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The ABCs of Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2017

I know, I know. This is a car commercial and it’s morbid and at this moment in time it’s not really that funny, but it caught me at just the right time today and I laughed harder at this than I have at something in several weeks. So I guess even ad agencies are capable of enabling righteous acts (or at least inappropriately hilarious acts) these days?

We Work Remotely

A super-simple recipe for creamy mac & cheese

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2017

After tinkering in the kitchen for weeks, Kenji Lopez-Alt has discovered a super-simple recipe for macaroni & cheese that uses only three ingredients and takes about ten minutes to make.

The idea for this came from working on my recipe for cacio e pepe, the Roman pasta and cheese dish. In that recipe, I cook spaghetti in a small volume of water, using the starchy pasta water to emulsify the cheese into a creamy sauce. I wondered if the same thing would work for an American-style macaroni and cheese, using a much higher ratio of cheese to pasta and using cheddar in place of pecorino.

It didn’t quite work the first time — the high proportion of cheese caused the sauce to break and turn greasy — but with a few tweaks, I nailed it.

Need to try this soon.

The 10th anniversary of the iPhone

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2017

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the iPhone.

In the ten years since, iPhone has enriched the lives of people around the world with over one billion units sold. It quickly grew into a revolutionary platform for hardware, software and services integration, and inspired new products, including iPad and Apple Watch, along with millions of apps that have become essential to people’s daily lives.

You can watch Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone during the MacWorld 2007 keynote in the video above; it’s one of the best technology demos ever. Here’s my liveblog of the keynote, my thoughts from a couple of days later, and my review after getting an iPhone in June. (I also constructed a cardboard version of the phone to see how the size compared to my then-current mobile phone.)

I guess we know why iPod development has seemed a little sluggish lately. When the Zune came out two months ago, it was thought that maybe Apple was falling behind, coasting on the fumes of an aging product line, and not innovating in the portable music player space anymore. I think the iPhone puts this discussion on the back burner for now. And the Zune? The supposed iPod-killer’s bullet ricocheted off of the iPhone’s smooth buttonless interface and is heading back in the wrong direction. Rest in peace, my gentle brown friend.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the iPhone on the world. In just 10 short years, smartphones have completely and irreversibly changed how a large part of humanity communicates and is quickly changing how the rest will. And that all started with the iPhone. As I noted at the time, you could see a product like this coming but Apple put it all together in a way that became the blueprint, for better and for worse, for every device and mobile application that followed. Not bad for a computer that didn’t have copy/paste when it launched.

I Am Not Your Negro

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2017

This is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro, a film that “finishes” a book that writer James Baldwin was working on when he died.

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript.

Now, in his incendiary new documentary, master filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and flood of rich archival material. I Am Not Your Negro is a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. It is a film that questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of these three leaders, Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges the very definition of what America stands for.

The reviews so far are uniformly positive.

I don’t know about you, but those clips of Baldwin speaking in the trailer piqued my interest, so I’m going to make some time tonight to watch some Baldwin talks, speeches, and debates on YouTube: a 1969 talk in London, a 1963 debate with Malcolm X (audio only), a 1963 panel on civil rights w/ Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, and Charlton Heston, and his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley on the question “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”

Meryl Streep on our current political moment

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2017

Last night, as she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep made some comments about the current political situation and about Donald Trump in particular (although she never mentioned him by name). The clip above (which may not last long on YouTube) is worth watching.

But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose. OK, go on with it.

And the NY Times — in an effort to “get both sides” of the story, I guess? — ran a story that I’m not going to link to called “Donald Trump Says He’s Not Surprised by Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech”. Is it newsworthy, what he thought of Streep’s remarks? Unless he agrees with her and plans to honestly reevaluate how he treats others when he speaks, I would argue it’s not at all worth printing what’s essentially a Trump press release full of bullshit. And news outlets that actually care about the truth and not just printing spin should stop doing it.

The dazzling and depressing architecture of density in megacities

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf

I’ve featured the work of photographer Michael Wolf here before, particularly his series of photos taken in Hong Kong called Architecture of Density, photographs which capture the immense scale of the city’s apartment buildings and the smallness of the apartment they contain. Another of his projects is 100x100, interior photographs of 100 Hong Kong dwellings that measure 100 square feet or less in size. (See also Hong Kong Cage Homes.)

In this pair of videos, Wolf discusses these projects and a couple of other ones I hadn’t seen before.

In Tokyo Compression, Wolf captures the boredom and despair of Japanese train commuters, smushed into cars dampened by the heat of humanity. For Back Door, he ventured into the alleys of Hong Kong and witnessed people using the infrastructure of the city for storing, sorting, and drying all sorts of things, from after-work clothes to mops to lettuce. (via craig mod)

How to be productive in terrible times

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

In Productivity in Terrible Times, Eileen Webb writes about the challenges of getting things done in the face of uncertain and worrisome times and offers some strategies that might help.

When your heart is worried for your Muslim friends, and deep in your bones you’re terrified about losing access to healthcare, it’s very hard to respond graciously to an email inquiring about the latest microsite analytics numbers. “THE WORLD IS BURNING. I will have those content model updates ready by Thursday. Sincerely, and with abject terror, Eileen.”

It is not tenable to quit my job and hie off to Planned Parenthood HQ and wait for them to make use of my superior content organizing skills. It is not a good idea for you to resign from stable work that supports your family and community because you’re no longer satisfied by SQL queries.

I don’t know about you, but I have been struggling mightily with this very thing. I’ve always had difficulty believing that the work I do here is in some way important to the world and since the election, that feeling has blossomed into a profound guilt-ridden anxiety monster. I mean, who in the actual fuck cares about the new Blade Runner movie or how stamps are designed (or Jesus, the blurry ham) when our government is poised for a turn towards corruption and authoritarianism?

I have come up with some reasons why my work here does matter, at least to me, but I’m not sure they’re good ones. In the meantime, I’m pressing on because my family and I rely on my efforts here and because I hope that in some small way my work, as Webb writes, “is capable of enabling righteous acts”.

Update: Meteorologist Eric Holthaus recently shared how he copes with working on climate change day after day.

I’m starting my 11th year working on climate change, including the last 4 in daily journalism. Today I went to see a counselor about it. I’m saying this b/c I know many ppl feel deep despair about climate, especially post-election. I struggle every day. You are not alone. There are days where I literally can’t work. I’ll read a story & shut down for rest of the day. Not much helps besides exercise & time. The counselor said: “Do what you can”, which I think is simple & powerful advice. I’m going to start working a lot more on mindfulness. Despair is natural when there’s objective evidence of a shared existential problem we’re not addressing adequately. You feel alone.

I also wanted to thank those who reached out on Twitter and email about this post…I really appreciate your thoughts. One reader sent along this passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

(thx, gil)

“When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

Climate change has shifted from being a scientific issue to a political issue, both because the science is settled1 and because conservatives have embraced climate denialism. As a result, when deep-sea biologist Andrew Thaler talks to people about climate change, he doesn’t talk about science. He talks to people about things like fishing:

Fishermen know that things are changing, that black bass, scup, and butterfish (an important prey species in the tuna fishery) are moving further and further north. Oystermen know that the increasingly high high tides have a negative effect on the recruitment and growth of commercial oysters. More importantly, fishing communities have records and cultural knowledge that go back centuries, and they can see from multi-generational experience that the seasons are less predictable now than in the past and that the changes taking place today are nothing like the more gradual changes of previous generations.

And flooding:

I know fishermen in Guinea living in houses that have stood for hundreds of years. Some of those houses now flood at high tide. Every high tide. They weren’t built at the water’s edge, the water’s edge came to them. I lived in the same house in Beaufort, North Carolina for ten years. When I moved in, we were high and dry. Now our street has a permanent “high water” sign. The farm I just left in coastal Virginia is inundated after heavy rains or strong tidal surges. The front fields, which once held vibrant gardens, now nurture short grass and salty soil.

And other things like farming and faith. People who aren’t scientists and have grown distrustful of them won’t be convinced by science. But they will believe stories that relate to important matters in their lives. (via @EricHolthaus)

  1. Overwhelmingly, science says the Earth’s climate is warming quickly and humans are the cause.

Is this ham blurry or in focus?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2017

Blurry Ham

Is this a blurry photo of some sliced ham? Or is the ham perfectly in focus? This is a gnarly optical illusion, that’s for sure. Even when I force myself to realize the photo is in focus, that ham still looks blurry. (via digg)

Beijing smog time lapse

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

Covering an actual time of 20 minutes, you can watch this time lapse of smog rolling into Beijing in a matter of a few seconds. The NY Times has a short piece on the video, which was filmed on January 2.

Residents have come to expect such dense air pollution in the late fall and winter, as people burn coal to heat their homes. Recently, the problem has been particularly bad, and the city has been enveloped in smog for extended periods starting in October.

Mr. Pope, writing on Twitter, pegged the air quality index, a measure of the pollution, above 400 around the time of the video. The United States government rates readings of 301 to 500 as “hazardous.”

What a disaster…and the air wasn’t that clear before the smog rolled in. I’ve been to Beijing once, back in 1995, and even though I’d love to see how the city has changed over the past 20 years, I have no interest in returning until they get their air quality under control.

Update: And it’s not just Beijing; cities around the world are struggling with pollution. Parts of London have blown through their annual 2017 emissions limits in just 5 days.

By law, hourly levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide must not be more than 200 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) more than 18 times in a whole year, but late on Thursday this limit was broken on Brixton Road in Lambeth.

Many other sites across the capital will go on to break the annual limit and Putney High Street exceeded the hourly limit over 1,200 times in 2016. Oxford Street, Kings Road in Chelsea and the Strand are other known pollution hotspots.

Disney’s multiplane camera, an innovation in illusion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

In a short film shot in 1957, Walt Disney described the multiplane camera, one of the many inventions and innovations his company had developed in order to produce more realistic and affecting animations. Instead of shooting single cels of animation on a single movable background, the multiplane camera could shoot several independently moving backgrounds, creating a sense of depth and perspective. A 1938 article in Popular Mechanics explained how the camera works.

Disney wanted to increase the eye value of the many paintings making up a picture by achieving a soft-focus effect on the backgrounds, illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating” background from foreground, thus keeping background objects to their proper relative size.

His production crew labored for three years to perfect the novel picture-taking device to achieve these results. It consists of four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages may be shifted both horizontally and vertically. On each carriage rides a frame containing a sheet of celluloid, on which is painted part of the action or background.

Resembling a printing press, the camera stands eleven feet tall and is six feet square. Made with almost micrometer precision, it permits the photographing of foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first is held firmly in place two feet from the lens and the lowest rests in its frame nine feet away. Where the script calls for the camera to “truck up” for a close-up, the lens actually remains stationary, while the various cels are moved upward. By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features, retain their relative sizes.

After being deployed on a short film as a test, the multiplane camera was used to film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film. In the chapter on “Illusion” in his newest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson writes that the use of the multiplane camera (along with other innovations in animation developed since the days of Steamboat Willie) had a profound effect on audiences.

All of these technical and procedural breakthroughs summed up to an artistic one: Snow White was the first animated film to feature both visual and emotional depth. It pulled at the heartstrings in a way that even live-action films had failed to do. This, more than anything, is why Snow White marks a milestone in the history of illusion. “No animated cartoon had ever looked like Snow White,” Disney’s biographer Neil Gabler writes, “and certainly none had packed its emotional wallop.” Before the film was shown to an audience, Disney and his team debated whether it might just be powerful enough to provoke tears — an implausible proposition given the shallow physical comedy that had governed every animated film to date. But when Snow White debuted at the Carthay Circle Theatre, near L.A.’s Hancock Park, on December 21, 1937, the celebrity audience was heard audibly sobbing during the final sequences where the dwarfs discover their poisoned princess and lay garlands of flowers on her. It was an experience that would be repeated a billion times over the decades to follow, but it happened there at the Carthay Circle first: a group of human beings gathered in a room and were moved to tears by hand-drawn static images flickering in the light.

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion — the dancing mouse is whistling! — into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Interestingly, the multiplane camera also seems to be an instance of simultaneous invention (a concept also covered by Johnson in an earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From). In addition to Disney’s multiplane camera, there were a few earlier earlier efforts and it’s unclear whether they were invented independently or how one inventor influenced another. But one thing is for certain: only Disney’s camera was deployed so skillfully and artfully that it changed cinema and our culture forever.1

  1. Without getting into it (too much), I can’t help thinking of Pixar’s push to make Toy Story. There’s always an emphasis on the technology with Pixar, but Lasseter and the rest of them were huge animation nerds…and Walt Disney nerds in particular. They were interested in telling stories and they believed, like Disney, that developing new technologies could help them do that more effectively. Toy Story was Pixar’s Snow White and their subsequent movies (Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Ratatouille) have shown how successful they were in telling affecting stories with 3D computer animation.

How Do I Explain America to My Black Son?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

In November, shortly after the election, Vann Newkirk wrote an article for The Atlantic called This Is Who We Are, a reflection on racism in America.

At a gas station just outside of Rockingham, serendipity found us. As we pulled up to the pump, just there in front of our car was Mr. Confederate Plate, leaning like all villains do against the side of his car. I’m not sure who recognized whom first, but I remember the shouting match, and Mr. Confederate Flag calling my father the one name he would never answer to, looking at me and saying the same, and then pantomiming that he had a gun in the car. I remember looking around at similar flags on another truck and inside the gas station, and knowing instinctively that we were not in friendly territory. I also remember my father shaking with rage and that same hot shame as my own when he climbed back in the truck.

After another cussing fit, Vann Newkirk Sr. looked at me and said the thing that’s always stuck with me since. “This is who we are,” he told me. “Don’t forget.” And we went back down the road.

The piece was adapted into the short video above. Both are worth your time.

What are we but a fire?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

An excerpt from Elisa Chavez’s poem “Revenge” in the Seattle Review of Books:

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

This is a powerful poem, and I laughed out loud so hard to the “This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw” line.

Medium’s pivot and the inherent instability of new businesses

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

From this piece by Evan Williams, it sounds like Medium is still trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like. This strategy is more focused but also less proven. It will require time to get it right, as well as some different skills. Which is why we are taking these steps today and saying goodbye to many talented people.

I like Medium and read thoughtful & engaging stuff on there daily, including articles by the many publications that moved their entire publishing operations to Medium and who were caught off-guard by Williams’ announcement:

As part of the strategic pivot, Medium will lay off 50 staffers and close its satellite offices in New York and Washington. It will also stop selling “Promoted Stories,” its native ad unit, and distributing revenue from those sales to publishers.

Medium’s exit from the online ad business was news to some of its publishing partners, many of whom have come to depend on the publishing platform as a key source of revenue. More than two dozen publications are members of Medium’s revenue beta program, which allows them to sell paid subscriptions to readers and to receive a cut of Medium’s native advertising revenue.

Five members of the revenue beta program told POLITICO that they did not receive any advance notice of Medium’s change in strategy before Williams’ public announcement. One publishing partner only learned about the pivot after reading an article about it on the tech news site Recode.

Over the past year, when I was thinking about how best to steward kottke.org into a financially stable future, moving to Medium was definitely an option. But never, in my mind, a very serious option. It was just too many eggs in one basket for a small publisher like me, especially when Medium is still obviously trying to figure out if they’re even in the egg-carrying business. New businesses are unstable…that’s just the way it is.1 In Silicon Valley (and in other startup-rich areas), these unstable businesses have lots of someone else’s money to throw around — which makes them appear more stable in the short term — but they cannot escape the reality of the extreme risk involved in building a new business, particularly a business that needs to grow quickly (as almost all VC-backed startups are required to do). All of which can make it difficult to enter into a business arrangement with a startup…just ask publishers working with Facebook or businesses dependent on Twitter’s API or Vine or Tumblr, not to mention the thousands of startups that have ceased to exist over the years.

With kottke.org, even though it hasn’t been easy, I’ve opted for independence and control over a potential rocketship ride. Instead of moving the site to Medium or Tumblr or focusing my activities on one social network or another, I use third-party services like The Deck, Amazon Associates, Stripe, and Memberful that plug in to the site. Small pieces loosely joined, not a monolithic solution. If necessary, I can switch any of them out for a comparable service and am therefore not as subject to any potential change in business goals by these companies. Given the news out of Medium, I’m increasingly happy that I’ve decided to do it this way (with your very kind assistance).

  1. I will add that new services by large companies are unstable as well. They need to reach scale just as quickly as VC-backed startups or they don’t stick around that long or pivot to something else.

How to put on a duvet cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2017

Here’s a technique for putting a comforter inside a duvet cover that involves rolling the whole thing up “like a burrito” and then two solid pieces of matter somehow pass through each other? I dunno, that is some goddamned witchcraft that defies the laws of physics and topology and is probably related to at least one of the Millennium Prize Problems. I don’t know if it’s easier than doing it the normal way1 but it certainly is more entertaining.

See also how to fold a fitted sheet and how to fold a t-shirt in two seconds.

  1. And by “the normal way” I mean getting both top corners of the comforter in the corresponding corners of the cover, stuffing the rest of the comforter inside the cover, and giving it a couple of shakes while holding the top edge until it settles in…and not whatever infomercial-ish head-inside-the-cover shenanigans the woman was attempting in the video. Once you get this down, it doesn’t really take that long.