Drone footage of a Syrian city destroyed by warFEB 03

Until recently, the Syrian city of Homs was the country's third largest, with an estimated population of more than 800,000. As you can see from this drone footage, The Siege of Homs left much of the city destroyed and its population displaced.

If you scroll down in this Guardian piece, there's a photo showing what a Homs street looked like before and after the siege. (via @alexismadrigal)

Update: A pair of newlyweds recently posed for some wedding portraits in war-ravaged Homs. Bad idea or the worst idea?

Absolutely mind- and leg-bending acrobatic gymnastics routineFEB 03

The thing these three Russian women do starting at about 0:45 and continuing until about 1:20, is just flat-out amazing. Just watch. (via @dunstan)

A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry in the United StatesFEB 02

American Slave Coast

The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned & Constance Sublette is a book which offers an alternate view of slavery in the United States. Instead of treating slavery as a source of unpaid labor, as it is typically understood, they focus on the ownership aspect: people as property, merchandise, collateral, and capital. From a review of the book at Pacific Standard:

In fact, most American slaves were not kidnapped on another continent. Though over 12.7 million Africans were forced onto ships to the Western hemisphere, estimates only have 400,000-500,000 landing in present-day America. How then to account for the four million black slaves who were tilling fields in 1860? "The South," the Sublettes write, "did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people." Slavers called slave-breeding "natural increase," but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia's capital stock by four percent annually.

Here is how the American slave-breeding industry worked, according to the Sublettes: Some states (most importantly Virginia) produced slaves as their main domestic crop. The price of slaves was anchored by industry in other states that consumed slaves in the production of rice and sugar, and constant territorial expansion. As long as the slave power continued to grow, breeders could literally bank on future demand and increasing prices. That made slaves not just a commodity, but the closest thing to money that white breeders had. It's hard to quantify just how valuable people were as commodities, but the Sublettes try to convey it: By a conservative estimate, in 1860 the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, "most of it in the North," the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South's total farmland ($1.92 billion). Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.

Just reading that turns my stomach. The Sublettes also recast the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade as trade protectionism.

Virginia slaveowners won a major victory when Thomas Jefferson's 1808 prohibition of the African slave trade protected the domestic slave markets for slave-breeding.

I haven't read the book, but I imagine they touched on the fact that by growing slave populations, southern states were literally manufacturing more political representation due to the Three-Fifths clause in the US Constitution. They bred more slaves to help politically safeguard the practice of slavery.

Update: Because slaves were property, Southern slave owners could mortgage them to banks and then the banks could package the mortgages into bonds and sell the bonds to anyone anywhere in the world, even where slavery was illegal.

In the 1830s, powerful Southern slaveowners wanted to import capital into their states so they could buy more slaves. They came up with a new, two-part idea: mortgaging slaves; and then turning the mortgages into bonds that could be marketed all over the world.

First, American planters organized new banks, usually in new states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Drawing up lists of slaves for collateral, the planters then mortgaged them to the banks they had created, enabling themselves to buy additional slaves to expand cotton production. To provide capital for those loans, the banks sold bonds to investors from around the globe -- London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris. The bond buyers, many of whom lived in countries where slavery was illegal, didn't own individual slaves -- just bonds backed by their value. Planters' mortgage payments paid the interest and the principle on these bond payments. Enslaved human beings had been, in modern financial lingo, "securitized."

Slave-backed securities. My stomach is turning again. (via @daveg)

Update: Tyler Cowen read The American Slave Coast and listed a few things he learned from it.

2. President James Polk speculated in slaves, based on inside information he obtained from being President and shaping policy toward slaves and slave importation.

3. In the South there were slave "breeding farms," where the number of women and children far outnumbered the number of men.

The top 10 closing movie shots of all timeFEB 02

Um, spoilers. Their picks include 2001, Gangs of New York, The 400 Blows, and Inception. I really thought Cache would be on the list.

Trailer for the upcoming Lego + The Force Awakens video gameFEB 02

Lego and Disney are teaming up for a Star Wars: The Force Awakens video game, out this summer. The trailer for it is possibly more fun than the movie was and is well worth watching if you enjoyed The Lego Movie.

Oscar nominated films reimagined as Winnie the Pooh adventuresFEB 02

Twitter user @dilsexia posted the first one with the caption "The Revenant":

Pooh Oscars

Polish blogger Dawid Adamek ran with the idea and created several more Pooh/Oscar mashups:

Pooh Oscars

Pooh Oscars

Pooh Oscars

Trippy spinning optical illusionFEB 01

Spinning Optical Illusion

Somehow, this woman seems to be spinning both clockwise and counter-clockwise simultaneously. This is worse than the spinning ballerina. Anyone know who did this? Randomly found it on Facebook and couldn't trace the source back...

Infinite Jest turns 20FEB 01

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest turns 20 years old this month. To mark the occasion, the Harry Ransom Center, home of DFW's archive of papers, is posting some of the more interesting findings by visiting scholars. Here, for instance, is a letter written by Wallace to his editor a few months before IJ's publication.

DFW Letter To MP

(via @john_overholt)

Update: In a NY Times essay adapted from his forward to an upcoming 20th anniversary edition of IJ, Tom Bissell reflects on why Infinite Jest still resonates 20 years later.

In interviews, Wallace was explicit that art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment: "Fiction's about what it is to be a ... human being." And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace's work generally and "Infinite Jest" specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time and any resolution of its quadrumvirate plotlines. "Infinite Jest," in other words, can be exceedingly frustrating. To fully understand what Wallace was up to, the book bears being read, and reread, with Talmudic focus and devotion. For many Wallace readers this is asking too much. For many Wallace fans this is asking too much.

I Hate the Lord of the RingsFEB 01

Remy Porter hates The Lord of the Rings because it feels too much like work, too much like "every crappy enterprise IT project". The tale begins with Gandalf, a legacy systems developer who pushes off important work onto Bilbo, who reluctantly became a developer after becoming proficient at spreadsheet macros. I wasn't expecting too much from this video b/c of the title, but it's a surprisingly entertaining analogy.

Bill Gates' tribute to Richard Feynman, "The Best Teacher I Never Had"JAN 29

As part of a celebration of the legacy of Richard Feynman at Caltech this week, Bill Gates contributed a video about what he learned from Feynman.

In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge -- you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.

I love that video as well...just watched it again and it's so so good.

Quantum Chess: Stephen Hawking vs Paul RuddJAN 29

So, this is a time travel movie with Keanu Reeves (narrator) and Alex Winter (director), but it's not Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Part 3? No, of course not. It's actually a video about quantum chess featuring Paul Rudd, Stephen Hawking, and music from The Matrix. Like, WHAT?! If The Chickening hadn't dropped earlier, this would be the oddest thing you'll watch this week. (And it's not quite clear, but the video appears to be an advertisement for a quantum chess game that's launching on Kickstarter next week. Nothing about this makes any sense...) (via @gavinpurcell)

Every Oscar Best Picture winner everJAN 29

As we gear up for the upcoming Oscars... Ok, let's stop right there. There are a lot of problems with the Oscars, starting with diversity, but I just love movies. And this review of every Best Picture winner is a fun trip through motion picture history.

Oh, and here's a look at all of the films nominated for Oscars this year (not just for Best Picture):

There are lots of movies from the past year I haven't seen yet (The Revenant, Carol, Creed, Anomalisa), but the best 2015 movie I saw was The Big Short. Spotlight and Mad Max were up there as well.

A house with a rooftop infinity poolJAN 29

Roof Infinity Pool

I don't know how practical this is -- for one thing, how do you get into it? -- but this house with a rooftop infinity pool is stunning. Design by Kois Associated Architects.

On the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disasterJAN 28

Today is the 30th anniversary of the final launch and subsequent catastrophic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Popular Mechanics has an oral history of the launch and aftermath.

Capano: We got the kids quiet, and then I remember that the line that came across the TV was "The vehicle has exploded." One of the girls in my classroom said, "Ms. Olson [Capano's maiden name], what do they mean by 'the vehicle'?" And I looked at her and I said, "I think they mean the shuttle." And she got very upset with me. She said, "No! No! No! They don't mean the shuttle! They don't mean the shuttle!"

Raymond: The principal came over the PA system and said something like, "We respectfully request that the media leave the building now. Now." Some of the press left, but some of them took off into the school. They started running into the halls to get pictures, to get sound-people were crying, people were running. It was chaos. Some students started chasing after journalists to physically get them out of the school.

I have certainly read about Feynman's O-ring demonstration during the investigation of the disaster, but I hadn't heard this bit:

Kutyna: On STS-51C, which flew a year before, it was 53 degrees [at launch, then the coldest temperature recorded during a shuttle launch] and they completely burned through the first O-ring and charred the second one. One day [early in the investigation] Sally Ride and I were walking together. She was on my right side and was looking straight ahead. She opened up her notebook and with her left hand, still looking straight ahead, gave me a piece of paper. Didn't say a single word. I look at the piece of paper. It's a NASA document. It's got two columns on it. The first column is temperature, the second column is resiliency of O-rings as a function of temperature. It shows that they get stiff when it gets cold. Sally and I were really good buddies. She figured she could trust me to give me that piece of paper and not implicate her or the people at NASA who gave it to her, because they could all get fired.

I wondered how I could introduce this information Sally had given me. So I had Feynman at my house for dinner. I have a 1973 Opel GT, a really cute car. We went out to the garage, and I'm bragging about the car, but he could care less about cars. I had taken the carburetor out. And Feynman said, "What's this?" And I said, "Oh, just a carburetor. I'm cleaning it." Then I said, "Professor, these carburetors have O-rings in them. And when it gets cold, they leak. Do you suppose that has anything to do with our situation?" He did not say a word. We finished the night, and the next Tuesday, at the first public meeting, is when he did his O-ring demonstration.

We were sitting in three rows, and there was a section of the shuttle joint, about an inch across, that showed the tang and clevis [the two parts of the joint meant to be sealed by the O-ring]. We passed this section around from person to person. It hit our row and I gave it to Feynman, expecting him to pass it on. But he put it down. He pulled out pliers and a screwdriver and pulled out the section of O-ring from this joint. He put a C-clamp on it and put it in his glass of ice water. So now I know what he's going to do. It sat there for a while, and now the discussion had moved on from technical stuff into financial things. I saw Feynman's arm going out to press the button on his microphone. I grabbed his arm and said, "Not now." Pretty soon his arm started going out again, and I said, "Not now!" We got to a point where it was starting to get technical again, and I said, "Now." He pushed the button and started the demonstration. He took the C-clamp off and showed the thing does not bounce back when it's cold. And he said the now-famous words, "I believe that has some significance for our problem." That night it was all over television and the next morning in the Washington Post and New York Times. The experiment was fantastic-the American public had short attention spans and they didn't understand technology, but they could understand a simple thing like rubber getting hard.

I never talked with Sally about it later. We both knew what had happened and why it had happened, but we never discussed it. I kept it a secret that she had given me that piece of paper until she died [in 2012].

Whoa, dang. Also not well known is that the astronauts survived the initial explosion and were possibly alive and conscious when they hit the water two and a half minutes later.

Over the December holiday, I read 10:04 by Ben Lerner (quickly, recommended). The novel includes a section on the Challenger disaster and how very few people saw it live:

The thing is, almost nobody saw it live: 1986 was early in the history of cable news, and although CNN carried the launch live, not that many of us just happened to be watching CNN in the middle of a workday, a school day. All other major broadcast stations had cut away before the disaster. They all came back quickly with taped replays, of course. Because of the Teacher in Space Project, NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the mission into television sets in many schools -- and that's how I remember seeing it, as does my older brother. I remember tears in Mrs. Greiner's eyes and the students' initial incomprehension, some awkward laughter. But neither of us did see it: Randolph Elementary School in Topeka wasn't part of that broadcast. So unless you were watching CNN or were in one of the special classrooms, you didn't witness it in the present tense.

Oh, the malleability of memory. I remember seeing it live too, at school. My 7th grade English teacher permanently had a TV in her room and because of the schoolteacher angle of the mission, she had arranged for us to watch the launch, right at the end of class. I remember going to my next class and, as I was the first student to arrive, telling the teacher about the accident. She looked at me in disbelief and then with horror as she realized I was not the sort of kid who made terrible stuff like that up. I don't remember the rest of the day and now I'm doubting if it happened that way at all. Only our classroom and a couple others watched it live -- there wasn't a specially arranged whole-school event -- and I doubt my small school had a satellite dish to receive the special broadcast anyway. Nor would we have had cable to get CNN...I'm not even sure cable TV was available in our rural WI town at that point. So...?

But, I do remember the jokes. The really super offensive jokes. The jokes actually happened. Again, from 10:04:

I want to mention another way information circulated through the country in 1986 around the Challenger disaster, and I think those of you who are more or less my age will know what I'm talking about: jokes. My brother, who is three and a half years older than I, would tell me one after another as we walked to and from Randolph Elementary that winter: Did you know that Christa McAuliffe was blue-eyed? One blew left and one blew right; What were Christa McAuliffe's last words to her husband? You feed the kids -- I'll feed the fish; What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts; How do they know what shampoo Christa McAuliffe used? They found her head and shoulders. And so on: the jokes seemed to come out of nowhere, or to come from everywhere at once; like cicadas emerging from underground, they were ubiquitous for a couple of months, then disappeared. Folklorists who study what they call 'joke cycles' track how -- particularly in times of collective anxiety -- certain humorous templates get recycled, often among children.

At the time, I remember these jokes being hilarious1 but also a little horrifying. Lerner continues:

The anonymous jokes we were told and retold were our way of dealing with the remainder of the trauma that the elegy cycle initiated by Reagan-Noonan-Magee-Hicks-Dunn-C.A.F.B. (and who knows who else) couldn't fully integrate into our lives.

Reminds me of how children in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps dealt with their situation by playing inappropriate games.

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying.

  1. Also, does anyone remember the dead baby jokes? They were all the rage when I was a kid. There were books of them. "Q: What do you call a dead baby with no arms and no legs laying on a beach? A: Sandy." And we thought they were funny as hell.

Chinese nicknames for American pop starsJAN 28

Ethnographer Christina Xu discovered a few of the nicknames that young Chinese fans have devised for American pop stars.

Nicki Minaj - 麻辣鸡 (má là ji): a slant transliteration of "Minaj". Means spicy chicken (ma la is a spice combo commonly used in Sichuan cooking).

Drake - 公鸭 (gōng yā): Literally "male duck", as in the definition of a "drake". I laughed out loud when I finally figured this one out.

Kanye West - 侃爷 (kǎn yé): a transliteration of Kanye. In Beijing dialect, this means someone who brags a lot with no actions to follow it up.

Update: According to @billyroh's coworker, Rihanna is known to some as "the Pop Queen of Shandong Province".

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