 months (aside from possibly Rogue One). The Blu-ray will be out at the end of March1 but there’s also a 4K “ultra HD” version that had me researching new ultra HD TVs I don’t really need.
Oh, and remember that thrilling sequence of the snakes chasing the newly hatched iguanas? Here’s a short clip on how they filmed it.
Actor Michael K. Williams — who played Omar Little in The Wire and Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire — has a conversation with himself, musing if he’s been typecast for a certain type of role.
Face it, we from a certain type a people that come from a type a place that look a type a way. You know what that make us?
For a promotional video (for The Atlantic), that was unexpectedly poignant.
In partnership with Khan Academy, Pixar is offering a number of free online lessons in making 3D animated movies and storytelling called Pixar in a Box. Here’s a video introduction of what courses are available:
There are lessons on rendering, shading, crowds, virtual cameras, and many other topics, but the most accessible for people of all ages/interests is probably the lessons on The Art of Storytelling, which were just posted earlier this week. Here’s the introductory video for that, featuring Pete Docter, director of Up and Inside Out.
This is pretty cool. I’m hoping to spend some more time with this over the weekend.
Yay! It’s Fractal Friday! (It’s not, I just made that up.) But anyway, courtesy of Christopher Night, you can play around with this Julia set fractal. It works in a desktop browser (by moving the mouse) or on your phone (by dragging your finger).
The Julia set, if you don’t remember, goes thusly: Let f(z) be a complex rational function from the plane into itself, that is, f(z)=p(z)/q(z) f(z)=p(z)/q(z), where p(z) and q(z) are complex polynomials. Then there is a finite number of open sets F1, …, Fr, that are left invariant by f(z) which, uh, is um… yay! Fractal Friday! The colors are so pretty!
The Super Bowl is old news at this point and I have a love/hate thing with Bill Simmons going on, but I loved his ranking of the top 10 coin flips in history, which in typical Simmons fashion, crosses a bunch of different boundaries, from technology:
10. The Wright Brothers. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville flipped a coin to see who would attempt the first airborne flight. Wilbur won … and couldn’t keep the plane in the air. They repaired the plane and three days later Orville nailed the second flight, leading Skip Bayless to tweet, “I know this is Orville’s day but I can’t get over that choke job by Wilbur!”
3. Secretariat. Remember when Penny Chenery and Ogden Phipps flipped a coin for the first pick of two foals that Bold Ruler had sired? And Phipps won and picked a foal born from Bold Ruler and Hasty Matelda? And Chenery settled for Secretariat, the eventual Triple Crown winner that became the most famous race horse who ever lived? And then Diane Lane played Chenery in Disney’s Secretariat movie that was 25 minutes too long? Poor Ogden Phipps.
…to the #1 pick from the musical world (which you might guess but will have to click through for).
Each year, Bill and Melinda Gates write a letter about the work they’re doing with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006, Warren Buffett donated more than billion to their foundation, which effectively doubled its available resources. This year’s letter from the Gateses is addressed to Buffett and details the return on his investment so far.
Bill: If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million — the number of children’s lives saved since 1990.
Melinda: Every September, the UN announces the number of children under five who died the previous year. Every year, this number breaks my heart and gives me hope. It’s tragic that so many children are dying, but every year more children live.
Bill: More children survived in 2015 than in 2014. More survived in 2014 than in 2013, and so on. If you add it all up, 122 million children under age five have been saved over the past 25 years. These are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990.
Bill calls saving children’s lives “the best deal in philanthropy”. Melinda continues:
Melinda: And if you want to know the best deal within the deal — it’s vaccines. Coverage for the basic package of childhood vaccines is now the highest it’s ever been, at 86 percent. And the gap between the richest and the poorest countries is the lowest it’s ever been. Vaccines are the biggest reason for the drop in childhood deaths.
Melinda: They’re an incredible investment. The pentavalent vaccine, which protects against five deadly infections in a single shot, now costs under a dollar.
Bill: And for every dollar spent on childhood immunizations, you get $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving the money that families lose when a child is sick and a parent can’t work.
Vaccines. And Now my kids don’t die.
George Saunders has written his first novel and it’s just as unusual as his short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fiction about Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie, who is caught between lives.
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
Buzzfeed has an excerpt of the novel, which takes the form of a collection of quotes.
The boy, frustrated at being denied the attention he felt he deserved, moved in and leaned against his father, as the father continued to hold and gently rock the—
the reverend everly thomas
At one point, moved, I turned away from the scene and found we were not alone.
roger bevins iii
A crowd had gathered outside.
the reverend everly thomas
All were silent.
roger bevins iii
As the man continued to gently rock his child.
the reverend everly thomas
While his child, simultaneously, stood quietly leaning against him.
Then the gentleman began to speak.
roger bevins iii
Time to bust out the Google Cardboard: the NY Times VR team adapted a part of the novel into a 10-minute VR film.
Here’s a good interview with Saunders about the book and a review by Colson Whitehead. The book has been hovering near the top of the Amazon best sellers list since its release — it was #2 when I looked yesterday but is currently 6th, right after Orwell’s 19841 — and I’ve seen several people in my Instagram feed reading it…or at least socially signaling that they’re reading it. ;)
For their short film Ten Meter Tower, Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson coaxed dozens of people to jump off of a 10-meter diving platform for the first time.
Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt. We’ve all seen actors playing doubt in fiction films, but we have few true images of the feeling in documentaries. To make them, we decided to put people in a situation powerful enough not to need any classic narrative framework. A high dive seemed like the perfect scenario.
After the first 10 seconds, I was riveted to the screen for the remaining 16 minutes. It’s not at all obvious who will jump easily and who won’t.
My head says, “Go!” But my heart says, “No!”
People often worry about competition from others, but in the sporting world, the workplace, the home, and school, the struggle against the self — closing the gap between what you want your life to be like and reality, what your head wants and what your heart can provide — is always the most significant and difficult. (via @thisiseamonn)
kottke.org will not be updated today in support of the Day Without Immigrants Strike. From the Washington Post:
Immigrants in D.C. and across the country plan to participate in the “Day Without Immigrants” boycott, a response to President Trump’s pledges to crack down on those in the country illegally, use “extreme vetting” and build a wall along the Mexican border. The social-media-organized protest aims to show the president the effect immigrants have in the country on a daily basis. The boycott calls for immigrants not to attend work, open their businesses, spend money or even send their children to school.
The regularly irregular publishing schedule will resume tomorrow.
In his newest video, Evan Puschak talks about Arrival, calling it “a response to bad movies”. Arrival was perhaps my favorite film of 2016, and I agree with him about how well-made this film is. There’s a top-to-bottom attention to craft on display, from how it looks to how it was cast (Amy Adams was the absolute perfect choice for the lead) to the integration of the theme with story to how expertly it was adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The whole thing’s tight as a drum. If you happened to miss it, don’t watch this video (it gives the whole thing away) and go watch it instead…it’s available to rent/buy on Amazon.
Looking back through the archives, I’m realizing I never did a post about Arrival even though I collected some links about it. So, linkdump time!
Wired wrote about how the movie’s alien alphabet was developed.
Stephen Wolfram wrote about his involvement with the science of the film — his son Christopher wrote Mathematica code for some of the on-screen visuals. 1
Science vs Cinema explored how well the movie represented actual science:
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wrote about how he adapted Chiang’s short story for the screen.
Jordan Brower wrote a perceptive review/analysis that includes links to several other resources about the film.
Update: The director of photography for Arrival was Bradford Young, who shot Selma and is currently working on the Han Solo movie for Disney. Young did an interview with No Film School just before Arrival came out.
I’m from the South, so quilts are a big part of telling our story. Quilting is ancient, but in the South it’s a very particular translation of idea, time, and space. In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling.
Quiltmakers are rigorous, but they’re a mixed media format. I think filmmaking should be a mixed media format. I’m just really honoring what quiltmakers do, which is tell a story by using varying texture within a specific framework to communicate an idea. For me, with digital technology, lenses do that the best. The chips don’t do it now-digital film stock is basically all captured the same, but the lenses are how you give the image its textural quality.
WhaleSynth is a cool little instrument for making whale sounds. There are three different species of whale to choose from, you can add clicks and sonar echoes, and you can also adjust the depth and number of whales in your chorus. Warning: this might occupy many many minutes of your time but could also soothe frayed political nerves.
The Green Angels is a group of pot dealers that was started by a former fashion model named Honey (not her real name). Many of the dealers and dispatchers are also former models…or at least possess enough good looks and easy charm to talk their way out of trouble with NYPD officers.
Honey is clear-eyed about the nature of her operation: “I tell the girls, it’s not a club; it’s a drug ring.” The whole business is run via text messages between her, the dispatchers in her headquarters, the runners who do the deliveries, and the customers. “I have carpal tunnel in my thumb from all the texting,” Honey says. Dispatchers get 10 percent of each sale; the runners get 20 percent, which averages out to $300 or $400 a day. Several of them, according to Honey, “are paying off their NYU student loans.”
Just like any other business, there are tricks of the trade and protocols to follow:
One of the Angels suggests using a tote bag instead of a backpack to carry the box. She generally uses a WNYC tote bag, which is given out to donors to the public-radio station. The other day, an old lady gave her a high five after seeing her tote. “I thought, If you only knew what I have in this bag,” she says.
Honey tells the girls to get a work phone from MetroPCS, which costs $100. When buying it, they should pay in cash and have a name in mind to put down on the form, in case the police check. “I like to use the names of girls who were my enemies growing up,” Honey says.
The business is organized and disciplined, which I suspect it needs to be if you don’t want to get tossed in jail:
The Green Angels average around 150 orders a day, which is about a fourth of what the busiest services handle. When a customer texts, it goes to one of the cell phones on the table in the living room. There’s a hierarchy: The phones with the pink covers are the lowest; they contain the numbers of the flakes, cheapskates, or people who live in Bed-Stuy. The purple phones contain the good, solid customers. Blue is for the VIPs. There are over a thousand customers on Honey’s master list.
To place an order, a customer is supposed to text “Can we hang out?” and a runner is sent to his apartment. No calling, no other codes or requests. Delivery is guaranteed within an hour and a half. If the customer isn’t home, he gets a strike. Three strikes and he’s 86’d. If he yells at the runner, he’s 86’d immediately.
The Angels work only by referral. The customers should refer people they really know and trust, not strangers, and no one they’ve met in a bar. If you refer someone who becomes a problem, Charley says, you lose your membership.
Really interesting throughout.
In Focus is featuring some of the winning shots from the 2017 Underwater Photographer of the Year awards. The top one is Dancing Octopus taken by Gabriel Barathieu and the bottom one is by Qing Lin, who took the photo near Lembeh, Indonesia, which is home to some of the strangest marine life in the world.
If you look at Lin’s photo of the clownfish for more than a second or two — pay attention…this is the nightmarish side to living on the reef that Pixar kept from you in Finding Nemo — you will notice not just three pairs of eyes but six pairs of eyes. In the mouth of each clownfish is a parasitic isopod looking right at the camera. The isopod enters the fish through the gills, attaches itself to the fish’s tongue, feeds on the blood in the tongue until it falls off, and then attaches itself to the tongue stump. And the fish uses the isopod as a replacement tongue! Cool! And gross!
Philip Pullman has announced a follow-up to his acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy called The Book of Dust. The first volume, still untitled, will be out in October and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Philip Pullman offers these tantalizing details: “I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up. This volume and the next will cover two parts of Lyra’s life: starting at the beginning of her story and returning to her twenty years later. As for the third and final part, my lips are sealed.
“So, second: is it a prequel? Is it a sequel? It’s neither. In fact, The Book of Dust is… an equel. It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognize, and characters they’ve met before. Also, of course, there are some characters who are new to us, including an ordinary boy (a boy we have glimpsed in an earlier part of Lyra’s story, if we were paying attention) who, with Lyra, is caught up in a terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world.
Writing for The New Yorker, Tom Batten has come up with some Valentine’s Day themed math word problems.
3. A local pizzeria is offering one large pizza for eleven dollars and seventy-five cents on Valentine’s Day. If you have forty-six dollars in your checking account, it takes you twenty-five minutes to eat a large pizza all by yourself, and your only plan for the evening is to spend ninety minutes scrolling through the Instagram account of a woman you had a crush on in high school for clues that her marriage might be faltering, how did it come to this?
See also how to decipher what’s inside each chocolate in a box of chocolates.
The Book of Circles is an upcoming book by Manuel Lima about the use of circles in information design.
In this follow-up to his hugely popular The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity, Manuel Lima takes us on a lively tour through millennia of circular information design. Three hundred detailed and colorful illustrations from around the world cover an encyclopedic array of subjects-architecture, urban planning, fine art, design, fashion, technology, religion, cartography, biology, astronomy, and physics, all based on the circle, the universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, enlightenment, and perfection. Clay tokens used by ancient Sumerians as a system of recording trade are juxtaposed with logos of modern retailers like Target; Venn diagrams are discussed alongside the trefoil biohazard symbol, symbols of the Christian trinity, and the Olympic rings; and a diagram revealing the characteristics of ten thousand porn stars displays structural similarities to early celestial charts placing the earth at the center of the universe.
I have both of Lima’s previous books, The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity.
I finally got the chance to see Hidden Figures the other day. Recommended. It’s a science/space story in the vein of Apollo 13, but the twin engines of the film are the three excellent lead actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe — and the persistent portrayal of the systemic biases of segregation and sexism. You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?1 How many Katherine Johnsons never got the chance to develop and use their skills in math, science, or technology because of their skin color or gender? Our society wastes so much energy and human lives telling people what they can’t do rather than empowering them to show everyone what they can do.
Hidden Figures was adopted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The film takes some dramatic license with the timing of certain events but overall is historically accurate.
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”
You can view Johnson’s published reports on NASA’s site, including her initial technical report from 1960 on the Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.
You can’t control what the stock market does, who the President is, or what your partner wants to do with their life. So why not focus your energy on stuff you can control? From Lori Deschene at Tiny Buddha, a list of 50 Things You Can Control Right Now. Here are some that jumped out at me:
Your level of honesty.
How often you say “thank you.”
Whether or not you give someone the benefit of the doubt.
Whether or not you compete with people around you.
Whether you think positive or negative thoughts.
How much time you spend worrying.
How much exercise you get.
How many risks you take.
The type of food you eat.
The list isn’t perfect — e.g. it’s more difficult for some people to control what they eat than others — but the point is that worrying about things outside of your control can burn a lot of energy that you can use in more productive ways to make your life better.
BTW, this is a reminder to myself more than anything. There are three things I’m super-anxious about right now that I have zero control over and I am desperately trying to convince myself that focusing on things I can do something about is the only way through.
From designer Christian Annyas, an overview of the typography used in the titles and posters of Stanley Kubrick’s movies. Click on each graphic to see the poster or title sequence it was sourced from.
Some genius took footage from The Americans and cut it into an alternative music video for The Beastie Boys Sabotage. Compare with the real thing:
Pretty good! Plus it’s always great to hear that song. (thx, steve)
Not wanting to listen to the news on inauguration day, artist Kara Walker painted. The result is a Trumpian take on Emanuel Leutze’s famous work “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, a copy of which is on display at the Met Museum. I hope I get to see Walker’s version in a museum or gallery someday soon.
In 1960, saxophonist Steve Lacy wrote down a list of advice from jazz pianist Thelonious Monk on how to play music. Among the items on the list:
Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!
Always leave them wanting more.
What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!
Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
As is the case with most thoughtful advice, many of Monk’s points apply to things other than music. (via swiss miss)
In the Atlantic, Ian Bogost takes on the accepted view that Apple has great design, calling it “the biggest myth in technology today”.
At base, such a claim seems preposterous. In 1977, the Apple II made the microcomputer useful and affordable. In 1984, the Macintosh made the computer more usable by the everyperson thanks to the graphical user interface. In 2001, the iPod fit a music library in a pocket. In 2007, the iPhone made computing portable (and obsessive).
But if Apple designs at its best when attending closely to details like those revealed in the construction of its spaceship headquarters, then presumably the details of its products would stand out as worthy precedents. Yet, when this premise is tested, it comes up wanting. In truth, Apple’s products hide a shambles of bad design under the perfection of sleek exteriors.
While I find this piece to be hyperbolic, it hints at where Apple’s design is weakest. Apple is great at designing products but less good at designing the connections between these products and the rest of the world.1 iPhones, iPods, and iPads are great, but you have to go through iTunes to manage their contents. As Bogost notes, the power cords and chargers for their products are often bulky and awkward…you can’t even charge the newest iPhone using the newest Macbook Pro without a separate adapter. Who makes all the apps that people want to use on their iPhones to chat/connect/flirt/collaborate with their loved ones? Facebook, Snap, Google, Slack…not Apple, who initially wasn’t even going to provide a way for 3rd parties to build apps for the iPhone. Almost every attempt by Apple to build services to connect people — remember Ping?! — has failed. Even iCloud, which promised to unite all Apple devices into one fluid ecosystem, was plagued for years with reliability problems and still isn’t as good as Dropbox. How devices, apps, and people interconnect are far more important now than in 1977, 1984, and even 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, and Apple could stand to focus more of their design energy on that experience.
Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.
Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.
Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:
Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.
Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.
Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.
Not going to say much about this one. Just watch it…especially if somehow, as a curious, thoughtful person who reads this site regularly, you are unaware of how many in the black community feel about the police and that they have conversations like this with their children about those who are supposed to protect and serve people.
This is a map showing where all of the characters originated in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. I know Greece is small by today’s standards, but it was surprising to me how geographically widespread the hometowns of the characters were. The Iliad is set sometime in the 11th or 12th century BC, about 400 years before Homer lived. I wonder if that level of mobility was accurate for the time or if Homer simply populated his poem with folks from all over Greece as a way of making listeners from many areas feel connected to the story — sort of the “hello, Cleveland!” of its time. (thx, adriana)
Update: I’ve gotten lots of feedback saying that not every character is represented in this map (particularly the women) and that some of the locations and hometowns are incorrect. Seems like Wikipedia might need to take a second look at it.
Update: The map was made using the Catalogue of Ships, a list of Achaean ships that sailed to Troy, and the Trojan Catalogue, a list of battle contingents that fought for Troy. That’s why it’s incomplete. An excerpt:
Now will I tell the captains of the ships and the ships in their order. Of the Boeotians Peneleos and Leïtus were captains, and Arcesilaus and Prothoënor and Clonius; these were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis and Schoenus and Scolus and Eteonus with its many ridges, Thespeia, Graea, and spacious Mycalessus; and that dwelt about Harma and Eilesium and Erythrae; and that held Eleon and Hyle and Peteon, Ocalea and Medeon, the well-built citadel, Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe, the haunt of doves; that dwelt in Coroneia and grassy Haliartus, and that held Plataea and dwelt in Glisas; that held lower Thebe, the well-built citadel, and holy Onchestus, the bright grove of Poseidon; and that held Arne, rich in vines, and Mideia and sacred Nisa and Anthedon on the seaboard.
In a bonus from the food series The Mind of a Chef, LA chef Ludo Lefebvre visits a butter factory where they make customized butter for restaurants.
So when we visited the Jean-Yves Bordier Butter factory in the Brittany region of France and had chef Ludo Lefebvre help in the process, it was nothing but pure amazement in his eyes. Le Beurre Bordier customizes it’s butter to the specifications of the chefs they send it to.
The video is subtitled and they go really quick, but I love the look on Lefebvre’s face after he runs his thumb through the finished butter: pure childlike wonder. The full episode featuring Lefebvre is available on PBS’s website (likely for US viewers only). This clip pairs well with this video on how to make croissants. (via the excellent the kid should see this)
I really like Keanu Reeves. He’s one of my favorite actors and seems like a genuinely nice person who has dealt well with his stardom. But after watching this collection of clips from every single movie he’s ever been in, I can’t tell if Reeves is actually a good actor or not. He definitely gets better as his career progresses, but many scenes where emotion or nuance are called for are just…oof. It’s like he’s reading the dictionary sometimes. But I still like him! Why is that?
See also: Danny Bowes believes Reeves belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood Action Stars along with John Wayne, Tom Cruise, and Harrison Ford.
Update: From Peter Suderman, Why Keanu Reeves is a perfect action star:
This may come off hyperbolic, or flat-out inaccurate, to those who don’t see Reeves as a great screen actor. And granted, his performance style doesn’t capture the tiny nuances of human reactions that are usually associated with great acting; he’s often characterized as a big-screen blank, and that’s not an entirely faulty statement.
But while it’s not wrong to label Reeves a blank, it’s also not enough. For nearly three decades, Reeves has proven himself one of Hollywood’s most durable and entertaining action stars, and the John Wick films show why: His total physical commitment to his action roles makes him a perfect avatar for the visions of ambitious action directors. At his very best, he becomes inseparable from the cinematic visions he embodies.
W.E.B. Du Bois was an American author, sociologist, historian, and activist. Apparently Du Bois was also a designer and design director of some talent as these hand-drawn infographics show.
In addition to an extensive collection of photographs, four volumes containing 400 official patents by African Americans, more than 200 books penned by African-American authors, various maps, and a statuette of Frederick Douglass, the exhibition featured a total of fifty-eight stunning hand-drawn charts (a selection of which we present below). Created by Du Bois and his students at Atlanta, the charts, many of which focus on economic life in Georgia, managed to condense an enormous amount of data into a set of aesthetically daring and easily digestible visualisations. As Alison Meier notes in Hyperallergic, “they’re strikingly vibrant and modern, almost anticipating the crossing lines of Piet Mondrian or the intersecting shapes of Wassily Kandinsky”.
Update: Oh, this is great: Mona Chalabi has updated Du Bois’ charts with current data.
Wealth. If I had stayed close to the original chart, the updated version would have shown that in 2015, African American households in Georgia had a median income of about $36,655, which would fail to capture the story of inflation (net asset numbers aren’t published as cumulative for one race). Instead, I wanted to see how wealth varies by race in America today.
The story is bleak. I hesitated to use the word “worth”, but it’s the language used by the Census Bureau when they’re collecting this data and, since money determines so much of an individual’s life, the word seems relevant. For every dollar a black household in America has in net assets, a white household has 16.5 more.
Aaron McAvoy’s washing machine makes a banging noise while washing clothes so he played The Devil Went Down to Georgia in time with the banging. This is the most perfect little internet entertainment…I actually started crying I was laughing so hard. A much needed respite from the world. See also the washing machine edition of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and a tribute to George Michael. (via @aaroncoleman0)
In this tutorial, we’ll take a look at the differences between The Internet and The World Wide Web, the differences between commercial OnLine Services such as the Microsoft Network, Prodigy, or America Online and the Internet, how to get connected to the Web, how to use something called a Web browser to navigate the Web, what a Web Page is, and how to search, locate, and download all types of files, from information files to video and audio files.
It’s worth skipping ahead to 17:30 to hear how the host pronounces “URL”.
See also a brief clip of Blogger/Twitter/Medium co-founder Evan Williams explaining the Internet in the mid-90s.
Look at that kid! He just knew the Internet was going to be a big deal, and boy was he right. (via laughing squid)
Richard Overton fought in the South Pacific in World War II, is 109 years old, still drives, sometimes drinks whiskey with breakfast, smokes 12 cigars a day (but doesn’t inhale), and still lives in the house he built himself in 1945. In this video from National Geographic, Overton talks about his military service, his faith, his long life, and soup. Overton’s short summary of World War II:
It wasn’t good, but we had to go.
I don’t really care to live to 100, but if I had Overton’s spirit and attitude, perhaps I’d consider it.
Update: Ryan Holiday recently visited with Overton and learned a thing or two about life.
The most animated Richard ever got was when he told me a story about the enormous pecan tree in his front yard. It seemed like an ordinary tree to me, until he told me his dog planted it seventy years ago. They had a pecan tree in the back, and the dog would grab the nuts and bury them in the front yard. With glee, Richard told me how eventually the tree grew and now it’s so big it’s nearly pushing up the foundation of his house. He loved the absurdity of it — a dog planting a tree! He was laughing at it still, seven decades later.
And then there’s this, about another instance of The Great Span:
It’s fascinating to think that when Richard was born Theodore Roosevelt was president. Overton is the oldest living American veteran now, but when he was born, Henry L. Riggs was still alive. Riggs was a veteran of the Black Hawk War (1832) and he was born in 1812…and Conrad Heyer, the Revolutionary War veteran and the oldest and earliest person to be photographed (born in 1749) was still alive when Riggs was born. Three overlapping lives, that’s all it took to get back to before even the idea of founding the United States. Richard’s brother fought in the first World War. He told me he remembered seeing Civil War veterans around when he was a kid. Not many, but they were there. It was Texas — those men fought to keep his mother in slavery. How long ago all that horribleness seems. How recent it is at the same time.
This lovely video from a television station in Denmark highlights the similarities we all share across seemingly impassable social, economic, racial, and religious boundaries.
It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us and there’s them. The high-earners and those just getting by. Those we trust and those we try to avoid. There’s the new Danes and those who’ve always been here. The people from the countryside and those who’ve never seen a cow. The religious and the self-confident. There are those we share something with and those we don’t share anything with.
And then suddenly, there’s us. We who believe in life after death, we who’ve seen UFOs, and all of us who love to dance. We who’ve been bullied and we who’ve bullied others.
Last week I started reading The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis’s book about the friendship and collaboration of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This passage on Tversky’s work seems relevant to this video.
From Amos’s theory about the way people made judgments of similarity spilled all sorts of interesting insights. If the mind, when it compares two things, essentially counts up the features it notices in each of them, it might also judge those things to be at once more similar and more dissimilar to each other than some other pair of things. They might have both a lot in common and a lot not in common. Love and hate, and funny and sad, and serious and silly: Suddenly they could be seen — as they feel — as having more fluid relationships to each other. They weren’t simply opposites on a fixed mental continuum; they could be thought of as similar in some of their features and different in others. Amos’s theory also offered a fresh view into what might be happening when people violated transitivity and thus made seemingly irrational choices.
When people picked coffee over tea, and tea over hot chocolate, and then turned around and picked hot chocolate over coffee — they weren’t comparing two drinks in some holistic manner. Hot drinks didn’t exist as points on some mental map at fixed distances from some ideal. They were collections of features. Those features might become more or less noticeable; their prominence in the mind depended on the context in which they were perceived. And the choice created its own context: Different features might assume greater prominence in the mind when the coffee was being compared to tea (caffeine) than when it was being compared to hot chocolate (sugar). And what was true of drinks might also be true of people, and ideas, and emotions.
The idea was interesting: When people make decisions, they are also making judgments about similarity, between some object in the real world and what they ideally want. They make these judgments by, in effect, counting up the features they notice. And as the noticeability of features can be manipulated by the way they are highlighted, the sense of how similar two things are might also be manipulated. For instance, if you wanted two people to think of themselves as more similar to each other than they otherwise might, you might put them in a context that stressed the features they shared. Two American college students in the United States might look at each other and see a total stranger; the same two college students on their junior year abroad in Togo might find that they are surprisingly similar: They’re both Americans!
By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface. “It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified. Thus, similarity has two faces: causal and derivative. It serves as a basis for the classification of objects, but is also influenced by the adopted classification.” A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
That’s what this video did so effectively…it switched up the contexts. Rabid soccer fans became dancers, bullies became lonely people, people of different faiths were united by their believe in an afterlife. An exercise for investors and entrepreneurs building media companies and social networks (as well as people running small independent sites….I’m staring hard at myself in the mirror here): how can you build tools and platforms that give people more ways to connect to each other, to switch up the contexts in which people are able to group themselves?
The official trailer for season five of The Americans is out and oooooooooh boy! I’m currently bingeing on The Night Manager and I love me some Halt and Catch Fire, but The Americans is my favorite pure-drama show1 right now. The actress who plays Paige is great and it looks like she’s going to be more involved in the plot than ever:
Look at her! Learning how to fight and reading Karl Marx! Oh, I can’t wait until March 7th! If you haven’t been following the show, all four of the previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime. I might have to rewatch!
According to a recent poll, over a third of those polled did not know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act were the same thing.
In the survey, 35 percent of respondents said either they thought Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act were different policies (17 percent) or didn’t know if they were the same or different (18 percent). This confusion was more pronounced among people 18 to 29 and those who earn less than $50,000 — two groups that could be significantly affected by repeal.
And that’s perhaps not even the worse part:
For instance, only 61 percent of adults knew that many people would lose coverage through Medicaid or subsidies for private health insurance if the A.C.A. were repealed and no replacement enacted. In contrast, approximately one in six Americans, or 16 percent, said that “coverage through Medicaid and subsidies that help people buy private health insurance would not be affected” by repeal, and 23 percent did not know.
I’ve never liked the Obamacare moniker, but clearly that’s only part of the problem.
Last night, during the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III1 for Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter that Coretta Scott King had written to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship (which he did not get).
The first page of the letter appears above and the entire contents may be read here. King pretty plainly states that Sessions abused his position in an attempt to disenfranchise black voters:
Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.
Under Senate Rule XIX and after two votes by the full Senate, Warren was barred from speaking and finishing the letter.
When Warren first spoke against Sessions Tuesday night, Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, warned her that she was breaking the rules. When she continued anyway, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by finding her in violation of Senate Rule XIX — which prevents any senator from using “any form of words [to] impute to another Senator… any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Warren later read the letter outside of the Senate chambers. How the Senate is supposed to debate the appointment of a Cabinet member without being able to criticize the actions, words, and beliefs of that candidate is left as an exercise to the reader. (Ok, I’ll answer anyway: it’s not supposed to debate. That’s the entire point of the Republicans’ actions w/r/t Trump’s political nominees thus far.)
King’s letter, which Buzzfeed called “a key part of the case against Sessions [in 1986]” was only published earlier this week in part because Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond never officially entered it into the congressional record. Thurmond, you may remember, vehemently opposed the civil rights reforms of the 50s and 60s, even going so far as filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for more than 24 hours and switching political parties because of the Democrats’ support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
And Senate Rule XIX? Cornell Law School professor James Grimmelmann notes the precedent:
Let’s be clear on the precedent here: it’s the 1836-44 gag rule that forbade any consideration of abolition in the House.
Racist southern representatives were so frustrated by abolitionist petitions to Congress, that they adopted a series of rules.
All abolitionist petitions would immediately be tabled, and any attempt to introduce them would be prohibited.
From pro-slavery members of the House to Davis to Beauregard to Thurmond to Trump (and Bannon) to Sessions to McConnell (and the nearly all-white Republican majority). Paraphrasing Stephen Hawking, it’s white supremacy all the way down. Gosh, if you’re a black person in America, you might even think the system is tilted against you!
P.S. I like this part of Senate Rule XIX, right at the bottom:
8. Former Presidents of the United States shall be entitled to address the Senate upon appropriate notice to the Presiding Officer who shall thereupon make the necessary arrangements.
I’m not sure what it would accomplish, but seeing a former President address this Senate, after an appropriate period spent kiteboarding, would be pretty fun to watch.
P.P.S. In silencing Warren, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Not a bad explanation of the feminist movement in America there, Mitch. Folks on Twitter are having fun with the #shepersisted hashtag.
Update: While the precedent for Senate Rule XIX dates back to the abolition debates in the 1830s and 1840s, the actual rule was made after a fight broke out in the Senate in 1902. From a book called The American Senate: An Insider’s Story:
South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman accused his South Carolina colleague, John McLaurin, of selling his vote for federal patronage. McLaurin called Tillman a malicious liar. Tillman lunged at him, striking him above the left eye. McLaurin hit Tillman back with an upper-cut to the nose.
Given the history of this rule and how it was recently applied, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Tillman was an outspoken advocate of lynching, once remarking in a speech:
“[We] agreed on on the policy of terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” (Tillman boasted during the same speech that his pistol had been used to execute seven black men in 1876.)
So we can squeeze Tillman in-between Beauregard and Thurmond in the abbreviated narrative of how it came to be that a white majority Senate silenced a white woman for reading a letter written by a black woman.
Need to sleep, focus on work, get away from the news, meditate, or just tickle your ASMR receptors? Try 10 hours of ambient noise from a Norwegian icebreaker idling in the frozen Arctic.
10 hours video of Arctic ambience with frozen ocean, ice cracking, snow falling, icebreaker idling and distant howling wind sound. Natural white noise sounds generated by the wind and snow falling, combined with deep low frequencies with delta waves from the powerful icebreaker idling engines, recorded at 96 kHz — 24 bit and designed for relaxation, meditation, study and sleep.
That is some “Calgon take me away”-level shit. See also the most relaxing song in the world. (via bb)
Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo urges us that when it comes to figuring out what Donald Trump’s up to, we should keep it simple. The media has covered Trump for more than 30 years, he appeared weekly on television for several years, and the coverage of his campaign over the past two years was unprecedented. That, says Marshall, means that we know Trump and his motivations quite well at this point and offers a list of five things we should keep in mind:
1. Trump is a Damaged Personality
2. Trump is a Great Communicator
3. Trump’s Hold on His Base Is Grievance
4. Trump is Possible Because of Partisan Polarization
5. Trump is Surrounded By Extremists and Desperados
Trump is an impulsive narcissist who is easily bored and driven mainly by the desire to chalk up ‘wins’ which drive the affirmation and praise which are his chief need and drive. He needs to dominate everyone around him and is profoundly susceptible to ego injuries tied to not ‘winning’, not being the best, not being sufficiently praised and acclaimed, etc. All of this drives a confrontational style and high levels of organizational chaos and drama. This need for praise and affirmation and a lack of patience for understanding the basic details of governing are a volatile and dangerous mix. They catalyze and intensify each other. Perhaps most importantly, the drive to be the best and right drives promises, claims and policy pronouncements which may contradict his already existing positions or be impossible to fulfill.
Marshall also calls out something I’ve been thinking about recently, the Make America Great Again branding:
‘Make America Great Again’ may be awful and retrograde in all its various meanings. But it captured in myriad ways almost every demand, fear and grievance that motivated the Americans who eventually became the Trump base. It is almost certainly the case that MAGA is entirely Trump’s invention, not the work of any consultant or media specialist but from Trump himself. The Trump Trucker baseball cap, a physical manifestation of Trumpite branding, is similarly ingenious.
As much as I came to admire Pentagram’s work on Hillary Clinton’s campaign branding and loved the Obama campaign’s branding (complete with beautiful typefaces from Hoefler and Frere-Jones), I think the MAGA design easily beats them both. Marshall nailed it…it was exactly right for who it was designed to appeal to. It’s perhaps unlikely to happen, but the Make America Great Again hat should be added to the permanent collections of design museums as an exemplary example of branding, right alongside Got Milk?, Think Different, and Just Do It. (Also, you know who else came up with an extraordinarily effective design for his fascist authoritarian movement?)
Since its initial release in 2009, Minecraft has matured to the point of being a platform for people who want to make art and also for people who want to make money. Phil Edwards of Vox highlights some of the beautiful structures being created by Minecraft players (some of which are collected in this coffee table book called Beautiful Minecraft) and the challenges faced by creators trying to make money within a game owned by a large company.
The creativity “Creative Mode” enables is obvious in the work that talented designers produce. Sometimes Minecraft artists will create interactive worlds that replicate historic events; other times, Minecraft’s many cubes coalesce into a sculptural image, the same way pointillism’s dots disappear to form a picture. These images and worlds can be eerie, magical, and surprisingly beautiful.
But perhaps most surprising of all, Minecraft worlds can also be a business. Companies like Blockworks make maps for private Minecraft servers (computer networks that host Minecraft games), and they also occasionally design maps in collaboration with institutions and companies like Minecraft owner Microsoft.
BlockWorks — company tagline: “creative Minecraft solutions” — has done some really fantastic designs for themselves and their clients.
In 2012, physicist Frank Wilczek speculated that it would be possible to make a crystal whose lattice repeats in four dimensions, not just three.
Wilczek thought it might be possible to create a similar crystal-like structure in time, which is treated as a fourth dimension under relativity. Instead of regularly repeating rows of atoms, a time crystal would exhibit regularly repeating motion.
Many physicists were sceptical, arguing that a time crystal whose atoms could loop forever, with no need for extra energy, would be tantamount to a perpetual motion machine — forbidden by the laws of physics.
Now, a team at Berkeley have succeeded in making time crystals, publishing a method that two other teams have already successfully followed.
For Yao’s time crystal, an external force — like the pulse of a laser — flips the magnetic spin of one ion in a crystal, which then flips the spin of the next, and so forth, setting the system into a repeating pattern of periodic motion.
There are two critical factors. First, after the initial driver, it must be a closed system, unable to interact with and lose energy to the environment. Second, interactions between quantum particles are the driving force behind the time crystal’s stability. “It’s an emergent phenomenon,” says Yao. “It requires many particles and many spins to talk to each other and collectively synchronise.”
Using PT Anderson’s 2012 film The Master as a jumping off point, Evan Puschak discusses how Scientology’s audit process works. You can take the Oxford Capacity Analysis test he mentions right here.
Steve Hackman, aka Stereo Hideout, composes, arranges, and conducts mashups of orchestral music and pop music. Not just mixes on Soundcloud, mind you, but entirely new compositions that are played by actual orchestras. The video embedded above is Brahms Symphony No. 1 mixed with Radiohead’s OK Computer but he’s also done a few others that are available on YouTube: Copland vs Bon Iver, Beethoven vs Coldplay, and Bartok vs Bjork. Hackman’s next project in this vein? Tchaikovsky vs Drake, which he’s premiering with the Pittsburgh Symphony in March. (thx, spencer)
The 2017 Wind Games were recently held in Spain and featured skydivers from all over the world competing in a number of indoor skydiving1 events. Maja Kuczynska competed in the freestyle category and her routine/dance/performance was arresting.
My mind broke a little watching this. People are not supposed to move like this, like superheroes…it looks like not particularly well done special effects. At several points, the way she moves reminded me of Saruman toying with Gandalf before flinging him to the top of Orthanc in the Fellowship of the Ring.
Here’s her performance from another angle. Wow. Just wow. Kuczynska finished third in the event while Kyra Poh took first…here’s Poh’s winning routine.
In response to the Trump administration’s monumentally cruel immigrant travel ban, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC has retooled its galleries to hang art by artists from countries affected by the ban, noting that if those artists are currently out of the country, they wouldn’t even be able to come to see their works in one of the world’s best art museums.
In one of the strongest protests yet by a major cultural institution, the museum has reconfigured its fifth-floor permanent-collection galleries — interrupting its narrative of Western Modernism, from Cezanne through World War II — to showcase contemporary art from Iran, Iraq and Sudan, whose citizens are subject to the ban. A Picasso came down. Matisse, down. Ensor, Boccioni, Picabia, Burri: They made way for artists who, if they are alive and abroad, cannot see their work in the museum’s most august galleries. (A work from a Syrian artist has been added to the film program. The other affected countries are Somalia, Yemen and Libya.)
The works will be up for several months, and alongside each painting, sculpture, or photograph is a text that makes no bones about why it has suddenly surfaced: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
The travel ban is currently not being enforced due to a temporary restraining order…hopefully that will hold up indefinitely.
That wraps up my week and a day on Kottke.org. I want to thank Jason for letting me sit in his imaginary chair, and I especially want to thank Kottke readers and site members for letting me think my way through a weird-ass, anxiety-inducing time in all of our lives.
If you’re not a member of kottke.org, please consider it: Jason’s work on this site is extraordinary, and still too unsung. Among other things, your support helps him give work to folks like me to keep this place running when he’s not around.
Jason should be back on Monday. Before I check out, I want to tease you with a short list of stories drafted but not published this week. Just imagine what could have been.
Companies and their avatars (why we give Tesla’s Elon Musk crap, but not Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter)
The experience of time in Hell (and why does it feel like we’re all there already)
Eli Whitney was not black, but lots of people think so (lots of other people got here first, look it up)
“I Am Not Your Negro”: A Review (I had to cancel plans to see it this afternoon)
The Seven NBA All-Stars I Would Not Be Willing To Street Fight, and Why (sometimes fanfic just gets out of hand)
Always a pleasure to write for the best blog in the world.
Jesse Kriss wonders whether we’ve been acclimating ourselves to a more authoritarian system for some time, not just through politics, but in our technical and commercial choices. Like, say, whichever social network you might have used to route to this story right now.
We live with our technological and political systems. They are part of the fabric and substance of our everyday existence. That is significant, but it also goes deeper: their embedded values and philosophies are inescapable.
The systems we use everyday can have insidious effects: we internalize them, and they constrain our imaginations. When everything around us mirrors the same structural properties, those positions and impositions become invisible to us-we don’t even realize that they’re there, or that it could be any other way.
This isn’t to say that big systems have to be evil-far from it-but when everything is this way, our democracy, our agency, our freedom, and our imagination are all at risk.
This is by way of introducing a now two-weeks-old open-source project called Altcloud, described as “a web server with some niceties build in so that you can create real applications without any backend code or external services.” It’s probably beyond my talents, but I imagine more than a few Kottke readers could build some cool things with something like that.
Yesterday, I was talking with my friend Audrey Watters, a technology journalist, historian, and education activist. For years, Audrey’s been critical of education technology companies — their data and privacy practices, their close ties to the military and prison-industrial complexes, their historical myopia, and their ideologies about what learning is and what (and who) it is for. And basically, what she’s always done is to try to articulate an antifascist alternative to education technology, knowing that the roots of what we do now lies in the command-and-control models we borrowed from Nazi Germany, American slavery (and the systems that succeeded it), and the most exploitative and totalitarian sides of good old-fashioned liberal capitalism.
In a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump,” she writes:
I’m concerned, in no small part, because students are often unaware of the amount of data that schools and the software companies they contract with know about them. I’m concerned because students are compelled to use software in educational settings. You can’t opt out of the learning management system. You can’t opt out of the student information system. You can’t opt out of required digital textbooks or digital assignments or digital assessments. You can’t opt out of the billing system or the financial aid system. You can’t opt of having your cafeteria purchases, Internet usage, dorm room access, fitness center habits tracked. Your data as a student is scattered across multiple applications and multiple databases, most of which I’d wager are not owned or managed by the school itself but rather outsourced to a third-party provider.
School software (and I’m including K-12 software here alongside higher ed) knows your name, your birth date, your mailing address, your home address, your race or ethnicity, your gender (I should note here that many education technologies still require “male” or “female” and do not allow for alternate gender expressions). It knows your marital status. It knows your student identification number (it might know your Social Security Number). It has a photo of you, so it knows your face. It knows the town and state in which you were born. Your immigration status. Your first language and whether or not that first language is English. It knows your parents’ language at home. It knows your income status - that is, at the K-12 level, if you quality for a free or reduced lunch and at the higher ed level, if you qualify for a Pell Grant. It knows if you are the member of a military family. It knows if you have any special education needs. It knows if you were identified as “gifted and talented.” It knows if you graduated high school or passed a high school equivalency exam. It knows your attendance history - how often you miss class as well as which schools you’ve previously attended. It knows your behavioral history. It knows your criminal history. It knows your participation in sports or other extracurricular activities. It knows your grade level. It knows your major. It knows the courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned. It knows your standardized test scores.
This has always been a problem, but now it’s a problem with a different kind of relevance and a different range of endgames. Data can be destroyed, which hurts us one way, or it can be operationalized and abused, which hurts us in another. Data can also make us complicit, by limiting our range of expectations, encouraging us to accept compromised outcomes and successes and not question too closely what forces are moving behind the scenes. Trust given is not easily revoked; and trust abused is not easily regained.
You never really need a good reason to listen to Stevie Wonder. But his peak run of albums in the 1970s are particularly welcome today. The songs are beautiful, they’re familiar, and they’re varied. They engage melancholy without being defeated by sadness; they engage anger without being defeated by despair. Stevie Wonder is invincible.
He’s also probably underrecognized as a political songwriter. Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sly Stone, or even George Clinton are probably much better known for their politics and political anthems. Stevie, the balladeer, is just as fierce, but sly, emotional, and psychologically devastating.
Here are three songs, from three albums recorded in three consecutive years, all from the Nixon era. Each year, the lyrics get more pointed, more obvious in their contempt. But it’s a contempt mingled with understanding, and grounded in a deep, deep love for the people most affected by political failure.
On August 7, 1974, Stevie released “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” as a single, with the two-year-old “Big Brother” as a B-side. (MESSAGE!) Two days later, Nixon resigned.1 By November, the song was a Billboard number one.
And that’s why you don’t mess with Stevie Wonder.
(There was even a Trump-themed remix of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” that came out last year, but I’m not really a fan. I’d rather listen to Stevie sing with the Jackson 5 than hear his music all mixed up with Trump quotes.)
The next album that would come in the sequence is Songs In the Key of Life. Out of all of Stevie’s albums, this is the hardest for me to listen to right now. It touches too many personal memories, hopes and fears and dreams.
Songs in the Key of Life tries to reconcile the reality of the post-Nixon era — the pain that even though the enemy is gone, the work is not done and the world has not been transformed — with an inclusive hope that it one day will be, and that faith, hope, and love are still possible.
It’s what makes the album such a magnificent achievement. But I’m not there. I don’t know when I will be. So for now I’m keeping Songs In the Key of Life on the shelf. An unopened bottle of champagne for a day I may never see. But I’d like to.
Corey Robin is a political scientist whose expertise is the history of conservative movements and the politics of fear. Sounds like the perfect person to predict whether reactionary strongmen are about to swoop in and destroy the democratic institutions we’ve all enjoyed, right?
It’s a little more complicated. We are more complicated.
The worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices. These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism, and the rule of law. All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression, and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them.
Genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, internment camps, crushing unions, mass surveillance, torture, lynching, indefinite detention, extrajudicial murder, and on, and on — Americans have inflicted all of this on other Americans and on the rest of the world, not in the distant past, not as an original sin, but right up to the present day.
Which is not so unusual, for great powers of the world, or even most of the smaller ones. What is exceptional about America, if anything, is we have done all of this without once needing a strongman to do it. As Robin says, it’s been done “through lawyers, genteel men of the Senate with their august traditions and practices, and the Supreme Court.”
This is why people like SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch seem almost comforting next to Trump and his inner circle. They seem so familiar.
This is what the “resilience of American institutions” means.
When it comes to the most terrible kinds of repression and violence, Fear, American Style has worked because it has given so many players a piece of the pie.
The storm is called progress.
The truth of the matter is that Trump and Bannon could get most if not all of what they want—in terms of the revanchism of race, gender, and class, the white Christian nation that they seem to wish for—without strongman politics. American institutions offer more than enough resources for revanchism. That they seem not to know this—that they are willing to make opponents of the military and the security establishment, that they are willing to arouse into opposition and conjure enemies out of potential friends—may be their biggest weakness of all. Or, if they do know this, but seek strongman politics anyway, perhaps because it is a surplus, then they’re willing to put strongman politics above and beyond the project of social revanchism that their base seeks. Which may be their other biggest weakness of all.
In my experience with abusers — and the best working explanation I have found for most of Trump’s behavior is not any exotic psychological disorder or espionage-related intrigue, but that he is a self-confessed, well-documented serial abuser — getting what they want is secondary. The abuse itself, the bullying exercise of power, the maintenance of dominance, is the point. Which is the other way in which all of this feels way too familiar.
To celebrate Marquee Moon’s 40th (!) anniversary, Damien Love has posted an extended interview with guitarist Richard Lloyd. Lloyd describes meeting Richard Hell (then Richard Meyers) and Tom Verlaine (then Tom Miller), forming a band, making some singles, Hell leaving to form the Voidoids, and then recording what would slowwwwly turn out to be one of the greatest albums ever.
Tom and I, our guitars meshed together immediately. I had studied a kind of classic rock guitar, where you do whole step bends, half step bends. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who knew Jimi Hendrix, and Jimi gave this guy lessons, who passed them on to me, and I met Hendrix and watched him play, so that’s where I was coming from.
Tom played with a completely different style. He used the classical vibrato. It’s technical to describe, but it’s like on a violin: you move your wrist back and forth, the finger doesn’t move, but the pitch goes up and down. I don’t know where he got it. It was more like a sitar player, but that was Tom’s style, this magnificent classical vibrato. He’d never do whole step bends, always micro-bends. But our two styles just suited each other beautifully. Between the two of us, we had all the different guitar aspects you could want. I was playing much more classical rock, Tom was playing his odd, in-between thing. But if Tom would show me something, I could play it.
The next thing was convincing Richard Hell to play bass. Tom couldn’t do it. Richie said, “I’m not a musician. I can’t do it.” When Tom wasn’t around, I asked him what the problem was. He said, “Listen. Playing with Tom is like going to the dentist. Except you’d rather go to the dentist.”
Like a lot of kids with a lot of cult rock bands, I didn’t hear about Television until I went to college. I really liked Talking Heads, and in the liner notes of their greatest hits comp Sand in the Vaseline, David Byrne says that when their band first got together, they sounded a lot like “early Television.” I was intrigued.
Then VH1 (this being the glory days of VH1) put out a “100 Greatest Albums” special and threw in Marquee Moon at #83. They showed clips of the band and their songs, and people I knew like Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins talking about how beautiful and influential it was.
It didn’t sound like anything else on that list, besides maybe The Velvet Underground & Nico. (At the time, I thought VU was a totally obscure band that I was a genius for discovering and liking.) It still doesn’t. It didn’t sound like the other punk albums, and the only other indie rock album that made the cut was The Replacements’ Let It Be, which has a totally different vibe. It was this little constellation of Gen X diamonds hidden in a list otherwise dominated by aging boomers and young pop-worshippers, with a few undeniable golden age hip-hop albums thrown in to mix it up.
I think I went out and bought Marquee Moon, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, and Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power the next day. Television helped get me to Big Star, The New York Dolls, My Bloody Valentine, and the hundred other record-store guitar bands that made me a sweetly happy, insufferable, twentysomething clichÃ©, now fully prepared to crap all over VH1’s or any other list of 100 Greatest Albums.
But while my pleasure in debating greatest-ever lists has faded, as has my joy in digging through album crates and filesharing sites to find new bands everyone else has already heard of, my love and appreciation for Marquee Moon remains pretty much the same.
Great sound, great songs, great gossipy soap-opera stories — what else could you want?
More than a year ago, before the Iowa caucuses, the story of folk singer/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie’s hatred for his landlord, Fred Trump (father of Donald) started to circulate. (I believe the first piece was this nicely done essay at The Conversation, by Will Kaufman.)
The story goes like this: Between 1950 and 1952, Guthrie lived in a Federal Housing Administration-funded low-income apartment building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island built by Fred Trump. But Trump (who already had a history of bigotry, including an arrest at a Klan parade that turned into a riot in 1927), quickly worked to segregate even his federal developments, prohibiting black tenants from renting in majority-white complexes or neighborhoods.
Guthrie moved out of the Trump building when his two-year-lease was up, but wrote a song about it called “Old Man Trump”:
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
And in fact, Donald and his father Fred would eventually be sued for housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; this was 1973, and was the first time Donald Trump ever appeared in the New York Times (“Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City”). They settled the lawsuit in 1975.
But that’s not the end of the story. The present-day Trump slogan “America First” is a direct callback to the America First Committee, an isolationist antiwar group that formed after the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe. It included pacifists and farmers and students and socialists and businessmen and a lot of wealthy, anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-fascist Americans, notably its main spokesman Charles Lindbergh.
As it happens, one of Woody Guthrie’s best protest songs, “Lindbergh” (or “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”) is about America First. It criticizes Lindbergh and the group, but also the devil’s bargain socialist and other workers’ groups across the midwest had made in partnering up with pro-Nazi capitalists:
Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ‘em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.
Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington
Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington
So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.
And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.
Easy enough to remember.
Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer who spent most of 2016 as one of a very small number of black women hiking the Appalachian trail. Trail hikers are thought to be between 66 and 75 percent male, and overwhelmingly white; there’s also a long history of formal and informal racial exclusion in national parks, wilderness areas, and other outdoor spaces, through statute, violence, and “soft” racism. And in Appalachia, many of the small towns along the trail where hikers stop to get food, mail, clean clothes, and other supplies are often unwelcome or hostile to black people.
Haile brought, photographed, and left behind books by black writers at points along the trail. She explains why in an interview with Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow:
In 2015, I started a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day. This was a way to say, “This is the extent that I can participate in literature at this moment.” Diversity matters to me. Many of the most celebrated short story collections are by white men, so on Twitter I published one short story a day by underrepresented groups.
When I thought about 2016—how can I participate in literature this year?—I thought, I want to bring these books places no one likely has. I want to document where black brilliance belongs. There’s so much talk about where the black body belongs. Most of my hike was saying, this is a black body, and it belongs everywhere. These books were a way of me saying, black intellect belongs here, too. I was hoping that by carrying these books and taking them to these incredible vistas, fellow people of color might say, “If those books can go there, so can I.”
In an essay for BuzzFeed, Haile lists a remarkable catalogue of the weights she carried on the trip. (Hiking, as I learned this year from Rahawa, is in large part about managing weight):
Pack: 40 ounces. Tent: 26. A pound to “love myself when I am laughing…and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” Seven ounces of James Baldwin. Thirteen of Octavia Butler. Nine violent ounces of home, the from-from, “originally, I mean.” 7,628 feet: the elevation of Asmara, Eritrea. Rain jacket: 5.5 ounces. Options for ZZ Packer. Blues for Toni Morrison. Dragons for Langston Hughes. A river for Jamaica Kincaid. Nine ounces, eight ounces, ten ounces, six. Fifteen: the number of years I spent watching my African grandmother die in the flatness of Florida. Gloves: 1.3 ounces. Warsan Shire: 2.4. Keys to a place I call home: none. Colson Whitehead: 1 pound. Assets: zero. Resting mass of light: none. Headlamp: 3.9 ounces. Their names: endless. Trayvon, Renisha, Sandra, Tamir. Spork: 0.6 ounces. Water filter: 3 ounces. Down jacket: seven ounces. Fuel canister: four. Current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels: greater than 400 ppm. Average elevation above sea level in Miami: six feet. Therapists I can no longer afford: one. Kiese Laymon: 9.6 ounces. Amiri Baraka: 1.4 pounds. The amount black women earn for every white male dollar: 63 cents. Bandana: 1.12 ounces. Pack towel: 0.5 ounces. The number of times I’ve told myself to put a gun to my head between 2013 and 2016: 8,000-10,000. Bear bagging kit: 3 ounces. Aracelis Girmay: 6.4 ounces. Roxane Gay: 4.8. Emergency whistle: 0.14, orange, should I find myself in the midst of hunting season.
The trail, she writes, is “considered a great equalizer in most other respects” — everyone alike has to deal with rattlesnakes, rainstorms, and sore feet. “A thing I found myself repeatedly explaining to hikers who asked about my books and my experience,” she adds, “wasn’t that I feared them, but that there was no such thing as freedom from vulnerability for me anywhere in this land. That I might be tolerated in trail towns that didn’t expect to see a black hiker, but I’d rarely if ever feel at ease.” Nobody else walking the trail would have to carry the same weight.
It’s Groundhog Day — again. Once a year, our nation turns its eyes to an offbeat existential romantic comedy that thoroughly outperforms its sharpie-on-an-index-card premise, thanks to a brilliant collection of character actors, a thoroughly memorizable script, and the then-underrated, now-maybe-a-smidge-overrated acting talents of Bill Murray.
Four years ago, Jason hosted a 20th anniversary Groundhog Day liveblog with three of his regular guest editors: me, Sarah Pavis, and Aaron Cohen. It was a lot of fun. (I talked too much.)
Some of the questions we considered:
- Is Groundhog Day a time-travel movie?
- If you were recasting it, who would you pick?
- Does Phil’s behavior mid-movie predict creepy pick-up-artist culture?
- Does the time loop stop because Rita falls in love with Phil, or because Phil finally manages to live one day sincerely?
- Wouldn’t it be better to predict the weather by doing the opposite of what the groundhog indicates?
The answer to that last question is almost definitely yes.
Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has written a terrific riff on historian John R. Gillis’s new book The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History. After a phrase from Steve Mentz, it’s called “Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks”:
“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for…
We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.
Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.
The Hebrew Bible famously begins human history with a garden, followed by agriculture, then a flood, then cities, then wandering in exodus — but that story’s probably completely inverted. (The fact that the story’s written in a script likely borrowed by seafaring merchants is a tell.)
Even after agricultural urban civilization settles in, there are continued raids from “sea peoples”, Vikings, Mongols, and the British Empire — wanderers over land and sea who periodically crash into the farmers’ cities and make them their own, through trade and/or plunder.
Robert Graves thought all Greek mythology (and maybe all mythologies) dramatized the conflict between new and old gods, particularly the matriarchal gods of agriculture with the patriarchal gods of the sky and sea. In all the stories, he thought, you could find a trace of the suppressed gods, a counter-narrative that was never completely erased.
Here, too, we get our opposing views of nature: the regular, settled rhythms of Hades and Demeter, and the inhuman danger of Zeus and Poseidon — Walden vs. Moby-Dick.
Maybe the most successful myths are the ones that reconcile the two strands, legitimizing the victorious shipwrecked wanderers by explaining that the gardens they conquered were always theirs to begin with — that they had brought civilization and enlightenment to the farmers, whose songs their children sung, without knowing where they had come from.
(Top image from D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths)
Historian Joshua Clark Davis has a terrific essay on how civil rights organizations, especially black power and black nationalist groups, helped spur a boom in black-owned bookstores in the US in the sixties and seventies. In turn, these bookstores became key organizing centers, arts hubs, and distributors of black literature and political information.
As late as 1966, most American cities—including major centers of black population such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Oakland, and New Orleans—had not had a single black-oriented bookstore. Each of the country’s largest cities and centers of black population, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, could claim one or in some cases two black-interest bookstores, most of which struggled to stay in business. Just a few years later, however, black bookstores were booming. Between 1965 and 1979, the number of black-themed bookstores in the United States skyrocketed from around a dozen to somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred. Most of these stores were owned and operated by activists with ties to a wide range of black radical groups, including the Black Panther Party, SNCC, the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, the East, and a variety of lesser-known groups in local communities across the country.
Indeed, the very idea that black people needed their own bookstores drew directly on black-nationalist values of institutional and community control. In the late 1960s and ’70s, black-owned bookstores thrived alongside other activist businesses that emerged out of the era’s social movements, including feminist storefronts, environmentalist natural food stores, and countercultural head shops that promoted the drug legalization and anti-war causes.
Davis’s book From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs looks at this wider post-60s world of counterculture commerce, and how those roots grew into some very unexpected branches. Exciting stuff.
Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler wrote a message to staff called “Covering Trump the Reuters Way.” After noting that “Reuters is a global news organization that reports independently and fairly in more than 100 countries, including many in which the media is unwelcome and frequently under attack,” he lays down some do’s and do-not-do’s1:
—Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.
—Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.
—Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.
—Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.
—Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”
—Never be intimidated, but:
—Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.
—Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the U.S., too.
—Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example - and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.
These are good rules. (That one about giving up on access and hand-outs is downright fire.) They’re particularly good rules for a place like Reuters, that has a specific style, tradition, and role in the news ecosystem.
But they’re not necessarily good rules for everybody. Different news organizations are going to need to fill different roles in the ecosystem, different spaces on the multiple axes of personal, political, intellectual, and business commitments. If Gawker were still here in its full glory, Nick Denton could write up “Covering Trump the Gawker Way” and it would probably be a totally different but equally valuable list of guidelines.
The other thing news organizations (and other companies too) will need to figure out in L’Age D’Trump are their commitments to their staff. Reporters and media organizations need legal protections so they can’t be prosecuted as criminals or sued by proxy billionaires for doing their job; but they also need to be able to talk freely about how to do their job and balance all of those commitments for themselves without being shown the door.
The pressure is going to be coming from a lot of directions, not always the obvious ones. When the stakes are this high, and the conditions this uncertain, it helps to allay as many uncertainties as possible. When the shit goes down, you need to know who’s going to have your back.
Melody Kramer is one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know in journalism. She has a new post up at Poynter talking about ways to design the news that take into account that news can be overwhelming.
People take breaks, go on vacations, have stretches where they can’t keep up, work weird hours, have different levels of interest and background knowledge, and so forth — but they still want to be informed, connected, and engaged.
How can we deal with that? Here’s one good idea:
We should allow people to check out or pause and return. I envision a website where someone can say how long they’d like to be away from the news and what kinds of news they’d like when they return. This could most easily be accomplished through newsletters. For example, a landing page might allow a user to say: “I am taking [XX] [days / weeks / months] off. When I come back, I’d like to be updated on [topics] on [this frequency.]”
Years ago, some of us called this “my time” or “TiVo time”: a personalized, time-shifted attention economy. (Actually, I don’t think anybody called it “TiVo time” but me. And maybe a few guys who worked for TiVo.)
And for a little while, say around 2000-2010, media consumption in the form of DVRs, IM chats, blogging (and commenting), RSS feeds, Netflix DVDs (by mail!), was sort of unconsciously driven by this principle. It was available in close-to-real-time, but you could dip in and out of the stream much more easily.
Then a lot of factors — including short-form social media, livestream video, Netflix bingeing, a resurgence of TV events, and maybe especially always-available mobile devices — pushed us back to a much more immediate and real-time immersion in media. This hasn’t always been to everyone’s benefit. Not all consumers’, and not all producers’ either.
Choosing between plunging in or checking out has become a much more all-or-nothing proposition. It doesn’t have to be that way. We know this. We already built a lot of the tech that lets us manage this. Now we just have to figure out the best ways to deploy it.
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