Live: Sigur Ros circles Iceland with generative soundtrackJUN 20

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

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

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

The early works of the D'AulairesTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 17

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

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

Daulaires-Lincoln.jpg

Microsoft/LinkedIn fan fictionTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 13

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

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

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

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

How "My Boo" got its nameTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hat-tip: @xohulk, @myhairisblue)

Facebook is wrong, text is deathlessTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world's first chatbot lawyerJUN 29

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

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

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

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

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

On bullshit and Donald TrumpJUN 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of Star Wars Ep. IV in one infographicJUN 01

Star Wars Infographic

Star Wars Infographic

Star Wars Infographic

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

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

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

This week's guest host: Tim CarmodyTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 13

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

rating: 4.0 stars

The Truman ShowMAY 26

The Truman Show delusion is how some psychiatrists are describing the condition of psychotic patients who believe they are filmed stars of reality TV programs.

Another patient traveled to New York City and showed up at a federal building in downtown Manhattan seeking asylum so he could get off his reality show, Dr. Gold said. The patient reported that he also came to New York to see if the Twin Towers were still standing, because he believed that seeing their destruction on Sept. 11 on television was part of his reality show. If they were still standing, he said, then he would know that the terrorist attack was all part of the script.

As for the movie itself, for all its popularity and critical success when released, it's little-remembered today. And unfairly so; the "realness" about our increasingly mediated lives remains a hot topic of debate.

2016 Presidential election oddsJUN 30

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

538 Trump Hillary

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

Britain votes to leave the EUJUN 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain just played itself.

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

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

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

Newspaper front pages about BrexitJUN 24

Economist Brexit

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

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

New Yorker Brexit

Ah, Monty Python.

How do stealth aircraft avoid radar detection?MAY 31

The B-2 stealth bomber has a length of 69 feet and a wingspan of 172 feet but possesses the radar profile of a large bird. How does the plane evade radar so effectively?

RIP Bill CunninghamJUN 25

Bill Cunningham

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

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

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

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

John Oliver takes on the debt buying industryJUN 06

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

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

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

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

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

Motion capture dance madnessJUN 11

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

rating: 1.0 stars

Room 237SEP 25

John Gruber's tweet last night reminded me I'd never written up a review for Room 237, the documentary about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Gruber writes:

Broke down and watched "Room 237". It was bad. Really bad. Boring bad. Crazy people.

Just watch "The Shining" again instead.

I agree. I watched it earlier this year and disliked the film so much, I didn't even finish it, which is rare for me. As I hinted at on Twitter, I'm exposed to enough anti-vaccine, anti-evolution, anti-anthropogenic climate change, anti-science, and religious fundamentalist "theories" in my day-to-day reading that are genuinely harmful to humanity that an examination of how the minds of conspiracy theory crackpots take the smallest little details and weave them into fantastical stories that make no sense is not how I want to spend my time.

As if to underscore my dislike of the film, the following arrived in my inbox shortly after I watched it.

To: Jason Kottke <jason@kottke.org>
Prospective Story: Re: Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"

i'm not good at salesmanship so i'll get right to the point. i've solved the mystery of room 237 in stanley kubrick's 'the shining' i'm shopping this information to various media sources. here's the deal:

*** the price is $13,000.00

*** i'm aware of the documentaries, the scholarly analyses and the terrabytes of web space dedicated to the topic

*** nobody has gottten it right

*** i guarantee satisfaction

*** there's no risk. either you think the solution to the greatest cinematic mystery of all time is worth 13k or you don't. all i require beforehand is a conditional agreement protecting me from ip theft

*** i remain anonymous. once the transaction is complete the information is yours. i don't care who receives credit or what you do with it

it's been over 30 years. this information should be public. YOU can be the first.

i look forward to your response

Putting on my tin foil hat for a minute, DONT YOU SHEEPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS? That someone is watching what I'm watching! How did this person know I had just watched Room 237?! I bet it's the NSA! Or something! They are watching for people with large audiences to plant lies about Kubrick to deflect attention away from the faked Moon landing! For some reason! THIS IS THE PROOF WEVE BEEN WAITING FOR!??

Yep: "Really bad. Boring bad. Crazy people."

A deeper metaphorJUN 22

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

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

Michael Lewis on irrationality in human decision-makingJUN 06

Michael Lewis Undoing

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

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

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

The changing American dietJUN 08

American Eating Habits Infoviz

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

Hussam and the Death WayJUN 02

Hussam Death Way

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

The definitive oral history of Die HardJUN 30

Die Hard

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

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

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

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

The Amazon EchoJUN 23

Amazon Echo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new DJ Shadow album: The Mountain Will FallJUN 25

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

On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe ItselfJUN 23

Big Picture Carroll

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

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

Yeah, that sounds right up my alley.

Create Your Own EconomyAPR 22

Create Your Own Economy

I don't think he's talked about it on his site yet, but Tyler Cowen has a new book coming out called Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.

As economist Tyler Cowen boldly shows in Create Your Own Economy, the way we think now is changing more rapidly than it has in a very long time. Not since the Industrial Revolution has a man-made creation -- in this case, the World Wide Web -- so greatly influenced the way our minds work and our human potential. Cowen argues brilliantly that we are breaking down cultural information into ever-smaller tidbits, ordering and reordering them in our minds (and our computers) to meet our own specific needs.

Create Your Own Economy explains why the coming world of Web 3.0 is good for us; why social networking sites such as Facebook are so necessary; what's so great about "Tweeting" and texting; how education will get better; and why politics, literature, and philosophy will become richer. This is a revolutionary guide to life in the new world.

I never properly reviewed Cowen's last book (sorry!), but I found it as enlightening and entertaining as Marginal Revolution is. (via david archer)

From Winnie Cooper to math whizJUN 03

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

Wild ideas to slow or reverse climate changeTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 14

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

2001: A Picasso OdysseyJUN 09

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

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

Time lapse of two hydroelectric dams being torn downJUN 20

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

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

An atlas of audiovisual artifacts and glitchesJUN 09

Skew Error

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

The 50th LawJUN 23

The 50th Law

Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, which has been influential in both halls of business and hip-hop circles, has written a new book with rapper 50 Cent called The 50th Law. Greene was initially skeptical of 50 Cent as a co-author but was impressed by their initial meeting.

He was in the midst of a power struggle with a rival rapper and he talked quite openly about the strategies he was employing, including mistakes he had made along the way. He analyzed his own actions with detachment, as if he were talking about another person. Over the last few years he had witnessed a lot of nasty maneuvering within the music business, and he seemed to want to discuss this with somebody from the outside. He was not interested in myths but reality. Contrary to his public persona, he had a Zen-like calmness that impressed me.

The main theme of the book is about fear and "the reverse power that you can obtain by overcoming [it]".

We found stories from his own life that would illustrate these ideas, many of them culled from his days as a hustler and even highlighting mistakes along the way that taught him valuable lessons. Later, from my own research, I would bring in examples from other historical figures who exemplified this trait. Many of them would be African Americans--Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter, et al--whose fearless quality was forged by their harsh struggles against racism. Others would come from all periods and cultures--the Stoics, Joan of Arc, JFK, Leonardo da Vinci, Mao tse-tung, and so on.

"Frog and Toad and the Self"MAY 27

Frog And Toad

Bert Clere wrote a nice appreciation for the children's books of Arnold Lobel, among them the Frog and Toad series and Owl at Home. Clere says Lobel's stories offered insights for children about, yes, friendship but also about the importance of individuality.

Lobel's Frog and Toad series, published in four volumes containing five stories each during the 1970s, remains his most popular and enduring work. Frog and Toad, two very different characters, make something of an odd couple. Their friendship demonstrates the many ups and downs of human attachment, touching on deep truths about life, philosophy, and human nature in the process. But it isn't all about relationships with others: In the series, and in his lesser-known 1975 book Owl at Home, Lobel offers a conception of the self that still resonates decades later. Throughout his books, he reminds readers that they are individuals, and that they shouldn't be afraid of being themselves.

Frog and Toad are favorites at our house. I'm going to read them to the kids this weekend with a new appreciation. Wanting to fit into the group is a powerful impulse for children, reinforced these days by the increased focus on group work in schools, so it's nice to have a counterpoint to share with them.

Update: From the New Yorker's Colin Stokes, another appreciation of Arnold Lobel. Lobel's daughter Adrianne suspects the Frog & Toad books were "the beginning of him coming out" of the closet.

Adrianne suspects that there's another dimension to the series's sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are "of the same sex, and they love each other," she told me. "It was quite ahead of its time in that respect." In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. "I think 'Frog and Toad' really was the beginning of him coming out," Adrianne told me.

The article also sadly notes that Lobel died at age 54, "an early victim of the AIDS crisis". (via @bdeskin)

Exploring flyover country on your phoneMAY 27

Grand Canyon Plane

The app Flyover Country, built by a team at the University of Minnesota, uses GPS to tell you what interesting features you're currently flying over.

Learn about the world along the path of your flight, hike, or road trip with GPS tracking. Offline geologic maps and interactive points of interest reveal the locations of fossils, core samples, and georeferenced Wikipedia articles visible from your airplane window seat, road trip, or hiking trail vista.

More on the app from Fast Company. (via @feltron whose book came out the other day!)

rating: 4.5 stars

Inglourious BasterdsDEC 18

This is pretty much the point at which I knew I was going to love Inglourious Basterds:

Inglourious Basterds

Although I can sure see why someone might hate it; the film rode that razor's edge all the way through.

How do airplane black boxes work?JUN 21

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

Coming out to immigrant parentsTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 14

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

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

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

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

NASA's Juno mission to JupiterJUN 28

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

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

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

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

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

Are you your body? And which half of your brain is you?MAY 31

Kurzgesagt and CGPGrey collaborated on a pair of videos about the self. The first video considers the human being as a collection of cells. How many of those cells can you take away before you stop being you? And does that question even make sense? The second video notes that if you sever the connection between the two halves of the human brain, they will each seemingly continue to operate as separate entities. But which of those entities is you? Are there two yous?

How Gromit from Wallace and Gromit is builtMAY 31

How Gromit Is Made

Aardman's films and shows (particularly Shaun the Sheep) are some of my favorite things to watch with the kids. Animator Merlin Crossingham shares how the Gromit character is built, from his stainless steel skeleton on up.

In the first film, A Grand Day Out, Nick was going to make Gromit speak and had planned a whole mouth design. The first time he animated Gromit, however, he found that the way the character could communicate using body language and expressive eyebrows was much more powerful than by speaking. So he made a snap decision not to give Gromit a voice, which he's stuck to. Our good animators are able to let you know instantly what the model is thinking or doing.

(via @bdeskin)

The Star Wars prequels predicted our current political momentJUN 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange MapsOCT 29

Strange Maps

The Strange Maps book is out today. The book is based on the awesome Strange Maps blog, one the very few sites I have to exercise restraint in not linking to every single item posted there. The content of the book is adapted from the site, so of course it's top shelf.

My only reservation in recommending the book is the design. When I cracked it open, I was expecting full-bleed reproductions of the maps, large enough to really get a detailed look at them. The maps *are* the book, after all. But that's not the case...only a few of the maps get an entire non-full-bleed page and some of the maps are stuck in the corner of a page of text, like small afterthoughts. The rest of the design is not much better, cheesy at best and distracting at worst. I wasn't expecting Taschen-grade production values, but something more appropriate to the subject matter would have been nice.

LittleSis database of biz/gov't connectionsJUN 20

Littesis

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

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

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

Update to Alto's Adventure adds endless Zen ModeJUN 02

Altos Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Turkle adds (emphasis mine):

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of GodMAY 11

The Evolution of God

Robert Wright has a new book out soon called The Evolution of God. Andrew Sullivan has a review.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Last month's issue of The Atlantic contained an excerpt.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God's will?

I loved two of Wright's previous books, The Moral Animal and especially Nonzero. (via marginal revolution)

rating: 4.5 stars

ArgoFEB 20

Argo Poster

That's a movie poster for Argo, the fake movie that the CIA "made" as a cover for getting six American diplomats out of Iran in 1980. Ben Affleck's Argo, which cements the former prettyboy actor's status as one of the best young American directors, is somewhat loosely based on The Master of Disguise, a book written by the guy Affleck plays in Argo, and a 2007 Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman called The Great Escape. Argo is up for several Oscars and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Update: Here's a CIA report written by Mendez about the caper. And I'm listening to the soundtrack right now.

What's the most "normal" place in the US?JUN 10

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

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

Economist Lyman Stone thought Kolko's methodology was flawed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space StoryJUN 10

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

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

rating: 4.5 stars

Annie HallFEB 09

A young-ish Christopher Walken appears in Annie Hall but his name is misspelled in the credits as "Christopher Wlaken". Were this 1990, I might have invented a eastern European backstory for Wlaken, who, perhaps, Americanized his name sometime after appearing in the film. But as we live in the future, a cool hunk of glass and metal from my pocket told me -- before the credits even finished rolling -- that the actor was born Ronald Walken in Astoria, Queens.

The future isn't any fun sometimes.

Behind the scenes of Legoland's model workshopJUN 09

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

A video essay on video essaysJUN 07

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

Six million years of human history, explained in 10 minutesJUN 24

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

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

Pub fare gets the fancy food TV treatmentMAY 26

From CBC Radio show This Is That, which previously did a bit on Artisanal Firewood, comes a spoof on fancy shows about chefs like Chef's Table called Cooks.

What do I want people to think of my food? Well, that it's fast, it's cheap, it's a little salty, and most importantly, that it was cooked all the way through.

Nailed it.

What is barbecue?TIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 15

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

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

This is controversial, because "barbecue" is also used to mean:

  • n. other slow-cooked smoked meats, e.g., beef
  • v. the act of cooking or eating such meats,
  • v. grilling anything outdoors,
  • n. an outdoor grill
  • a. a type or flavor of sauce, potato chips, and other foods
  • and so forth.

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

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


  1. What is barbecue?

  2. Is a hot dog a sandwich?

  3. Is Chicago-style pizza really pizza?

  4. Is it donut or doughnut?

  5. Is a wrap a burrito?

  6. Why do we say "chai tea" when "chai" means "tea"?

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

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

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

What would happen if all humans disappeared?JUN 03

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

X marks gender-neutral TIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time travel in Game of ThronesJUN 10

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

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

Stuck in the middle with you(rself)JUN 27

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

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

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

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

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

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