Perfect eyesight. Curing cancer. Designer babies. Super-soldiers. Because of CRISPR, genetic engineering might make tinkering with life as easy as playing with Lego.
Imagine you were alive back in the 1980’s, and were told that computers would soon take over everything — from shopping, to dating, and the stock market, that billions of people would be connected via a kind of web, that you would own a handheld device orders of magnitudes more powerful than supercomputers.
It would seem absurd, but then all of it happened. Science fiction became our reality and we don’t even think about it. We’re at a similar point today with genetic engineering. So let’s talk about it.
Relatedly, I’m finishing up Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves right now and while it starts out as space science fiction, much of the book is concerned with the sort of genetic engineering issues discussed in the video.
The Architectural Record recently chose the 125 “most significant works that defined architecture” built in the past 125 years. Included are the Morgan Library, the old Penn Station, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, the Eames House, the Seagram Building (a particular favorite of mine), the Salk Institute, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the High Line.
Sometimes nature and technology combine to create something beautiful. Before it terribly explodes, that is.
The New Yorker is posting some of their iconic cartoons on a dedicated Instagram account. Instant follow.
When Jurassic Park came out in the summer of 1993, it signaled a shift in the use of digital visual effects in Hollywood films. The movie wasn’t the first to use any particular technique, but it was the first movie to showcase convincing, realistic digital effects. I watched Jurassic Park again recently and for a 23-year-old movie, the effects hold up surprisingly well. (For reference, 23 years ago, the top-of-the-line desktop computer was a 486 running at 50 MHz.)
Meet the lichen katydid. Hailing from the forests of Central and South America, this insect has evolved over the millennia to blend in amazingly well with the lichens that populate the forest.
Using Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for Gone Girl as an example, Michael Tucker walks us through some important aspects of screenwriting techniques. This makes me want to read a book on screenwriting and watch Gone Girl again. (via one perfect shot)
Update: As expected, I got recommendations from readers for screenwriting books: Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 and Invisible Ink. There is also Story by Robert McKee, who you may remember as the screenwriting guru consulted by Donald Kaufman in Adaptation. (via @byBrettJohnson & @poritsky)
Photographer Oliver Curtis visits famous landmarks and takes photos faced the wrong direction, capturing essentially what these landmarks see all day. From the top, the Taj Mahal, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and Stonehenge.
Amazon has built a store specifically for products that started out on Kickstarter. What a great idea. Here is Kickstarter’s post about the initiative.
Getting a creative idea off the ground is often just the first step. Amazon Launchpad is a chance for creators to be discovered by new audiences, and to serve those audiences well by using Amazon’s retail expertise and infrastructure. The program offers custom product pages, comprehensive marketing support, and access to Amazon’s global fulfillment network.
A quick look through the store yielded some products that I’ve backed or featured on kottke.org: Electric Objects Digital Art Display, The Internet’s Own Boy, Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers, and Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding.
Alec Garcia has built an extension for Chrome that lets you view the Instagram Stories of the people you follow. You can even save/download them.
BTW, I am really liking Instagram Stories. Yeah, sure, Snapchat rip-off blah blah blah,1 but Insta nailed the implementation and my network is already all there, so yeah. I’ve been posting occasional Stories, which you can see if you follow me on Instagram.
And yes, like Craig Mod, I use Instagram’s website many times a day. What percentage of their users even knows they can check Instagram on the web? 50%? 30%? 10%?
What causes traffic? Mostly the poor reaction times of humans driving cars. Even a simple lane change can cause traffic to back up for hours. What’s the solution? (Hint: it rhymes with “health diving stars”.)
See also intersections in the age of driverless cars.
The always-on Internet we take for granted in the US is more difficult to come by in Cuba. Some residents subscribe to a service called El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”) where someone comes to your house with a 1Tb external drive and loads the past week’s Internet highlights onto your computer.
El Paquete is a weekly service where someone (typically found through word of mouth) comes to your home with a disk (usually a 1TB external USB drive) containing a weekly download of the most recent films, soap operas, documentaries, sport, music, mobile apps, magazines, and even web sites. For 2 CUC a week Cubans have access to a huge repository of media while turning a blind eye to copyright.
Cubans told me of children waiting anxiously for “El Paquete Day” when they’d get the next set of cartoons, music and shows.
In today’s installment of terrifying graphics about climate change, the NY Times made a series of three maps showing the potential rise of 100 degree temperatures across the United States if current greenhouse gas emission trends continue through the end of this century. Look at the areas in orange and red on the 1991-2010 map: what sort of landscape do you picture? Keeping that landscape picture in your mind, look at the orange and red areas on the 2060 and 2100 maps. Yep! And Phoenix with 163 days above 100 degrees — that’s every day from March 25th to September 4th over 100 degrees.
P.S. A word about climate change and rising temperatures. The temperature that climate scientists typically reference and care about with regard to climate change is “the average global temperature across land and ocean surface areas”. According to the NOAA, the average temperature of the Earth in the 20th century was 13.9°C (57.0°F). In 2015, the average global temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above that.
In order to avoid dangerous effects of climate change, climate scientists advocate keeping the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees (and more recently, below 1.5 degrees). In late 2015, 195 nations came together in Paris and agreed to:
[Hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change
That’s degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but as an American, when I hear 2 degrees, I think, oh, that’s not bad. But 2°C is an increase of 3.6°F, which does seem significant.
Note also that it specifies keeping the temperature “below pre-industrial levels” and not below 20th century levels. It is maddeningly difficult to track down an exact figure for the pre-industrial global temperature, partially because of a lack of precise data, partially because of politics, and partially because of the impenetrability of scientific writing. From a piece Eric Holthaus wrote for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year:
It sounds easy enough to measure global warming: see how hot it was, compare it to how hot it used to be. But climate scientists have several ways of measuring how hot it used to be. NASA’s base period, as I mentioned above, is an average of 1951-80 global temperatures, mostly because that was the most recently available 30-year period when the data set was first created. By chance, it’s also pretty representative of the world’s 20th-century climate and can help us understand how much warmer the world has become while many of us have been alive.
Other organizations go further back. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of climate scientists that was formed to provide assessments to the United Nations, bases its temperature calculations on an 1850-1900 global average. There was about 0.4 degrees of warming between that time period and the NASA base period.
Climate scientists often refer to that 1850-1900 timespan as “pre-industrial” because we don’t have comprehensive temperature data from the 1700s. But meteorologist Michael Mann, director of Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, has argued that an additional 0.25 degrees of warming occurred between the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) and 1850. Including Mann’s adjustment would bring February 2016 global temperatures at or very near 2 degrees above the “pre-industrial” average.
I now completely understand why some people deny that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seriously. I looked for more than 30 minutes for a report or scientific paper that stated the average global temperature for 1850-1900 and I couldn’t find one. I looked at UN reports, NASA reports, reports from the UK: nothing. There were tons of references to temperatures relative to the 1850-1900 baseline, but no absolute temperatures were given. Now, I don’t mean to get all Feynman here, but this is bullshit. When the world got together in Paris and talked about a 1.5 degree increase, was everyone even talking about the same thing? You might begin to wonder what the scientists are hiding with their obfuscation.
Anyway, the important point is that according to climate scientists, we are already flirting with 1.5°C of global warming since pre-industrial times. Which means that without action, the spread of those Phoenician temperatures across the circa-2100 United States is a thing that’s going to happen.
Kanye West is not a great singer. But he packs his songs and albums full of the human voice. Estelle Caswell explains how Kanye uses the human voice as the central instrument in his music.
Interviewed by Gay Byrne for a program called The Meaning of Life, Stephen Fry shared what he would say to God if Fry met him at the gates of heaven.
Bryne: Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?
Fry: I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.
Byrne: And you think you are going to get in, like that?
Fry: But I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They are wrong.
In the most recent video from Marginal Revolution University, Tyler Cowen explains how the role of financial intermediaries contributed to the financial crisis of 2008. He highlights homeowners and banks taking on too much leverage, poorly planned incentive systems, securitization of mortgages, and banks making loans that are over-reliant on investor confidence.
By 2008, the economy was in a very fragile state, with both homeowners and banks taking on greater leverage, many ending up “underwater.” Why did managers at financial institutions take on greater and greater risk? We’ll discuss a couple of key reasons, including the role of excess confidence and incentives.
In addition to homeowners’ leverage and bank leverage, a third factor played a major role in tipping the scale toward crisis: securitization. Mortgage securities during this time were very hard to value, riskier than advertised, and filled to the brim with high risk loans. Cowen discusses several reasons this happened, including downright fraud, failure of credit rating agencies, and overconfidence in the American housing market.
Finally, a fourth factor joins homeowners’ leverage, bank leverage, and securitization to inch the economy closer to the edge: the shadow banking system. On the whole, the shadow banking system is made up of investment banks and various other complex financial intermediaries, highly dependent on short term loans.
When housing prices started to fall in 2007, it was the final nudge that pushed the economy over the cliff. There was a run on the shadow banking system. Financial intermediaries came crashing down. We faced a credit crunch, and many businesses stopped growing. Layoffs ensued, increasing unemployment.
Introverts have limited reserves of energy and attention stored up for socializing with others and when they’re used up, the aftermath can feel very much like a hangover from too much drinking.
After a few hours, I couldn’t take it any more. I slipped away like a thief, skulking about the house, searching for a place where it was quiet. I came across a half-lit room and saw my future brother-in-law sitting in there, staring out the window. Knowing him to be an introvert himself, I decided this was my best option for escape and sat down across the room, wrapping my arms around my knees. I remember hoping he wouldn’t think I was intruding upon his own solitude before I allowed myself to zone out, letting my thoughts drown out the raucous laughter from downstairs, breathing deeply and feeling the tension drain away. I don’t know how long it was before my now-husband came looking for me, but I remember him laughing at finding the two introverts seeking refuge together.
This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I travelled to a friend’s wedding but got to town a few days early to go see a show and meet up with some other friends. By the time the wedding rolled around, I had spent time with so many people in different social groups that I left after the ceremony and didn’t stay for dancing and karaoke or anything (sorry!). I didn’t even get to congratulate the bride (so so sorry!!)…I was just done. After that, I mostly just holed up in my hotel room, reading, and walked around by myself, even though there were so many other things I could have been doing with so many other people. Several years ago, I would have felt weird and horrible about this, but I know myself well enough now that I just roll with it…I read so much of a book I was enjoying that the time spent can hardly be considered a loss.
In his new book The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe argues that speech and not evolution is responsible for the many achievements of humans. Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, went on NPR the other day to talk about the book. This comment about Darwin’s view of speech stuck out (emphasis mine):
He could not figure out what it was. He assumed, because of his theory, that everything evolved from animals. And didn’t even include it in his theory, language, until he decided that it came from our imitation of the cries of birds. And I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals — actually, nobody knows whether they did or not. There are very few physical signs, aside from the general resemblance of apes and humans. The big evolution, if you want to call it that, is that this one species, Homo sapiens, came up with this ingenious trick, which is language.
It’s one thing to say that speech did not evolve from the utterances of previous animals and was instead invented by humans, but it’s quite another to assert that humans did not evolve from animals at all.1 Gonna be fun to sit back and watch the controversy roil on this one. (via @JossFong who said “lazy saturday, just listening to @NPR when ….. WHAT”)
Speaking of Mr. Rogers, Arielle Bernstein wrote about how the spirit of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lives on in contemporary advice columns like Ask Polly (now a book!), Dear Sugar, and Ask Andrew W.K.
Rogers offered something different from other TV icons — he used his show as a platform to actually give voice to children: their fears, their hopes, their pains, their purest expressions of joy. Each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started with the same reassuring sequence showing the host entering his home, slipping on one of his famous sweaters, and changing his work shoes for comfortable sneakers. In this simple world, every question — big or small — was seen as worthy of respect; every feeling — good or bad — was viewed without judgment. Rogers answered questions in an open-hearted manner, often drawing on his own experiences and speaking directly into the camera, as if personally addressing each member of his TV audience. In one episode, he drew a picture using crayons and reflected, “I’m not very good at it. But it doesn’t matter … It feels good to have made something.” In another, the camera lingered on one of Rogers’ dead fish with the curiosity and compassion of a child, imploring viewers to look, telling them that it’s okay to cry.
Today’s advice columnists carry on this same tradition of giving their readers the space to explore emotions they might feel they have to downplay, ignore, or hide from others. At a time when millions of adults are snapping up coloring books, and essays bemoan college students for seeking “safe spaces,” it might be tempting to see the gentler column as an outgrowth of a desire to prolong childhood. But the success of these columns points instead to the very grown-up need for settings where feelings are valued, rather than dismissed, and where the primary human response is compassion, rather than anger.
The USPS is releasing a set of four commemorative Star Trek stamps on the 50th anniversary of the original series. The stamps were designed by Heads of State and you can buy there here.
From XKCD, a typically fine illustration of climate change since the last ice age ~20,000 years ago.
When people say “the climate has changed before”, these are the kinds of changes they’re talking about.
And then in the alt text on the image:
[After setting your car on fire] Listen, your car’s temperature has changed before.
The chart is a perfect use of scale to illustrate a point about what the data actually shows. Tufte would be proud.
Update: Tufte is proud. (via @pixelcult)
With Kickstarter’s advanced search capability, you can see a list of projects on the site with the goal of raising more than $1 million but with less than $1,000 in pledges. A sampling of recent projects from the list:
Secure Spent Fuel Rods Now ($30,000,000 goal). Needs the funds to produce and air TV commercials about the need to secure spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors.
LeBron the Redeemer Statue ($1,000,000 goal). This is my favorite: this project aims to construct a statue of LeBron James in the style of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. I think we should actually be backing this.
The Exodus, one Ark or many ($100,000,000 goal). To buy used cruise ships to form permanent sustainable societies at sea. “Pirates” is listed as one of the project’s potential risks.
Breakfast 24/7 ($1,000,000). For building a chain of restaurants that will serve and deliver breakfast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 360 days a year.
I know that headline is a little harsh; many of these projects are good ideas that perhaps need more reasonable budgets and goals or might be better realized through non-crowdfunding avenues. Keep on reaching for the stars, kids!
From Accio to Wingardium Leviosa, this is a supercut of every spell uttered in the 8 Harry Potter movies. Lots of Expecto Patronum, Expelliarmis, and Stupefy. As supplementary reading, here’s a list of spells in Harry Potter from Wikipedia.
There is evidence that humpback whales deliberately disrupt killer whale hunts, saving other animals from being killed by them.
Marine ecologist Robert Pitman observed a particularly dramatic example of this behavior back in 2009, while observing a pod of killer whales hunting a Weddell seal trapped on an ice floe off Antarctica. The orcas were able to successfully knock the seal off the ice, and just as they were closing in for the kill, a magnificent humpback whale suddenly rose up out of the water beneath the seal.
This was no mere accident. In order to better protect the seal, the whale placed it safely on its upturned belly to keep it out of the water. As the seal slipped down the whale’s side, the humpback appeared to use its flippers to carefully help the seal back aboard. Finally, when the coast was clear, the seal was able to safely swim off to another, more secure ice floe.
Pitman has collected 115 incidents of humpbacks messing with orca hunts. (via @unlikelywords)
Ace illustrator Christoph Niemann has a new book coming out called Words, an illustrated compilation of 300+ sight words
What can you do with a word? Read it, spell it, say it, picture it, understand it, make a sentence with it, tell a story with it, share it with a friend. Everything starts with a love of words! More than 300 words inspired by Dr. Edward Fry’s list of sight words are paired with striking and playful illustrations by internationally renowned designer and artist Christoph Niemann to deepen understanding, to enrich, and to enlighten those learning to read and write English, whether they be children or adults.
From cartoonist John Atkinson, the plots of some classic books distilled down to just a few words. Like The Grapes of Wrath:
Farming sucks. Road trip! Road trip sucks.
Atkinson followed this up with two additional cartoons: (more) abridged classics and (even more) abridged classics. (via @mkonnikova)
Update: From back near the web’s Big Bang comes Book-A-Minute, which contains ultra-condensed versions of classic books. Here’s the summary of War and Peace:
History controls everything we do, so there is no point in observing individual actions. Let’s examine the individual actions of over 500 characters at great length.
A lovely short video profile of Thomas Lilley, who is a roadliner in Glasgow. A roadliner is a person who paints the words and marks on roads with molten thermoplastic. Lilley does it quickly, freehand, and beautifully. The design firm who did the video above commissioned Lilley’s crew to make a custom typeface for them and their new logo.
See also The art of street typography. (via @mathowie)
Carl Van Vechten moved to New York in the early 20th century and became “violently interested in Negroes”. As part of that interest, Van Vechten got to know many of the leading black figures in the city and photographed them, first in black & white but later in vibrant Kodachrome. Almost 2000 of his color photos are available at Yale’s Beinecke Library (direct search). Pictured above are Van Vechten’s photos of Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, W.E.B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, and a young James Earl Jones. (via the new yorker)
This is a devastating commentary on sororities by Victoria Valentine, a simple intercutting of scenes from contemporary sorority life with vintage video on how to start a mind control cult.
My freshman roommate in college joined a fraternity at the end of the year. We were supposed to be roommates our sophomore year, but a couple weeks before school started, I was informed that I’d be living with a different roommate. My ex-roommate moved into the fraternity dorm and pretty much cut ties with his freshman-year friends, preferring the exclusive company of his brothers for the next several months. College is a time of fluid relationships and identity and my friend and I were eventually able to reconnect, but the whole thing was really disturbing and cult-like for awhile.
This Reddit user takes photos posted by people and turns them into posters for fictional movies. Some of these should be optioned…has a movie ever started as a poster before? (via one perfect shot)
Update: I previously described this as the effort of a Reddit forum…it actually just one user. (thx, all)
A study undertaken by a group of German scientists suggests that the chemical makeup of the collective breath of movie audiences change in reaction to what’s happening on the screen.
Human beings continuously emit chemicals into the air by breath and through the skin. In order to determine whether these emissions vary predictably in response to audiovisual stimuli, we have continuously monitored carbon dioxide and over one hundred volatile organic compounds in a cinema. It was found that many airborne chemicals in cinema air varied distinctively and reproducibly with time for a particular film, even in different screenings to different audiences. Application of scene labels and advanced data mining methods revealed that specific film events, namely “suspense” or “comedy” caused audiences to change their emission of specific chemicals.
Jamie xx keeps a playlist on Spotify of the tracks he plays in clubs and on the radio. It’s currently 15 hours long and very entertaining. That’s today’s work playlist sorted then.
The advertising that Volkswagen ran in American magazines and newspapers in the 1960s was legendary, perhaps the greatest ad campaign ever. This is a great little documentary about how the ads came about — pitching “a Nazi car in a Jewish town”.
I had only ever seen a few of these ads…what an amazing campaign. For this one, they didn’t even bother showing you the car, an assurance to the buyer that you knew what you were getting.
The ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are calling for the pardon of Edward Snowden. The ACLU:
The government has charged Snowden under the Espionage Act, a World War One-era law that doesn’t distinguish between selling secrets to foreign governments and giving them to journalists working in the public interest. If Snowden were to be tried under the charges he faces, any argument that his actions benefited the public would be inadmissible in court.
The Pardon Snowden campaign will work through the end of Obama’s administration to make the case that Snowden’s act of whistleblowing benefited the United States and enriched democratic debate worldwide, and we’re asking citizens to write to the president via our website.
Human Rights Watch:
Though some government officials claimed that irreversible harm had been done to US national security, little evidence has been aired publicly. Snowden entrusted the release of information to seasoned journalists and made them promise to inform the government and consider any claim of harm to national security in advance of publication. Adm. Michael Rogers, on taking the helm of the NSA a year into the revelations, told the New York Times he couldn’t say “the sky is falling.” Even Attorney General Eric Holder, who still advocated Snowden’s prosecution as he left office, conceded he performed “a public service.”
“Edward Snowden clearly acted in the public interest. He sparked one of the most important debates about government surveillance in decades, and brought about a global movement in defence of privacy in the digital age. Punishing him for this sends out the dangerous message that those who witness human rights violations behind closed doors should not speak out,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“It is ironic that it is Snowden who is being treated like a spy when his act of courage drew attention to the fact that the US and UK governments were illegally spying on millions of people without their consent.
“The mass surveillance exposed by Snowden impacts the human rights of people around the world. Our new campaign gives the public a chance to call for his pardon and thank him for triggering action by concerned individuals around the world to take back their privacy.”
Several prominent individuals have lent their support to the effort as well, including Steve Wozniak, Eve Ensler, Daniel Ellsberg, and Teju Cole. Bernie Sanders is also urging some form of clemency fror Snowden.
Why this push now? Obama is leaving office (typically a good time for pardons) and Oliver Stone’s Snowden is due out in theaters tomorrow. The reviews aren’t bad and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Snowden is uncanny (see the trailer).
Late last year, actor Ethan Hawke published a book called Rules for a Knight. The book consists of a letter from one of Hawke’s ancestors, a 15th-century Cornish knight, written to his children outlining the rules for being a good person. The letter and ancestor are fictional, but Hawke wrote the book as a guide on living a virtuous life for his own children.
A knight, fearing he may not return from battle, writes a letter to his children in an attempt to leave a record of all he knows. In a series of ruminations on solitude, humility, forgiveness, honesty, courage, grace, pride, and patience, he draws on the ancient teachings of Eastern and Western philosophy, and on the great spiritual and political writings of our time. His intent: to give his children a compass for a journey they will have to make alone, a short guide to what gives life meaning and beauty.
I missed this when it came out, but I’ve run across it twice in the past two weeks, so it appears to be one of those books — perhaps like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — that’s hanging around and resonating with people. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street wrote about the book last week and shared the book’s 20 rules for being a knight.
2. Humility. Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one. You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.
6. Friendship. The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.
10. Grace. Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.
14. Discipline. In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home. The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.
“Don’t save anything for the walk home.” That’s a nice little homage to Gattaca, in which Ethan Hawke’s genetically flawed character is asked by his brother how he’s been able to excel in society and Hawke answers, “I never saved anything for the swim back.”
You could argue that the world has never been better: war is increasingly rare, medical science has cured a number of the deadliest diseases, global poverty is down, life expectancy is up, and crime in America is down. But it sure doesn’t seem that way, especially with Brexit, climate change, Trump, Syria, and terrorist incidents around the world. Oliver Burkeman explores some of the reasons why we think the sky is continually falling and what we can do to be happy anyway. I have been thinking about this aspect of it recently:
And there is another, subtler reason you might find yourself convinced that things are getting worse and worse, which is that our expectations outpace reality. That is, things do improve — but we raise our expectations for how much better they ought to be at a faster rate, creating the illusion that progress has gone into reverse.
See also George Saunders’ manifesto from People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction.
Martin Pedersen recently reread Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and came away with ten lessons.
3. Jacobs was remarkably prescient on gentrification.
She didn’t invent the term or even use it. But she observed (and I don’t know how, since most cities were in decline at the time) that lively diverse neighborhoods are always at risk for becoming victims of their own success, because newcomers invariably alter the characteristics that made these neighborhoods appealing to them in the first place. Today this seems obvious and self-evident, but that’s largely because of Jane Jacobs.
Yeah, it’s time for a reread…it’s been more than 12 years for me. (via @michaelbierut)
The Museum of Modern Art has started the process of putting online a massive trove of photographs of what the museum’s exhibitions looked like, extending back to their earliest big exhibition in 1929 of works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and van Gogh. The NY Times has the story.
The digital archive project will include almost 33,000 exhibition installation photographs, most never previously available online, along with the pages of 800 out-of-print catalogs and more than 1,000 exhibition checklists, documents related to more than 3,500 exhibitions from 1929 through 1989.
Shown above are some notable works of art pictured among the first times they were displayed at the museum…the top one is from that first show in 1929. I happily spent an hour browsing through these exhibitions1 and I haven’t been gripped with this powerful of a desire to travel through time in quite some time. To be able to see that first exhibition…what a thing that would be. In part, I love going to museums for this very reason: standing in the very spot where the artist stood in making their drawing or painting is a very cheap form of time travel.
Whoa, this is the coolest! Jason Wright’s Brand New Subway allows players to alter the NYC subway system as they see fit. You can start with existing maps and the choices you make affect ridership and the price of a Metrocard.
Players can choose to start from scratch or one of several NYC subway maps (including present-day, maps dating back to the early 1900s, or maps from the future). They can build new stations and lines to expand the system to new areas, or tear it down and redesign the whole thing. The game intends to evoke an imaginative spirit, to empower people to envision transportation according to their needs and desires, and to arouse the fun of tinkering with maps.
This project is an entry in The Power Broker Game Design Competition, the goal of which is to adapt Robert Caro’s The Power Broker into a playable experience. Wright explains how his game hits the mark:
Bottom-up vs. top-down design. Moses was infamous for his top-down approach to urban planning. He held “the public” as a concept in high regard while simultaneously showing contempt for the individuals who made up that public, in the form of arrogance, spitefulness, and an utter lack of concern for the millions displaced for his expressways and parks. Later on in his career, as the span of his projects increased, Moses would make monumentally important decisions about the fate of a neighborhood without once setting foot there. He was known for building 13 bridges and hundreds of miles of parkways despite never driving a car.
Although Brand New Subway might appeal to someone who enjoyed SimCity but who has never set foot in New York City, it’s targeted primarily at those who actually ride the subway and who might feel invested in what they design. In that regard, it inverts Moses’ paradigm by encouraging players to improve on transportation in their own neighborhoods and in ways to which they have a personal connection.
I reeeeeeally didn’t want to spend the rest of my day playing with this, but that super express train from Manhattan to JFK isn’t going to build itself! (via @byroncheng)
This video for Nobody Speak by DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels is one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time.
Says DJ Shadow: “We wanted to make a positive, life-affirming video that captures politicians at their election-year best. We got this instead.”
Says Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike: “It’s such a dope video. It’s what I really wish Trump and Hillary would just do and get it over with…And even in that fight I think Hillary would win — and that’s not an endorsement.”
The album is one of my faves so far…you get listen to it here or here.
I don’t have a PS4 or Windows machine, so I can’t play No Man’s Sky (which seems to deliver on the long-ago promise of Will Wright’s Spore), but through the magic1 of Spotify, I was listening to the soundtrack this morning.
Other video game soundtracks I enjoy include Monument Valley and FTL.
Update: See also Robin Sloan on the appeal of No Man’s Sky and how it is like reading.
For a recent episode of Numberphile, David Eisenbud explains the Collatz Conjecture, a math problem that is very easy to understand but has an entire book devoted to it and led famous mathematician Paul Erdős to say “this is a problem for which mathematics is perhaps not ready”.
The problem is easily stated: start with any positive integer and if it is even, divide it by 2 and if odd multiply it by 3 and add 1. Repeat the process indefinitely. Where do the numbers end up? Infinity? 1? Loneliness? Somewhere in-between? My favorite moment of the video:
16. Whoa, a very even number.
I love math and I love this video. (via df)
Starting with the earliest use of the technique at the beginning of the 20th century, this video showcases the use of stop motion animation in film, right on up to the recent release of Kubo. Along the way, you’ll see King Kong, Ray Harryhausen’s pioneering work, Star Wars, Aardman, Tim Burton, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Watching those early clips…audiences must have been completely blown away by those now-crude special effects. The brush is cleaning those shoes all by itself!
See also Creating the VFX Masterpiece of Kubo and the Two Strings.
Researchers at Harvard have come up with a novel way of studying how bacteria evolve to become drug resistant. They set up a large petri dish about the same shape as a football field with no antibiotics in the end zones and increasingly higher doses of antibiotics toward the center. They placed some bacteria in both end zones and filmed the results as the bacteria worked its way toward the center of the field, evolving drug resistance as it went. Ed Yong explains:
What you’re seeing in the movie is a vivid depiction of a very real problem. Disease-causing bacteria and other microbes are increasingly evolving to resist our drugs; by 2050, these impervious infections could potentially kill ten million people a year. The problem of drug-resistant infections is terrifying but also abstract; by their nature, microbes are invisible to the naked eye, and the process by which they defy our drugs is even harder to visualise.
But now you can: just watch that video again. You’re seeing evolution in action. You’re watching living things facing down new challenges, dying, competing, thriving, invading, and adapting — all in a two-minute movie.
Watch the video…it’s wild. What’s most interesting — or scary as hell — is that once the drug resistance gets going, it builds up a pretty good momentum. There’s a pause at the first boundary as the evolutionary process blindly hammers away at the problem, but after the bacteria “learn” drug resistance, the further barriers are breached much more quickly, even before the previous zones are fully populated.
Shel Kaphan was the first person Jeff Bezos hired to work on Amazon. In an interview with Craig Cannon, he talked about how he met Bezos, the early days of the site, and how he feels about the experience now.
At the time I thought, “Okay, I’m going to be building this website to run a bookstore and I haven’t done that before but it doesn’t sound so hard. When I’m done with that I’m not sure what I’ll do.” At that point there was no idea of doing anything but a bookstore. I thought maybe I would be able to go back to Santa Cruz and monitor it from there. I was pretty wrong about how the business would develop and how ambitious Jeff was. I didn’t know him at the time. We had just met.
I had forgotten that Amazon’s IPO happened less than two years after the site went live…can’t imagine something like that happening today.
On the first anniversary of 9/11 in 2002, just a few months before he died, Fred Rogers recorded this very short message to the parents of young children.
We’ve seen what some people do when they don’t know anything else to do with their anger. I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings, ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else, we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place.
Mr. Rogers was, without question, my number one hero and influence growing up. I liked Sesame Street and the Electric Company and Captain Kangaroo and 3-2-1 Contact and all the rest, but I loved Mr. Rogers. So, I don’t know about you, but whenever Mr. Rogers looks right into the camera like that and tells me how proud he is of me, I start to tear up a little and vow to do better. See also always look for the helpers.
This is a pretty good sentence from Phil Plait:
Clouds are a glimpse into the mighty power of fluid dynamics, complicated equations made real and actual and gorgeous, painted across the sky.
At the EyeO Festival in June, Anil Dash did a talk about Prince, “immigration & migration, artistry & technology, grave injustices & profound triumphs”. The talk is an examination of the past century of American history through the lens of Dash’s family history and one of the world’s greatest artists…well worth the 55 minutes it takes to watch.
In 1946, Albert Einstein, who had come to the US in 1933 and stayed to become a citizen due to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, wrote a magazine article titled The Negro Question. In it, he called the prejudice against black Americans a “deeply entrenched evil”.
What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.
In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.
There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.
Recognizing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 1930s with blacks in the US, Einstein put his efforts and his money where his mouth was. He was a member of the NAACP. In 1946, the same year that letter was published, he received an honorary degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the historically black school that was the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. In a speech at the school that was not covered by a mainstream American press that otherwise couldn’t get enough of him, Einstein called racism “a disease of white people”:
My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.
When singer Marian Anderson was denied a hotel room in Princeton for being black, Einstein hosted the singer at his home for this and several subsequent trips. He also came to the aid of W.E.B. Du Bois in his case against the US government:
Einstein continued to support progressive causes through the 1950s, when the pressure of anti-Communist witch hunts made it dangerous to do so. Another example of Einstein using his prestige to help a prominent African American occurred in 1951, when the 83-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, was indicted by the federal government for failing to register as a “foreign agent” as a consequence of circulating the pro-Soviet Stockholm Peace Petition. Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, which convinced the judge to drop the case.
These and his other activities in this arena are documented in a 2006 book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor.
A parking lot for airline employees has become a small community of people who live in motor homes and are rarely around.
Taking a back-road shortcut to catch a flight from Los Angeles two years ago, I passed an obscure airline employee parking lot — and was surprised to see over 70 motor homes. It looked like there was an entire community planted right there in the parking lot of the airport. I wondered, who lived there — and why?
I learned that this community was an employee parking lot turned motor-home park made up of pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. And I became fascinated by why and how the residents — people who may have flown us across the country, or walked us through emergency landing procedures — came to inhabit such an unusual place.
What a lovely little film. (via @JossFong)
Ooh, this looks good: Medieval Europe is Oxford historian Chris Wickham’s “spirited and thought-provoking history of the vast changes that transformed Europe during the 1,000-year span of the Middle Ages”.
Tracking the entire sweep of the Middle Ages across Europe, Wickham focuses on important changes century by century, including such pivotal crises and moments as the fall of the western Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s reforms, the feudal revolution, the challenge of heresy, the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of late medieval states, and the appalling devastation of the Black Death. He provides illuminating vignettes that underscore how shifting social, economic, and political circumstances affected individual lives and international events.
Here’s a short excerpt on the Yale University Press blog.
The Middle Ages get short shrift in tellings of European history (as evidenced by the term “Dark Ages”…and even “Middle” implies something moving between two better eras), but recently historians have been working on filling out the story and rehabilitating that period. I really enjoyed Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, so I’m looking forward to digging into this when it comes out in November.
Here’s a gem from the archive of the NY Times. One day in September 1976, NY Times food critic Mimi Sheraton and Colonel Harland Sanders stopped into a Manhattan Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Colonel, then estranged from the company he founded, strolled into the kitchen after glad-handing some patrons and proceeded to tear into the quality of the food:
Once in the kitchen, the colonel walked over to a vat full of frying chicken pieces and announced, ‘That’s much too black. It should be golden brown. You’re frying for 12 minutes — that’s six minutes too long. What’s more, your frying fat should have been changed a week ago. That’s the worst fried chicken I’ve ever seen. Let me see your mashed potatoes with gravy, and how do you make them?”
When Mr. Singleton explained that he first mixed boiling water into the instant powdered potatoes, the colonel interrupted. “And then you have wallpaper paste,” he said. “Next suppose you add some of this brown gravy stuff and then you have sludge.” “There’s no way anyone can get me to swallow those potatoes,” he said after tasting some. “And this cole slaw. This cole slaw! They just won’t listen to me. It should he chopped, not shredded, and it should be made with Miracle Whip. Anything else turns gray. And there should be nothing in it but cabbage. No carrots!”
Sanders sold his company to an investment group in 1964, which took the company public two years later and eventually sold to a company called Heublein. After selling, Sanders officially still worked for the company as an advisor but grew more and more dissatisfied with it, as evidenced by the story above. When the company HQ moved to Tennessee, the Colonel was quoted as saying:
This ain’t no goddam Tennessee Fried Chicken, no matter what some slick, silk-suited son-of-a-bitch says.
And he got sued by a KFC franchisee after he commented:
My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my mother make it.
To the “wallpaper paste” they add some sludge and sell it for 65 or 75 cents a pint. There’s no nutrition in it and the ought not to be allowed to sell it.
And another thing. That new crispy chicken is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.
Colonel Sanders: serving up chicken and sick burns with equal spiciness. (via @mccanner)
James Hamblin, the dishy brainiac doctor who does those entertaining and informative videos for The Atlantic, is coming out with a book in December called If Our Bodies Could Talk. He calls it “a FAQ about human bodies”.
Now, in this original and entertaining book, Hamblin explores the stories behind health questions that never seem to go away — and which tend to be mischaracterized and oversimplified by marketing and news media. He covers topics such as sleep, aging, diet, and much more:
Can I “boost” my immune system?
Does caffeine make me live longer?
Do we still not know if cell phones cause cancer?
How much sleep do I actually need?
Is there any harm in taking a multivitamin?
Is life long enough?
On a recent episode of the Serious Eats podcast Special Sauce, Ed Levine talks to Danny Meyer about the origins of the Shake Shack.
Did Meyer have any idea that that hot dog cart would eventually become the massive sensation it is today? Not at all. It was a happy accident, born of his love of burgers, Chicago hot dogs, and the custard that’s still served at Ted Drewes in his native St. Louis.
The Clinton campaign is currently wrestling with how to prepare for the first debate with Trump coming up at the end of September. Part of that challenge is picking a proper sparring partner for the mock debates.
It’s one of the most uncomfortable and important jobs in Democratic politics: trying to embarrass the woman who could be the next president.
The person picked to be Hillary Clinton’s sparring partner in her upcoming debate prep sessions is expected to confront her about the death of Vincent Foster, label her a rapist’s enabler, and invoke the personally painful memories of Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers.
I’ve been thinking about this since the Republican convention and there’s an obvious choice here: Stephen Colbert. Clinton needs to prepare to deftly counter energetically delivered nonsense, personal insults, and things no politician would ever say. Does that sound like the host of a certain Comedy Central show? Colbert’s smart, quick, knows the issues, and, with his talent, could tweak his Colbert Report persona toward the Trumpesque. He wouldn’t have a problem tearing Clinton down in person; he did the same thing to George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. I bet he’d jump at the chance to do it too. Let’s make this happen, America!
Update: They’re getting closer…
At least a few old Clinton hands have suggested enlisting professional entertainers, like Jon Stewart or Alec Baldwin.
Colbert! He could do it with his eyes shut!
Christopher Nolan’s next film is a WWII action/thriller about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France in 1940. The film comes out in July 2017 and if that last scene in the teaser trailer is any indication of the overall film, I will be there.
Jason Fried, founder of 37signals (which became Basecamp a few years back) writes about not having goals.
I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.
There are things I’ve wanted to do, but if I didn’t do them I’d be fine with that too. There are targets that would have been nice to hit, but if I didn’t hit them I wouldn’t look back and say I missed them.
I don’t aim for things that way.
I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.
A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.
This is my exact approach, which can drive the more goal oriented people in your life a little bit nuts. Oliver Burkeman wrote about goals being potentially counter-productive in The Antidote, which is perhaps the book I’ve thought most about over the past year. An excerpt from the book about goals was published as a piece for Fast Company.
It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.
One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. As the Boston Globe reported, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallized in a number: 29. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.
Yet the plan not only failed to work-it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended-and thus more uncertain-research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles.
Update: Forgot to add: For the longest time, I thought I was wrong to not have goals. Setting goals is the only way of achieving things, right? When I was criticizing my goalless approach to my therapist a few years ago, he looked at me and said, “It seems like you’ve done pretty well for yourself so far without worrying about goals. That’s just the way you are and it’s working for you. You don’t have to change.” That was a huge realization for me and it’s really helped me become more comfortable with my approach.
In June, ecologist Suzanne Simard gave a talk at TED about her 30 years of research into how trees talk to each other. Underneath the forest floor, there is a communications network on which trees — even those from different species — trade carbon with each other, send warnings, and trade messages. Simard described one of her first experiments (from the transcript):
I pulled on my white paper suit, I put on my respirator, and then I put the plastic bags over my trees. I got my giant syringes, and I injected the bags with my tracer isotope carbon dioxide gases, first the birch. I injected carbon-14, the radioactive gas, into the bag of birch. And then for fir, I injected the stable isotope carbon-13 carbon dioxide gas. I used two isotopes, because I was wondering whether there was two-way communication going on between these species.
The idea was to use the isotopes to track whether the trees were trading carbon when some of them were shaded and less able to make their own energy.
The evidence was clear. The C-13 and C-14 was showing me that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then in later experiments, we found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang.
Fascinating. German forester Peter Wohlleben came out with a book this week called The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Simard contributed a note to the book). From a Guardian review:
Trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the “woodwide web”. Some act as parents and good neighbours. Others do more than just throw shade — they’re brutal bullies to rival species. The young ones take risks with their drinking and leaf-dropping then remember the hard lessons from their mistakes. It’s a hard-knock life.
The Monthly, Maclean’s, and Scribd all have excerpts of Wohlleben’s book if you’re interested.
Update: See also this episode of Radiolab, From Tree to Shining Tree. (via @Chan_ing)
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek ran a draper’s shop and was a local politician in Delft, Netherlands in the mid-17th century. During this time, he developed an interest in making lenses and hit upon a technique for making lenses with extremely high magnifications for the time, 270x and perhaps even 500x normal magnification. These lenses allowed him to discover that there were tiny organisms living in his mouth.
Ed Yong, Joss Fong, and Julia Belluz discuss van Leeuwenhoek’s achievement and microorganisms in general in the video above and in an interview.
It is undeniable that antibiotics have been a tremendous health good, maybe one of the greatest health goods of all time. They have brought so many infectious diseases to heel and saved so many lives.
But it’s also clear that they have negative effects on our microbiome. So they are indiscriminate weapons. They kill the microbes that we depend upon and that are good for us as well as the ones that are causing disease and causing us harm. They’re like nukes, rather than precision weapons.
So we’re in a difficult situation now, where on the one hand we’re running out of antibiotics, and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a huge public health threat. But at the same time we’re aware of the need to preserve the microbiome.
Yong just came out with a book on microbes called I Contain Multitudes. (Perhaps Whitman was speaking literally?)
Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) is coming out with a new mockumentary for Netflix about a competition to determine the best sports mascot.