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What if the Earth were a middle-aged adult and other comparisons

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Sometimes big distances, long time periods, and large numbers can be difficult to grasp. So it helps to contextualize them with comparisons. When you do so, you realize that a billion is much much more than a million:

But when he linked these numbers to time, it brought things in perspective: 1 million seconds is nearly 12 days, whereas 1 billion seconds is almost 32 years. “Everybody gets it when you say it like that,” he wrote in an email. “If you just said 1 billion is three orders of magnitude greater than 1 million, I don’t think it would make the same impression.”

Tim Urban’s Life Calendar emphasizes the relative shortness of human life and the importance of using your time well by reorganizing a human lifespan into weeks.

Each row of weeks makes up one year. That’s how many weeks it takes to turn a newborn into a 90-year-old.

It kind of feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks. But there they are — fully countable — staring you in the face.

High school chemistry teacher Keith Karraker recently imagined the Earth having the lifespan of a typical human, which is a useful way of thinking about young humanity is in comparison.

Earth’s about half-way through its life. If it were a middle-aged adult of 40, its last mass extinction happened about 7 months ago.

To 40-yr-old Earth, humans have been using tools for a week and a half, and just left Africa 8 hours ago to settle around the globe.

All of human history is the last half hour. It’s been an exhilarating and disastrous half hour. But we figured out some really cool shit.

We figured out quantum, relativity, and DNA. A randomly mutating and replicating molecule built a machine to figure itself out.

Even much older evolutionary changes are surprisingly recent on this scale. Spines debuted just over 4 yrs ago. About when iPhone 5 did.

For more on the visualization of large scales, see also Powers of Ten, the leisurely pace of light speed, the size of supermassive black holes, and this comparison of the sizes of things from the Moon to galactic superclusters and beyond:

You want to talk about human insignificance? If Betelgeuse, one of the largest stars shown in the video, were in the Sun’s place, it would nearly reach the orbit of Jupiter, from which light takes 43 minutes (on average) to reach the Earth. (via @stevesilberman)

We Work Remotely

If only 100 people lived on Earth…

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

Because many people have trouble with very large numbers, what if you reimagined the billions of humans on Earth as a slightly more manageable number? Say, 100? If 100 people represented the current population of the Earth:

25 people would be 0-14 years old
31 would be Christian
23 would be Muslim
15 would be Hindu
6 would speak Spanish
5 would speak English
54 would be urban dwellers
11 would live on less than $1.90 USD per day
95 live in an area with a mobile-cellular network

And some that are not on that page:

1 person would die every 15 months
2 people would be born every 6 months
1350 people would have died, all-time

A reading list on fascism

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2017

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.

Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.

Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:

Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.

Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.

Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.

  1. I know, I know. LOL. Trump has been guided by many abilities in his life, but thought and thoughtfulness have never been among them.

Abstract is a new Netflix series about design

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2017

Abstract is an upcoming documentary series from Netflix that explores the art of design. Each of the eight episodes profiles a designer at the top of their discipline: photographer Platon, graphic designer Paula Scher, stage designer Es Devlin, illustrator Christoph Niemann, architect Bjarke Ingels, shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, interior designer Ilse Crawford, and automotive designer Ralph Gilles.

Step inside the minds of the most innovative designers in a variety of disciplines and learn how design impacts every aspect of life.

Looks like a Chef’s Table for design. All episodes will be available February 10.

The official org chart of the US government

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2017

The United States Government Manual is the official handbook of the US federal government. Here is the org chart for our government…take notice of what’s right at the top:

US Govt Org Chart

I’m no constitutional scholar, but that particular document starts off:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I realize the current executive administration doesn’t care and the current majority in the legislative branch barely cares, but remembering exactly who our government works for will be helpful over the next few years. (via @monstro)

The shortlist for 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2017

Sony Photo Awards 2017

Sony Photo Awards 2017

Sony Photo Awards 2017

Photographers from more than 60 countries submitted almost 230,000 entries for the World Photography Organization’s 2017 Sony World Photography Awards and they recently announced the top 10 (as well as the commended top 50) photographers in several different categories. Some fantastic work in here.

From top to bottom, a school of fish by Christian Vizl, the Shaolin Wushu school of martial arts by Luo Pin Xi, and a landscape by Tom Jacobi. (via in focus)

Cartographic art by Matthew Rangel

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2017

Matthew Rangel

Artist Matthew Rangel hikes through what looks like some of the most beautiful terrain in the world and makes these cartographic drawings based on his experiences. Lovely work. (via @djacobs)

Play around with this trippy Julia set fractal

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

Julia Set Fractal

Yay! It’s Fractal Friday! (It’s not, I just made that up.) But anyway, courtesy of Christopher Night, you can play around with this Julia set fractal. It works in a desktop browser (by moving the mouse) or on your phone (by dragging your finger).

The Julia set, if you don’t remember, goes thusly: Let f(z) be a complex rational function from the plane into itself, that is, f(z)=p(z)/q(z) f(z)=p(z)/q(z), where p(z) and q(z) are complex polynomials. Then there is a finite number of open sets F1, …, Fr, that are left invariant by f(z) which, uh, is um… yay! Fractal Friday! The colors are so pretty!

Arrival: future communication, past perspective

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

In his newest video, Evan Puschak talks about Arrival, calling it “a response to bad movies”. Arrival was perhaps my favorite film of 2016, and I agree with him about how well-made this film is. There’s a top-to-bottom attention to craft on display, from how it looks to how it was cast (Amy Adams was the absolute perfect choice for the lead) to the integration of the theme with story to how expertly it was adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The whole thing’s tight as a drum. If you happened to miss it, don’t watch this video (it gives the whole thing away) and go watch it instead…it’s available to rent/buy on Amazon.

Looking back through the archives, I’m realizing I never did a post about Arrival even though I collected some links about it. So, linkdump time!

Wired wrote about how the movie’s alien alphabet was developed.

Stephen Wolfram wrote about his involvement with the science of the film — his son Christopher wrote Mathematica code for some of the on-screen visuals. 1

Science vs Cinema explored how well the movie represented actual science:

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wrote about how he adapted Chiang’s short story for the screen.

Jordan Brower wrote a perceptive review/analysis that includes links to several other resources about the film.

Update: The director of photography for Arrival was Bradford Young, who shot Selma and is currently working on the Han Solo movie for Disney. Young did an interview with No Film School just before Arrival came out.

I’m from the South, so quilts are a big part of telling our story. Quilting is ancient, but in the South it’s a very particular translation of idea, time, and space. In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling.

Quiltmakers are rigorous, but they’re a mixed media format. I think filmmaking should be a mixed media format. I’m just really honoring what quiltmakers do, which is tell a story by using varying texture within a specific framework to communicate an idea. For me, with digital technology, lenses do that the best. The chips don’t do it now-digital film stock is basically all captured the same, but the lenses are how you give the image its textural quality.

(thx, raafi)

Update: James Gleick, author of Time Travel, wrote about Arrival and Story of Your Life for The New York Review of Books.

What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. “So in the future, the sister of the past,” thinks young Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.” Twisty! What if you received knowledge of your own tragic future-as a gift, or perhaps a curse? What if your all-too-vivid sensation of free will is merely an illusion? These are the roads down which Chiang’s story leads us. When I first read it, I meant to discuss it in the book I was writing about time travel, but I could never manage that. It’s not a time-travel story in any literal sense. It’s a remarkable work of imagination, original and cerebral, and, I would have thought, unfilmable. I was wrong.

(via @fquist)

  1. Christopher was 15 or 16 when he worked on the film. His LinkedIn profile states that he’s been a programmer for Wolfram (the company) since he was 13 and that in addition to his work on Arrival, he “implemented the primary cryptography functions in Mathematica”.

The Marked Woman: how the Osage Indian murders began

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2017

The New Yorker has published an online excerpt of David Grann’s new book about the murders of more than a dozen Osage Indians in the 1920s, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Like their parents, Mollie and her sisters had their names inscribed on the Osage Roll, which meant that they were among the registered members of the tribe. It also meant that they possessed a fortune. In the early eighteen-seventies, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. To obtain that oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage in the form of leases and royalties. In the early twentieth century, each person on the tribal roll began receiving a quarterly check. The amount was initially for only a few dollars, but over time, as more oil was tapped, the dividends grew into the hundreds, then the thousands of dollars. And virtually every year the payments increased, like the prairie creeks that joined to form the wide, muddy Cimarron, until the tribe members had collectively accumulated millions and millions of dollars. (In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than thirty million dollars, the equivalent today of more than four hundred million dollars.) The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. “Lo and behold!” the New York weekly Outlook exclaimed. “The Indian, instead of starving to death … enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.”

Fair warning, this piece is tantalizingly short and serves more as a teaser for the book than a stand-alone excerpt, which I don’t mind because I was planning on reading it anyway.

The Complacent Class

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.

After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.

This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.

Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.

Time published an excerpt of the book last week:

Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.

Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.

And in a recent piece in the NY Times that mentions Cowen’s book, David Brooks references a piece by Nicholas Eberstadt called Our Miserable 21st Century:

That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.

Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.

If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.

Slow and steady wins the healthcare race

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2017

In a piece called The Heroism of Incremental Care for the New Yorker, surgeon Atul Gawande argues that our healthcare system is built for and celebrates heroic intensive care over the slower but more effective efforts of long-term primary care givers.

We have a certain heroic expectation of how medicine works. Following the Second World War, penicillin and then a raft of other antibiotics cured the scourge of bacterial diseases that it had been thought only God could touch. New vaccines routed polio, diphtheria, rubella, and measles. Surgeons opened the heart, transplanted organs, and removed once inoperable tumors. Heart attacks could be stopped; cancers could be cured. A single generation experienced a transformation in the treatment of human illness as no generation had before. It was like discovering that water could put out fire. We built our health-care system, accordingly, to deploy firefighters. Doctors became saviors.

But the model wasn’t quite right. If an illness is a fire, many of them require months or years to extinguish, or can be reduced only to a low-level smolder. The treatments may have side effects and complications that require yet more attention. Chronic illness has become commonplace, and we have been poorly prepared to deal with it. Much of what ails us requires a more patient kind of skill.

The 8 richest men are now as wealthy as half the world’s population

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2017

According to a report by Oxfam, the world’s 8 richest men are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world’s population. That’s 8 men with the same combined wealth of 3.6 billion people.

As decision makers and many of the super-rich gather for this week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, the charity’s report suggests the wealth gap is wider than ever, with new data for China and India indicating that the poorest half of the world owns less than previously estimated.

Oxfam, which described the gap as “obscene,” said if the new data had been available before, it would have shown that in 2016 nine people owned the same as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest half of humanity, rather than 62 estimated at the time.

The gap between the super-rich and poor is widening: in 2010, it would have taken 43 of the richest people to equal the bottom 50%. The eight men in question are Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg.

Five of the men on this list — Gates, Buffett, Ellison, Bloomberg, and Zuckerberg (all Americans) — have signed the Giving Pledge, a public promise to give away the majority of their fortunes while still alive (or upon their deaths). They are essentially agreeing with Oxfam that their wealth should be redistributed. When five men who control, say, as much wealth as 25-30% of the world’s poorest are saying, by their actions, that the wealth inequality gap needs to be narrowed, shouldn’t the government take that as a sign that something needs to be done about it?

Update: The way Oxfam is calculating wealth here takes debt into account:

If you look at the numbers that the statistic is based on, from Forbes and Credit Suisse, you’ll see that the equality here is that the eight richest people in the world have a combined net worth of roughly $426 billion, or 0.16% of all the world’s wealth.

Is it really true that the bottom 50% of the world’s population accounts for only 0.16% of the wealth on the planet? Well, not really. The bottom 50% comprises five different deciles. Of those deciles, the fourth has 0.17% of the world’s wealth, and the fifth has 0.32%. Those are both very small numbers — but they’re both bigger than 0.16%.

So something funny is going on here — and that something funny is debt. When Oxfam looks at net worth, it adds up your assets, and then subtracts your liabilities. And when your liabilities are bigger than your assets, that means you have negative net worth. According to Oxfam’s methodology, the bottom 10% of the world’s population has a net worth of one trillion negative dollars — an almost inconceivably large sum.

The inequality is there, and growing, but Oxfam’s formulation is misleading without the proper context. (thx, everyone)

Computer Show is back! (As an ad for HP printers.)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

Missed this early this month while I was on vacation: Computer Show is back with a new episode, partnering with HP to showcase one of their fast color printers. Yes it’s an ad, but yes it’s still funny.

Hayao Miyazaki is coming out of retirement

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2017

The Japan Times is reporting that legendary director Hayao Miyazaki has un-retired and is currently working on a new feature-length animated film for Studio Ghibli!

The decision comes nearly 3 1/2 years after Miyazaki, 76, announced his retirement amid persistent calls for him to make a comeback from his fans both in and outside Japan.

“He is creating it in Tokyo, working hard right now,” Toshio Suzuki, a producer at the major Japanese animation company, said Thursday on a talk show, adding he was presented by the animation maestro with the storyboard of the new film at the end of last year.

“(The storyboard) was quite exciting,” 68-year-old Suzuki said, adding, “but if I’d told him it was good, I know it would ruin my own retirement,” as making the film would dominate his life, Suzuki told the audience.

(via @garymross)

Update: Miyazaki is working on a film called Boro the Caterpillar (Kemushi no Boro), which was originally going to be a short film before the director decided it would work better at a feature length. Here are some clips and sketches from the film, which won’t be out for another couple of years.

The Senate stops Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter from Coretta Scott King

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2017

Coretta King Letter Sessions

Last night, during the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III1 for Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter that Coretta Scott King had written to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship (which he did not get).

The first page of the letter appears above and the entire contents may be read here. King pretty plainly states that Sessions abused his position in an attempt to disenfranchise black voters:

Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.

Under Senate Rule XIX and after two votes by the full Senate, Warren was barred from speaking and finishing the letter.

When Warren first spoke against Sessions Tuesday night, Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, warned her that she was breaking the rules. When she continued anyway, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by finding her in violation of Senate Rule XIX — which prevents any senator from using “any form of words [to] impute to another Senator… any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

Warren later read the letter outside of the Senate chambers. How the Senate is supposed to debate the appointment of a Cabinet member without being able to criticize the actions, words, and beliefs of that candidate is left as an exercise to the reader. (Ok, I’ll answer anyway: it’s not supposed to debate. That’s the entire point of the Republicans’ actions w/r/t Trump’s political nominees thus far.)

King’s letter, which Buzzfeed called “a key part of the case against Sessions [in 1986]” was only published earlier this week in part because Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond never officially entered it into the congressional record. Thurmond, you may remember, vehemently opposed the civil rights reforms of the 50s and 60s, even going so far as filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for more than 24 hours and switching political parties because of the Democrats’ support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And Senate Rule XIX? Cornell Law School professor James Grimmelmann notes the precedent:

Let’s be clear on the precedent here: it’s the 1836-44 gag rule that forbade any consideration of abolition in the House.

Racist southern representatives were so frustrated by abolitionist petitions to Congress, that they adopted a series of rules.

All abolitionist petitions would immediately be tabled, and any attempt to introduce them would be prohibited.

From pro-slavery members of the House to Davis to Beauregard to Thurmond to Trump (and Bannon) to Sessions to McConnell (and the nearly all-white Republican majority). Paraphrasing Stephen Hawking, it’s white supremacy all the way down. Gosh, if you’re a black person in America, you might even think the system is tilted against you!

P.S. I like this part of Senate Rule XIX, right at the bottom:

8. Former Presidents of the United States shall be entitled to address the Senate upon appropriate notice to the Presiding Officer who shall thereupon make the necessary arrangements.

I’m not sure what it would accomplish, but seeing a former President address this Senate, after an appropriate period spent kiteboarding, would be pretty fun to watch.

P.P.S. In silencing Warren, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Not a bad explanation of the feminist movement in America there, Mitch. Folks on Twitter are having fun with the #shepersisted hashtag.

She Persisted

Update: While the precedent for Senate Rule XIX dates back to the abolition debates in the 1830s and 1840s, the actual rule was made after a fight broke out in the Senate in 1902. From a book called The American Senate: An Insider’s Story:

South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman accused his South Carolina colleague, John McLaurin, of selling his vote for federal patronage. McLaurin called Tillman a malicious liar. Tillman lunged at him, striking him above the left eye. McLaurin hit Tillman back with an upper-cut to the nose.

Given the history of this rule and how it was recently applied, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Tillman was an outspoken advocate of lynching, once remarking in a speech:

“[We] agreed on on the policy of terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” (Tillman boasted during the same speech that his pistol had been used to execute seven black men in 1876.)

So we can squeeze Tillman in-between Beauregard and Thurmond in the abbreviated narrative of how it came to be that a white majority Senate silenced a white woman for reading a letter written by a black woman.

  1. Let’s look at his name for a second. Jeff Sessions was named after his father and grandfather, the latter of whom was born in Alabama in mid-April 1861, just a month after P.G.T. Beauregard became the first general of the Confederacy and two months after Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy. The name that Jeff Sessions’ great-grandparents gave their son could hardly have been an accident and indeed the family was so proud of this Confederate name that they used it twice more — in 1913, when Jeff’s father was born, and in 1946, when Jeff was born.

Woody Guthrie and the Family Trump

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2017

More than a year ago, before the Iowa caucuses, the story of folk singer/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie’s hatred for his landlord, Fred Trump (father of Donald) started to circulate. (I believe the first piece was this nicely done essay at The Conversation, by Will Kaufman.)

The story goes like this: Between 1950 and 1952, Guthrie lived in a Federal Housing Administration-funded low-income apartment building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island built by Fred Trump. But Trump (who already had a history of bigotry, including an arrest at a Klan parade that turned into a riot in 1927), quickly worked to segregate even his federal developments, prohibiting black tenants from renting in majority-white complexes or neighborhoods.

Guthrie moved out of the Trump building when his two-year-lease was up, but wrote a song about it called “Old Man Trump”:

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

And in fact, Donald and his father Fred would eventually be sued for housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; this was 1973, and was the first time Donald Trump ever appeared in the New York Times (“Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City”). They settled the lawsuit in 1975.

But that’s not the end of the story. The present-day Trump slogan “America First” is a direct callback to the America First Committee, an isolationist antiwar group that formed after the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe. It included pacifists and farmers and students and socialists and businessmen and a lot of wealthy, anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-fascist Americans, notably its main spokesman Charles Lindbergh.

As it happens, one of Woody Guthrie’s best protest songs, “Lindbergh” (or “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”) is about America First. It criticizes Lindbergh and the group, but also the devil’s bargain socialist and other workers’ groups across the midwest had made in partnering up with pro-Nazi capitalists:

Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ‘em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.

Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington

So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.

Easy enough to remember.

A cognitive bias cheat sheet

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2017

Cognitive biases are systematic ways in which people deviate from rationality in making judgements. Wikipedia maintains a list such biases and one example is survivorship bias, the tendency to focus on those things or people which succeed in an endeavor and discount the experiences of those which did not.

A commonly held opinion in many populations is that machinery, equipment, and goods manufactured in previous generations often is better built and lasts longer than similar contemporary items. (This perception is reflected in the common expression “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”) Again, because of the selective pressures of time and use, it is inevitable that only those items which were built to last will have survived into the present day. Therefore, most of the old machinery still seen functioning well in the present day must necessarily have been built to a standard of quality necessary to survive. All of the machinery, equipment, and goods that have failed over the intervening years are no longer visible to the general population as they have been junked, scrapped, recycled, or otherwise disposed of.

Buster Benson recently went through the list of biases and tried to simplify them into some sort of structure. What he came up with is a list of four conundrums — “4 qualities of the universe that limit our own intelligence and the intelligence of every other person, collective, organism, machine, alien, or imaginable god” — that lead to all biases. They are:

1. There’s too much information.
2. There’s not enough meaning.
3. There’s not enough time and resources.
4. There’s not enough memory.

The 2nd conundrum is that the process of turning raw information into something meaningful requires connecting the dots between the limited information that’s made it to you and the catalog of mental models, beliefs, symbols, and associations that you’ve stored from previous experiences. Connecting dots is an imprecise and subjective process, resulting in a story that’s a blend of new and old information. Your new stories are being built out of the bricks of your old stories, and so will always have a hint of past qualities and textures that may not have actually been there.

For each conundrum in Benson’s scheme, there are categories of bias, 20 in all. For example, the categories that related to the “not enough meaning” conundrum are:

1. We find stories and patterns even in sparse data.
2. We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information.
3. We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of.
4. We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about.
5. We project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future.

Benson’s whole piece is worth a read, but if you spend too much time with it, you might become unable to function because you’ll start to see cognitive biases everywhere.

The evolution of Keanu Reeves

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2017

I really like Keanu Reeves. He’s one of my favorite actors and seems like a genuinely nice person who has dealt well with his stardom. But after watching this collection of clips from every single movie he’s ever been in, I can’t tell if Reeves is actually a good actor or not. He definitely gets better as his career progresses, but many scenes where emotion or nuance are called for are just…oof. It’s like he’s reading the dictionary sometimes. But I still like him! Why is that?

See also: Danny Bowes believes Reeves belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood Action Stars along with John Wayne, Tom Cruise, and Harrison Ford.

Update: From Peter Suderman, Why Keanu Reeves is a perfect action star:

This may come off hyperbolic, or flat-out inaccurate, to those who don’t see Reeves as a great screen actor. And granted, his performance style doesn’t capture the tiny nuances of human reactions that are usually associated with great acting; he’s often characterized as a big-screen blank, and that’s not an entirely faulty statement.

But while it’s not wrong to label Reeves a blank, it’s also not enough. For nearly three decades, Reeves has proven himself one of Hollywood’s most durable and entertaining action stars, and the John Wick films show why: His total physical commitment to his action roles makes him a perfect avatar for the visions of ambitious action directors. At his very best, he becomes inseparable from the cinematic visions he embodies.

The story behind Homestar Runner

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 27, 2017

It feels like a stretch to call this “An Oral History of Homestar Runner” — the author only interviews two people, and it zips through time while all the details are kinda glossed over in a way that’s not entirely satisfying.

However. It’s still a solid interview with the two creators of Homestar Runner, which was easily the best all-ages cult video site from a time (the early 00s) when there weren’t exactly a lot of any of those things around.

It’s also a memory of a time when the web, or at least some corners of it, were a respite from the awfulness of the world, without being wholly removed from it. For example, I was introduced to it by a friend who’d just moved to lower Manhattan for grad school in 2002. We went and saw Ground Zero, commiserated about the upcoming midterm elections and the possibility of war with Iraq, and then he showed me a Strong Bad email. None of this seemed discordant. It was a firehose of new things, good and bad, not a stream of distilled horror demanding constant engagement. I miss that, and I know I’m not the only one.

The Wizard and the Prophet

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

Last week Charles C. Mann, author of the excellent 1491 (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and 1493, tweeted what looked like a completed manuscript of a new book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Aside from a pub date (Oct 5), Mann was coy about details in the thread and there’s not a lot of information about the book on the internet. But there is a little. From the Books on Tape website:

From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493 — an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups — Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, non-polemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces — food, water, energy, climate change — grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.

In 2012, Orion Magazine published a piece by Mann called State of the Species, which was nominated for a 2013 National Magazine Award and is said to be “an early version of the introductory chapter” to The Wizard and the Prophet.

How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?

Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise — a daunting, hideously expensive task.

Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.

I’m very eager to tear into this book. The Prophets vs. The Wizards debate lies at the heart of issues about economic equality, climate change, and the future of energy (both electrical and nutritional). I see people having some form of this debate on Twitter every day, whether it’s about GMO crops, nuclear power, animal extinction, or carbon offsets.

Four years ago, Bill Gates, a Wizard to the core, talked to a small group of media about his most recent annual letter. I can’t recall exactly what Gates said — something like “you can’t tell a billion Indians they can’t have flatscreen TVs”1 — but I do remember very clearly how emphatically he stated that the way forward was not about the world cutting back on energy usage or consumption or less intensive farming. I think about his statement several times a week. I was unconvinced of his assertion at the time and still am. But my skepticism bothers me…I’m skeptical of my skepticism. Technology and progress have done a lot of good for the world — let’s talk infant mortality and infectious diseases for starters — but I am also sympathetic to the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”. So yeah, I’m keen to see what Mann adds to this debate.

  1. It’s important to note this statement was made in context to a larger conversation. Gates was using “flatscreen TVs” was a stand-in for progress (clean water, health food, good medicine, reliable electricity, etc.) and the unspoken corollary was that Americans and Western Europeans shouldn’t need to give up those things either. The goal is to distribute progress and technology more evenly throughout the world, not slow progress down in some parts of the world in order for other parts to catch up.

Trailer for the The Americans season five

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2017

The official trailer for season five of The Americans is out and oooooooooh boy! I’m currently bingeing on The Night Manager and I love me some Halt and Catch Fire, but The Americans is my favorite pure-drama show1 right now. The actress who plays Paige is great and it looks like she’s going to be more involved in the plot than ever:

Look at her! Learning how to fight and reading Karl Marx! Oh, I can’t wait until March 7th! If you haven’t been following the show, all four of the previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime. I might have to rewatch!

  1. Transparent is still my overall favorite show…but who knows how you’re supposed to classify it. Sitcom drama?

Black-owned bookstores and the black power movement

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2017

Historian Joshua Clark Davis has a terrific essay on how civil rights organizations, especially black power and black nationalist groups, helped spur a boom in black-owned bookstores in the US in the sixties and seventies. In turn, these bookstores became key organizing centers, arts hubs, and distributors of black literature and political information.

As late as 1966, most American cities—including major centers of black population such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Oakland, and New Orleans—had not had a single black-oriented bookstore. Each of the country’s largest cities and centers of black population, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, could claim one or in some cases two black-interest bookstores, most of which struggled to stay in business. Just a few years later, however, black bookstores were booming. Between 1965 and 1979, the number of black-themed bookstores in the United States skyrocketed from around a dozen to somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred. Most of these stores were owned and operated by activists with ties to a wide range of black radical groups, including the Black Panther Party, SNCC, the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, the East, and a variety of lesser-known groups in local communities across the country.

Indeed, the very idea that black people needed their own bookstores drew directly on black-nationalist values of institutional and community control. In the late 1960s and ’70s, black-owned bookstores thrived alongside other activist businesses that emerged out of the era’s social movements, including feminist storefronts, environmentalist natural food stores, and countercultural head shops that promoted the drug legalization and anti-war causes.

Davis’s book From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs looks at this wider post-60s world of counterculture commerce, and how those roots grew into some very unexpected branches. Exciting stuff.

The five simple things to remember when considering Trump’s motivations

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2017

Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo urges us that when it comes to figuring out what Donald Trump’s up to, we should keep it simple. The media has covered Trump for more than 30 years, he appeared weekly on television for several years, and the coverage of his campaign over the past two years was unprecedented. That, says Marshall, means that we know Trump and his motivations quite well at this point and offers a list of five things we should keep in mind:

1. Trump is a Damaged Personality
2. Trump is a Great Communicator
3. Trump’s Hold on His Base Is Grievance
4. Trump is Possible Because of Partisan Polarization
5. Trump is Surrounded By Extremists and Desperados

Trump is an impulsive narcissist who is easily bored and driven mainly by the desire to chalk up ‘wins’ which drive the affirmation and praise which are his chief need and drive. He needs to dominate everyone around him and is profoundly susceptible to ego injuries tied to not ‘winning’, not being the best, not being sufficiently praised and acclaimed, etc. All of this drives a confrontational style and high levels of organizational chaos and drama. This need for praise and affirmation and a lack of patience for understanding the basic details of governing are a volatile and dangerous mix. They catalyze and intensify each other. Perhaps most importantly, the drive to be the best and right drives promises, claims and policy pronouncements which may contradict his already existing positions or be impossible to fulfill.

Marshall also calls out something I’ve been thinking about recently, the Make America Great Again branding:

‘Make America Great Again’ may be awful and retrograde in all its various meanings. But it captured in myriad ways almost every demand, fear and grievance that motivated the Americans who eventually became the Trump base. It is almost certainly the case that MAGA is entirely Trump’s invention, not the work of any consultant or media specialist but from Trump himself. The Trump Trucker baseball cap, a physical manifestation of Trumpite branding, is similarly ingenious.

As much as I came to admire Pentagram’s work on Hillary Clinton’s campaign branding and loved the Obama campaign’s branding (complete with beautiful typefaces from Hoefler and Frere-Jones), I think the MAGA design easily beats them both. Marshall nailed it…it was exactly right for who it was designed to appeal to. It’s perhaps unlikely to happen, but the Make America Great Again hat should be added to the permanent collections of design museums as an exemplary example of branding, right alongside Got Milk?, Think Different, and Just Do It. (Also, you know who else came up with an extraordinarily effective design for his fascist authoritarian movement?)

The best of Disney cinematography

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2017

Jorge Luengo Ruiz has collected what he calls the most beautiful shots in the history of Disney. The scenes are pulled from nearly every Disney feature-length animation ever made, including Snow White, Peter Pan, The Lion King, and Moana. There’s a simple shot early on of Dumbo’s shadow passing over the ground that I really liked.

Buzzfeed did some stills of the best shots from Studio Ghibli movies, but it would be great to see a video collection. Both studios have produced amazing work, but Ghibli might best Disney in terms of sheer artistry and beauty.

The Goddesses of Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Goddesses Of Venus Map

Last year, Eleanor Lutz made a medieval-style map of Mars. As a follow-up, she’s made a topographical map of Venus. The features on Venus are named for female mythological figures & notable women and Lutz provides a small biography for each one on the map. Among those featured on the map are:

Anne Frank
Selu (Cherokee Corn Goddess)
Kali (Hindu Goddess, Mother of Death)
Virginia Woolf
Sedna (Eskimo Whose Fingers Became Seals and Whales)
Ubastet (Egyptian Cat Goddess)
Beatrix Potter
Edith Piaf

Here are the full lists of the craters, mountains, and coronae on Venus.

These David Bowie stamps are gorgeous

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

bowie_stamps_00.jpg

The United Kingdom’s Royal Mail is releasing a limited edition of ten stamps honoring David Bowie, available on March 14 (although you can preorder now).

The images include Bowie in concert on the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1973; the famous zigzag lightning bolt across his face on the “Aladdin Sane” cover; and the covers of his “Heroes” (1977), “Let’s Dance” (1983) and “Earthling” (1997) albums. An image from Bowie’s final LP, “Blackstar,” released days before his death, is also part of the set…

The Royal Mail said that this will be the first time it has dedicated a full set of stamps to a single musician. Philip Parker, the stamp strategy manager at the Royal Mail, said in a statement that the stamp issue honored Bowie’s “many celebrated personas.”

He said: “For five decades David Bowie was at the forefront of contemporary culture, and has influenced successive generations of musicians, artists, designers and writers.”

I would love for the USPS to do something similar for Prince. I don’t know if we have any other stamps that honor royalty. (Besides maybe Wonder Woman.)

Why Trump and his staff lie

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2017

Over at Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen provides an explanation as to why Donald Trump and his staff are lying.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

This is interesting throughout, particularly the bit about “higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths”.

Note that these tactics do not require a strategic masterplan.1 We know Trump acts mostly on instinct, so all the lying is just how he’s found success doing business in the past. I’ve been listening to The Power Broker on audiobook for the past few months and the similarities between how Robert Moses operated (particularly in NYC at the height of his powers) and Trump’s tactics are downright eerie, right down to the outright lies, ignoring outside counsel, and favoring short-term results over deeper long-term consequences.2 Both men had so much power and (especially in Moses’ case) capability that they could have really helped people and made a difference in the lives of millions but instead used it mainly to get their own way.

  1. Deeeep breath. Ok. In a weird way, I feel like I understand this aspect of Trump…and it makes me uncomfortable to identify with him in this way. I don’t really make plans or set goals. My about page states “I don’t have a plan.” I approach life tactically, not strategically. And I think Trump does too. (Part of my discomfort here is the realization that a tactical approach to life may require privilege. Maybe Trump doesn’t have to think long-term because he was born two steps from home plate. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it…another privilege.) Of course, where I use knowledge to spread the power of good ideas around to the widest possible audience (I hope!), Trump uses lies to consolidate and wield his own personal power.

  2. Moses was brilliant and certainly capable of deep strategic thought, but according to Caro, as his responsibilities, power, and self-confidence increased, he relied on what had worked for him previously with little regard for the circumstances of particular situations. It was literally “we’re doing it my way or (no) highway”.

The Americans vs. The Beastie Boys

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2017

Some genius took footage from The Americans and cut it into an alternative music video for The Beastie Boys Sabotage. Compare with the real thing:

Pretty good! Plus it’s always great to hear that song. (thx, steve)

The tools ILM built to make Rogue One are super interesting

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2017

Every time I watch or read something about how Rogue One was made, I come away more intrigued. And it’s not about how they made the film…it’s about the tools they built to help them make the film. A few weeks ago, I posted about the full-length story reel they made from bits of old movies so that director Gareth Edwards could determine the pacing:

There was no screenplay, there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. He got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make ‘Rogue One’ using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film.

It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet”, now that takes maybe 2-3 seconds in other films, but if you look at any other ‘Star Wars’ film you realise that takes 45 seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way — I used a lot of the ‘Star Wars’ films — but also hundreds of other films too, it gave us a good idea of the timing.

In this video, we see a couple more tools the team used to facilitate the making of the film. The first is a VR video game of sorts that ILM built so that Edwards could move a virtual camera around in a virtual set to find just the right camera angles to capture the action, resulting in a process that was more flexible than traditional storyboarding.

The second tool jumped around a virtual set — a complete digital model of Jedha City — and rendered hundreds of street views from it at random. Then the filmmakers would look through the scenes for interesting shots and found scenes that looked more “natural” than something a digital effects artist might have come up with on purpose — basically massively parallel location scouting.

Both are attempts to introduce more serendipity and possibility into a digital filmmaking process that sometimes feels a little stilted. I think animation studios like Pixar have been using these techniques for years, but it’s interesting to see them applied to live-action films like Rogue One.

Update: The Verge’s Bryan Bishop talked to Edwards and visual effects supervisor John Knoll and came away with more interesting details about how they used technology in filming Rogue One.

Typically, you’d have to storyboard these things, and that means you’re pulling from some default, subconscious idea in your head, probably based on another film you’ve seen, where you feel like it should be this shot. I find you get much better, more unique, shots when you are in a real environment, trying to find something that’s unfolding in front of you. You get inspired because of the light and shapes and things. It was like being in the real world more, and like the way we shot a lot of the rest of the movie.

I think if I ever do a big film again, and there’s a big digital set piece in it, whatever that is, I would definitely want to pre-animate it and then go in with a camera and try and film it like it was real.

Read the whole thing…the bit about the LED screens is fascinating. Prior to the 1980s, aside from some relatively minor editing tricks, effects in movies were mainly done during shooting. More recently, most of the production happens after the cameras stop rolling: extensively green-screened footage of the actors is combined with entire sets and worlds that are completely digital. With Rogue One, they tried to move some of that production back into the shooting phase in order to give the director more control over the scenes and the actors a more immersive environment in which to act. (via @sippey)

A magically levitating helicopter, courtesy of a camera frame rate trick

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

When you perfectly match a video camera’s frame rate to the rotation of a helicopter’s rotors as it takes off, it looks like it’s magically floating away on the breeze. Here’s an older video of the same effect that I probably posted back in the day. Here’s an explanation of the effect:

Since each frame has to ensure the blade is in the same position as the last it therefore needs to be in sync with the rpm of the rotar blades. Shutter speed then needs to be fast enough to freeze the blade without too much motion blur within each frame.

Here the rotor has five blades, now lets say the rpm of the rotor is 300. That means, per rotation, a blade is in a specific spot on five counts. That gives us an effective rpm of 1500. 1500rpm / 60secs = 25.

Therefore shooting at 25fps will ensure the rotor blades are shot in the same position every frame. Each frame then has to be shot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the blade for minimal motion blur.

This is basically the same technique used by John Edmark for his strobe light sculptures.

How to manage news burnout

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2017

Melody Kramer is one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know in journalism. She has a new post up at Poynter talking about ways to design the news that take into account that news can be overwhelming.

People take breaks, go on vacations, have stretches where they can’t keep up, work weird hours, have different levels of interest and background knowledge, and so forth — but they still want to be informed, connected, and engaged.

How can we deal with that? Here’s one good idea:

We should allow people to check out or pause and return. I envision a website where someone can say how long they’d like to be away from the news and what kinds of news they’d like when they return. This could most easily be accomplished through newsletters. For example, a landing page might allow a user to say: “I am taking [XX] [days / weeks / months] off. When I come back, I’d like to be updated on [topics] on [this frequency.]”

Years ago, some of us called this “my time” or “TiVo time”: a personalized, time-shifted attention economy. (Actually, I don’t think anybody called it “TiVo time” but me. And maybe a few guys who worked for TiVo.)

And for a little while, say around 2000-2010, media consumption in the form of DVRs, IM chats, blogging (and commenting), RSS feeds, Netflix DVDs (by mail!), was sort of unconsciously driven by this principle. It was available in close-to-real-time, but you could dip in and out of the stream much more easily.

Then a lot of factors — including short-form social media, livestream video, Netflix bingeing, a resurgence of TV events, and maybe especially always-available mobile devices — pushed us back to a much more immediate and real-time immersion in media. This hasn’t always been to everyone’s benefit. Not all consumers’, and not all producers’ either.

Choosing between plunging in or checking out has become a much more all-or-nothing proposition. It doesn’t have to be that way. We know this. We already built a lot of the tech that lets us manage this. Now we just have to figure out the best ways to deploy it.

Bach’s Crab Canon is a musical palindrome

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

In a series of pieces written for King Frederick II of Prussia in 1747 called The Musical Offering, Johann Sebastian Bach included a canon that is popularly referred to as the Crab Canon. The piece is a puzzle to be worked out by the reader/player.

You may notice that the Crab Canon is performed by two instruments, but only one line is notated. What’s the deal?

Bach published the canons in the Musical Offering as puzzles, giving the reader the minimum amount of information with which they can figure out the piece as long as they understand its structure. To “solve” a puzzle canon is to give it a structure that makes it fit together in pleasing harmony.

The solution to the Crab Canon is that it can be played forwards or backwards or forwards and backwards together in accompaniment. It’s a musical palindrome of sorts. (via open culture)

The Devil Went Down To Georgia, washing machine edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2017

Aaron McAvoy’s washing machine makes a banging noise while washing clothes so he played The Devil Went Down to Georgia in time with the banging. This is the most perfect little internet entertainment…I actually started crying I was laughing so hard. A much needed respite from the world. See also the washing machine edition of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ and a tribute to George Michael. (via @aaroncoleman0)

Update: McAvoy and his washing machine are back with this cover of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck.

As he says, don’t miss the “guest appearance by my white trash dryer”. See also Thunderstruck on the bagpipes (which is really one of my favorite online things of all time for some reason).

Graffiti everywhere

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2017

Josh Keyes Grafitti

Artist Josh Keyes makes paintings that imagine graffiti written on objects not commonly tagged, like satellites, whales, icebergs, and the Space Shuttle. (via colossal)

The literary maps of our childhoods

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2017

Hobbit Map

At The Awl, Victoria Johnson fondly remembers the books of her youth that contained extra material. Like maps.

If I ruled the world, or at least a publishing company, all books would contain as much supplementary information as possible. Nonfiction, fiction — doesn’t matter. Every work would have an appendix filled with diagrams, background information, digressions and anecdata. And of course, maps. Lots and lots of maps.

The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz all included great maps that expanded the story in the mind of the reader. Near the end of the piece, Johnson notes that The Hunger Games didn’t include a map of Panem and links to this fan-drawn map (image here):

Panem Map

The Capitol is in Denver.

D12 is Appalachia.

D11 shares a border with D12, is one of the largest districts, is South of D12, and is primarily used for growing grain and produce.

D10 is primarily used for raising livestock. They do NOT process the livestock in D10. However, to feed an entire nation, D10 is likely another very large District.

D9 processes food for the Capitol and the tesserae; therefore, it likely shares borders with the food production Districts (D4, D10, D11).

D8 produces and treats textiles and is a factory District. It is POSSIBLE to reach D12 from D8 on foot over a course of weeks/months. Therefore, it does not cross a large body of water.

May the maps be ever in your books.

Revisiting “Juice,” 25 years later

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

It’s been a (very!) eventful two weeks, but I still can’t stop thinking about Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s terrific appreciation of Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 film Juice. That’s as good a reason as any to share it here.

Juice might be Tupac Shakur’s signature performance as an actor: he’s charming and frustrating, thoughtful and thoughtless — accelerating through emotions and personalities like an athlete changing speed mid-play — beautiful and wrathful and doomed, like Achilles or James Dean. Or, like Tupac.

Willis-Abdurraqib zeroes in a key part of the story, and of the best art from the era in which the film was made — “what so rarely happens with black people who live and die and do wrong today: an ability to visualize a complete life behind simply a finger that pulls a trigger, and a willingness to understand what drove them there.”

Juice came at a time when the black nihilist was being visualized and reconsidered onscreen in ways that had traditionally been afforded to and reheated for white actors and their stories. Movies like New Jack City, Menace II Society, and Boyz n the Hood showed black characters who either gained things with no moral code, or who were deeply aware of how little they had to live for, and conducted themselves in a manner that showed that awareness regardless of whom it hurt. These characters were sometimes sympathetic and complex, but none were like Tupac’s Bishop — in part because it was Tupac playing the role, but also because of the way we find Bishop, and how he ends up. By the time I was old enough to understand the emotion of his narrative, when I watched Bishop fall from the rooftop and heard the sound of a body hitting concrete that followed, I felt like I had lost a friend — a friend who, like some of my actual friends, had drifted into the machinery of some vice and had not felt loved or seen enough to shake their way out of it…

A tragedy is defined by the fatal flaw that plagues its central character, and the ways in which that flaw echoes down to all the other characters, leading to a brief and immediate reversal of fortune. The Greeks referred to this kind of flaw as hamartia — literally, a missing of the mark. Hamartia is to aim for a target and not hit it, and to have yourself end up on the other side of tragedy. It is, perhaps, to aim a gun at someone you want to kill and then pull the trigger, hitting them instead in an arm that they will soon need to pull your body back to safety. The true reversal of fortune rests in the brief moment before Bishop falls to the ground, when you realize that Quincy wants to save him, but can’t.

I should add, especially for readers who’ve never seen it, that Juice is beautiful. Dickerson was/is one of the best cinematographers alive before he became a director, and it shows. And the soundtrack is amazing. You could say it was a forgotten movie, but it’s just so unforgettable.

Abacus use can boost math skills (and other lessons on learning)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2017

Abacus

The abacus counting device dates back thousands of years but has, in the past century, been replaced by calculators and computers. But studies show that abacus use can have an effect on how well people learn math. In this excerpt adapted from his new book Learn Better, education researcher Ulrich Boser writes about the abacus and how people learn.

Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches.

UC San Diego psychologist David Barner led one of the studies, and he argues that abacus training can significantly boost math skills with effects potentially lasting for decades.

“Based on everything we know about early math education and its long-term effects, I’ll make the prediction that children who thrive with abacus will have higher math scores later in life, perhaps even on the SAT,” Barner told me.

Ignore the hyperbolic “and it changed my life” in the title…this piece is interesting throughout. For example, this passage on the strength of the mind-body connection and the benefits of learning by doing:

When first I watched high school abacus whiz Serena Stevenson, her hand gestures seemed like a pretentious affect, like people who wear polka-dot bow ties. But it turned out that her finger movements weren’t really all that dramatic, and on YouTube, I watched students with even more theatrical gesticulations. What’s more, the hand movements turned out to be at the heart of the practice, and without any arm or finger motions, accuracy can drop by more than half.

Part of the explanation for the power of the gestures goes to the mind-body connection. But just as important is the fact that abacus makes learning a matter of doing. It’s an active, engaging process. As one student told me, abacus is like “intellectual powerlifting.”

Psychologist Rich Mayer has written a lot about this idea, and in study after study he has shown that people gain expertise by actively producing what they know. As he told me: “Learning is a generative activity.”

I’d never heard of the concept of overlearning before:

Everybody from actors learning lines, to musicians learning new songs, to teachers trying to impart key facts to students has observed that learning has to “sink in” in the brain. Prior studies and also the new one, for example, show that when people learn a new task and then learn a similar one soon afterward, the second instance of learning often interferes with and undermines the mastery achieved on the first one.

The new study shows that overlearning prevents against such interference, cementing learning so well and quickly, in fact, that the opposite kind of interference happens instead. For a time, overlearning the first task prevents effective learning of the second task — as if learning becomes locked down for the sake of preserving master of the first task. The underlying mechanism, the researchers discovered, appears to be a temporary shift in the balance of two neurotransmitters that control neural flexibility, or “plasticity,” in the part of the brain where the learning occurred.

“These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-training plastic and unstable [learning state] to a hyperstabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning,” wrote the team led by corresponding author Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown.

The evolution of recorded music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2017

The Recording Academy has produced a series of three short and breezy videos on the history of recorded music, from the wax cylinder phonograph to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. Interest piqued, I went to read more about the history of the CD. When developing the disc, the physical size of it was dictated by Beethoven:

The two companies argued about what size, shape and technology the CD should support. It was eventually settled on a disc of 115 millimetres in diameter and 74 minutes worth of storage. Why 74 minutes? To fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, of course.

When the format was released in 1982, players cost $900 and CDs themselves were $30 ($2270 and $75 in 2016 dollars)1 and fewer than 100 individual titles were available for sale.

  1. And remember when movies on VHS cost up to $89.95? (If you paid that for a movie in 1984, that’s $210 in 2016 dollars. Suddenly those Hamilton tickets don’t seem so expensive.) Very few could afford to buy movies outright at that price…therefore, Blockbuster. See also the pricing for the original Nintendo.

Michael K. Williams asks Michael K. Williams: You think I’m being typecast?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2017

Actor Michael K. Williams — who played Omar Little in The Wire and Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire — has a conversation with himself, musing if he’s been typecast for a certain type of role.

Face it, we from a certain type a people that come from a type a place that look a type a way. You know what that make us?

For a promotional video (for The Atlantic), that was unexpectedly poignant.

Flatland II, curved landscape panoramas

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Buyuktas Flatland

Buyuktas Flatland

Buyuktas Flatland

Aydın Büyüktaş has continued his Flatland project with more of these photographic panoramas folded over on themselves. Looks like he’s gotten better at picking good subjects and stitching these together…love these. (via colossal)

Brahms vs. Radiohead

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2017

Steve Hackman, aka Stereo Hideout, composes, arranges, and conducts mashups of orchestral music and pop music. Not just mixes on Soundcloud, mind you, but entirely new compositions that are played by actual orchestras. The video embedded above is Brahms Symphony No. 1 mixed with Radiohead’s OK Computer but he’s also done a few others that are available on YouTube: Copland vs Bon Iver, Beethoven vs Coldplay, and Bartok vs Bjork. Hackman’s next project in this vein? Tchaikovsky vs Drake, which he’s premiering with the Pittsburgh Symphony in March. (thx, spencer)

Update: Here’s a trailer from Tchaikovsky vs Drake:

I wish I lived closer to Pittsburgh…I’d totally go.

Authoritarian structures and the open web

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 03, 2017

Jesse Kriss wonders whether we’ve been acclimating ourselves to a more authoritarian system for some time, not just through politics, but in our technical and commercial choices. Like, say, whichever social network you might have used to route to this story right now.

We live with our technological and political systems. They are part of the fabric and substance of our everyday existence. That is significant, but it also goes deeper: their embedded values and philosophies are inescapable.

The systems we use everyday can have insidious effects: we internalize them, and they constrain our imaginations. When everything around us mirrors the same structural properties, those positions and impositions become invisible to us-we don’t even realize that they’re there, or that it could be any other way.

This isn’t to say that big systems have to be evil-far from it-but when everything is this way, our democracy, our agency, our freedom, and our imagination are all at risk.

This is by way of introducing a now two-weeks-old open-source project called Altcloud, described as “a web server with some niceties build in so that you can create real applications without any backend code or external services.” It’s probably beyond my talents, but I imagine more than a few Kottke readers could build some cool things with something like that.

Yesterday, I was talking with my friend Audrey Watters, a technology journalist, historian, and education activist. For years, Audrey’s been critical of education technology companies — their data and privacy practices, their close ties to the military and prison-industrial complexes, their historical myopia, and their ideologies about what learning is and what (and who) it is for. And basically, what she’s always done is to try to articulate an antifascist alternative to education technology, knowing that the roots of what we do now lies in the command-and-control models we borrowed from Nazi Germany, American slavery (and the systems that succeeded it), and the most exploitative and totalitarian sides of good old-fashioned liberal capitalism.

In a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump,” she writes:

I’m concerned, in no small part, because students are often unaware of the amount of data that schools and the software companies they contract with know about them. I’m concerned because students are compelled to use software in educational settings. You can’t opt out of the learning management system. You can’t opt out of the student information system. You can’t opt out of required digital textbooks or digital assignments or digital assessments. You can’t opt out of the billing system or the financial aid system. You can’t opt of having your cafeteria purchases, Internet usage, dorm room access, fitness center habits tracked. Your data as a student is scattered across multiple applications and multiple databases, most of which I’d wager are not owned or managed by the school itself but rather outsourced to a third-party provider.

School software (and I’m including K-12 software here alongside higher ed) knows your name, your birth date, your mailing address, your home address, your race or ethnicity, your gender (I should note here that many education technologies still require “male” or “female” and do not allow for alternate gender expressions). It knows your marital status. It knows your student identification number (it might know your Social Security Number). It has a photo of you, so it knows your face. It knows the town and state in which you were born. Your immigration status. Your first language and whether or not that first language is English. It knows your parents’ language at home. It knows your income status - that is, at the K-12 level, if you quality for a free or reduced lunch and at the higher ed level, if you qualify for a Pell Grant. It knows if you are the member of a military family. It knows if you have any special education needs. It knows if you were identified as “gifted and talented.” It knows if you graduated high school or passed a high school equivalency exam. It knows your attendance history - how often you miss class as well as which schools you’ve previously attended. It knows your behavioral history. It knows your criminal history. It knows your participation in sports or other extracurricular activities. It knows your grade level. It knows your major. It knows the courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned. It knows your standardized test scores.

This has always been a problem, but now it’s a problem with a different kind of relevance and a different range of endgames. Data can be destroyed, which hurts us one way, or it can be operationalized and abused, which hurts us in another. Data can also make us complicit, by limiting our range of expectations, encouraging us to accept compromised outcomes and successes and not question too closely what forces are moving behind the scenes. Trust given is not easily revoked; and trust abused is not easily regained.

Using data science to find the most depressing Radiohead songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Saddest Radiohead Song

Radiohead is data scientist Charlie Thompson’s favorite band and he recently employed his professional skills to determine Radiohead’s most depressing songs and albums. Using data from Spotify and Genius, he analyzed and weighted how sad each song sounded musically and the sadness of the lyrics.

While valence serves as an out-of-the box measure of musical sentiment, the emotions behind song lyrics are much more elusive. To find the most depressing song, I used sentiment analysis to pick out words associated with sadness. Specifically, I used tidytext and the NRC lexicon, based on a crowd-sourced project by the National Research Council Canada. This lexicon contains an array of emotions (sadness, joy, anger, surprise, etc.) and the words determined to most likely elicit them.

Unsurprisingly, True Love Waits is Radiohead’s saddest song and Moon Shaped Pool its saddest album. You can play with this interactive chart to see all of the results. I thought Videotape would score lower on the Gloom Index…along with True Love Waits, it’s my go-to Radiohead song for wallowing in the darkness of my life. (via @RichardWestenra)

The Gates Foundation Annual Letter for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

Each year, Bill and Melinda Gates write a letter about the work they’re doing with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006, Warren Buffett donated more than billion to their foundation, which effectively doubled its available resources. This year’s letter from the Gateses is addressed to Buffett and details the return on his investment so far.

Bill: If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million — the number of children’s lives saved since 1990.

Melinda: Every September, the UN announces the number of children under five who died the previous year. Every year, this number breaks my heart and gives me hope. It’s tragic that so many children are dying, but every year more children live.

Bill: More children survived in 2015 than in 2014. More survived in 2014 than in 2013, and so on. If you add it all up, 122 million children under age five have been saved over the past 25 years. These are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990.

Bill calls saving children’s lives “the best deal in philanthropy”. Melinda continues:

Melinda: And if you want to know the best deal within the deal — it’s vaccines. Coverage for the basic package of childhood vaccines is now the highest it’s ever been, at 86 percent. And the gap between the richest and the poorest countries is the lowest it’s ever been. Vaccines are the biggest reason for the drop in childhood deaths.

Melinda: They’re an incredible investment. The pentavalent vaccine, which protects against five deadly infections in a single shot, now costs under a dollar.

Bill: And for every dollar spent on childhood immunizations, you get $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving the money that families lose when a child is sick and a parent can’t work.

Vaccines. And Now my kids don’t die.

Meet America’s oldest living veteran

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 09, 2017

Richard Overton fought in the South Pacific in World War II, is 109 years old, still drives, sometimes drinks whiskey with breakfast, smokes 12 cigars a day (but doesn’t inhale), and still lives in the house he built himself in 1945. In this video from National Geographic, Overton talks about his military service, his faith, his long life, and soup. Overton’s short summary of World War II:

It wasn’t good, but we had to go.

I don’t really care to live to 100, but if I had Overton’s spirit and attitude, perhaps I’d consider it.

Update: Ryan Holiday recently visited with Overton and learned a thing or two about life.

The most animated Richard ever got was when he told me a story about the enormous pecan tree in his front yard. It seemed like an ordinary tree to me, until he told me his dog planted it seventy years ago. They had a pecan tree in the back, and the dog would grab the nuts and bury them in the front yard. With glee, Richard told me how eventually the tree grew and now it’s so big it’s nearly pushing up the foundation of his house. He loved the absurdity of it — a dog planting a tree! He was laughing at it still, seven decades later.

And then there’s this, about another instance of The Great Span:

It’s fascinating to think that when Richard was born Theodore Roosevelt was president. Overton is the oldest living American veteran now, but when he was born, Henry L. Riggs was still alive. Riggs was a veteran of the Black Hawk War (1832) and he was born in 1812…and Conrad Heyer, the Revolutionary War veteran and the oldest and earliest person to be photographed (born in 1749) was still alive when Riggs was born. Three overlapping lives, that’s all it took to get back to before even the idea of founding the United States. Richard’s brother fought in the first World War. He told me he remembered seeing Civil War veterans around when he was a kid. Not many, but they were there. It was Texas — those men fought to keep his mother in slavery. How long ago all that horribleness seems. How recent it is at the same time.

Ocean-like abstracts by Samantha Keely Smith

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2017

Samantha Keely Smith

I love these abstract paintings by Samantha Keely Smith. The paintings are Smith’s attempt at representing our inner emotional worlds using imagery resembling oceans, clouds, and even nebulas. From Colossal:

Smith refers to her paintings as ‘internal landscapes,’ part of an ongoing examination of an externalized inner conflict. “My newer works try to boldly portray the struggle I’ve always tried to address in my work between order and chaos, dark and light, and positive and negative impulses,” Smith shares, “along with addressing what feels like a shifting and unpredictable landscape due to global warming.”

A few prints of the original paintings are available through Smith’s website.

The Book of Circles

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2017

Book Of Circles

The Book of Circles is an upcoming book by Manuel Lima about the use of circles in information design.

In this follow-up to his hugely popular The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity, Manuel Lima takes us on a lively tour through millennia of circular information design. Three hundred detailed and colorful illustrations from around the world cover an encyclopedic array of subjects-architecture, urban planning, fine art, design, fashion, technology, religion, cartography, biology, astronomy, and physics, all based on the circle, the universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, enlightenment, and perfection. Clay tokens used by ancient Sumerians as a system of recording trade are juxtaposed with logos of modern retailers like Target; Venn diagrams are discussed alongside the trefoil biohazard symbol, symbols of the Christian trinity, and the Olympic rings; and a diagram revealing the characteristics of ten thousand porn stars displays structural similarities to early celestial charts placing the earth at the center of the universe.

I have both of Lima’s previous books, The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity.

Green Angels: the NYC drug ring run by former models

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

The Green Angels is a group of pot dealers that was started by a former fashion model named Honey (not her real name). Many of the dealers and dispatchers are also former models…or at least possess enough good looks and easy charm to talk their way out of trouble with NYPD officers.

Honey is clear-eyed about the nature of her operation: “I tell the girls, it’s not a club; it’s a drug ring.” The whole business is run via text messages between her, the dispatchers in her headquarters, the runners who do the deliveries, and the customers. “I have carpal tunnel in my thumb from all the texting,” Honey says. Dispatchers get 10 percent of each sale; the runners get 20 percent, which averages out to $300 or $400 a day. Several of them, according to Honey, “are paying off their NYU student loans.”

Just like any other business, there are tricks of the trade and protocols to follow:

One of the Angels suggests using a tote bag instead of a backpack to carry the box. She generally uses a WNYC tote bag, which is given out to donors to the public-radio station. The other day, an old lady gave her a high five after seeing her tote. “I thought, If you only knew what I have in this bag,” she says.

Honey tells the girls to get a work phone from MetroPCS, which costs $100. When buying it, they should pay in cash and have a name in mind to put down on the form, in case the police check. “I like to use the names of girls who were my enemies growing up,” Honey says.

The business is organized and disciplined, which I suspect it needs to be if you don’t want to get tossed in jail:

The Green Angels average around 150 orders a day, which is about a fourth of what the busiest services handle. When a customer texts, it goes to one of the cell phones on the table in the living room. There’s a hierarchy: The phones with the pink covers are the lowest; they contain the numbers of the flakes, cheapskates, or people who live in Bed-Stuy. The purple phones contain the good, solid customers. Blue is for the VIPs. There are over a thousand customers on Honey’s master list.

To place an order, a customer is supposed to text “Can we hang out?” and a runner is sent to his apartment. No calling, no other codes or requests. Delivery is guaranteed within an hour and a half. If the customer isn’t home, he gets a strike. Three strikes and he’s 86’d. If he yells at the runner, he’s 86’d immediately.

The Angels work only by referral. The customers should refer people they really know and trust, not strangers, and no one they’ve met in a bar. If you refer someone who becomes a problem, Charley says, you lose your membership.

Really interesting throughout.

Best of Kottke: Groundhog Day Liveblog

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2017

It’s Groundhog Day — again. Once a year, our nation turns its eyes to an offbeat existential romantic comedy that thoroughly outperforms its sharpie-on-an-index-card premise, thanks to a brilliant collection of character actors, a thoroughly memorizable script, and the then-underrated, now-maybe-a-smidge-overrated acting talents of Bill Murray.

Four years ago, Jason hosted a 20th anniversary Groundhog Day liveblog with three of his regular guest editors: me, Sarah Pavis, and Aaron Cohen. It was a lot of fun. (I talked too much.)

Some of the questions we considered:

The answer to that last question is almost definitely yes.

Whitman, Alabama

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has spent the past two years travelling all around Alabama, collecting short video vignettes of people’s lives — “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?” — and now she’s posting the videos on the Whitman, Alabama site.

I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.

We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?”

And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)

And then we said: “There’s a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?”

I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, “Yes, I believe that’d still be all right.”

Each of her 52 subjects recites a verse from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself. Why Whitman and not a poem by a southern poet?

I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We’ve taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”

The Sullivan family read verse 16:

Some people just hit you in the heart. I was at Yen Restaurant in Mobile, looking for a hit of comfort food—Vietnamese food — and Cathy, Samantha and Brandon walked in.

Samantha reminded me of myself — half-Asian, half-white, sort of a tomboy. I approached them. Immediately they were open and warm. I asked Cathy if they might want to read for the project.

She said sure. No hesitation. She appreciated art and music. Samantha did, too. Cathy stenciled boats for a living. Samantha wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer someday.

Sometimes if people think something isn’t going to look good to other people, they won’t let you see it, let alone film it. But Cathy threw open the doors in full welcome.

Spend some time with the project, meet some of your fellow Americans you might not know that well. (via @alainabrowne)

Update: Jia Tolentino interviewed Crandall about the project for the New Yorker.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

A human-powered paper centrifuge

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2017

Testing human blood for tropical diseases like malaria can be difficult in some parts of the world. Centrifuges used to separate the blood for testing are expensive and require electricity. Researchers from Stanford have developed an ingenious human-powered centrifuge made of paper and string inspired by a children’s toy invented 5000 years ago (paging Steven Johnson, Steven Johnson to the courtesy desk please).

In a global-health context, commercial centrifuges are expensive, bulky and electricity-powered, and thus constitute a critical bottleneck in the development of decentralized, battery-free point-of-care diagnostic devices. Here, we report an ultralow-cost (20 cents), lightweight (2 g), human-powered paper centrifuge (which we name ‘paperfuge’) designed on the basis of a theoretical model inspired by the fundamental mechanics of an ancient whirligig (or buzzer toy; 3,300 BC). The paperfuge achieves speeds of 125,000 r.p.m. (and equivalent centrifugal forces of 30,000 g), with theoretical limits predicting 1,000,000 r.p.m. We demonstrate that the paperfuge can separate pure plasma from whole blood in less than 1.5 min, and isolate malaria parasites in 15 min.

A million rpm from paper and string…that’s incredible. (via gizmodo)

The leisurely pace of light speed

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2017

In a 45-minute video called Riding Light, Alphonse Swinehart animates the journey outward from the Sun to Jupiter from the perspective of a photon of light. The video underscores just how slow light is in comparison to the vast distances it has to cover, even within our own solar system. Light takes 8.5 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, almost 45 minutes to Jupiter, more than 4 years to the nearest star, 100,000 years to the center of our galaxy, 2.5 million years to the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda), and 32 billion years to reach the most remote galaxy ever observed.1 The music is by Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians), whose music can also seem sort of endless.

If you’re impatient, you can watch this 3-minute version, sped up by 15 times:

  1. This isn’t strictly true. As I understand it, a photon that just left the Sun will never reach that most remote galaxy.

That fainting life

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Fainting

Isabella Rotman drew a comic for The Nib about her life as a hemophobe (someone who faints at the sight of blood).

Once at a former deli job, I passed out onto a pizza oven in response to a coworker’s particularly graphic description of a lawn mower injury. Had the oven been on, I would have suffered some pretty drastic burns.

I’m a fainter, though not at the sight of blood. After fainting a couple of times in high school, a doctor chalked it up to low blood pressure — I am the chillest mofo you know, blood pressure-wise — and urged me not to stand up too quickly after lying down. Just this morning, I did not heed that advice and almost toppled over after getting out of bed and stretching my arms above my head.

But my bigger problem, and what made Rotman’s comic resonate with me, is that medical procedures and doctor’s offices also cause me to faint. This wasn’t always the case. When I was younger, I received allergy shots up to three times a week and had no problem going into the clinic to get my shot…I even looked at the thin needle going into my arm every time. Flu shots, dentist visits, doctor’s appointments? No problem. Then when I was 17, I went to the local clinic for a mandatory physical for college. They did a blood draw, which went smoothly, but right afterwards, as I was sitting in a chair in the hallway, I fainted — probably because of my low blood pressure. Weird, but not a big deal.

Fast forward 12-15 years, during which time (because I was young and healthy and dumb and medical care is expensive) I did not visit a doctor’s office1 and somehow I had developed a phobia of needles going into my skin. I found this out when I went to get a flu shot, watched the needle sink into my arm, and promptly passed the fuck out.2 Since then, any time I’ve had to get a shot or blood drawn, I have fainted (or at least felt like I was going to).

That’s bad enough, but the problem became psychosomatic. Any trip to a doctor’s office will now trigger a faint feeling, even if I’m not the patient. Every time I take my kids to the pediatrician, there’s a possibility I’ll end up on the floor. When my wife was pregnant with our first kid, I nearly fainted at one of her ultrasound appointments and the ultrasound tech plopped me down in a nearby chair and handed me a glucose drink, telling me that becoming a father is a lot to handle for some men. (I think I nodded weakly, not even able to muster a “yeah, it’s not that”.) It’s gotten to the point where even *thinking* about it makes me feel weird. My palms have been sweaty and I’ve felt lightheaded the entire time I’ve been writing this post. The same thing happens when I tell people about it in person. It’s ridiculous and I feel stupid about it, even though it’s a stark reminder how much your subconscious thoughts can affect your body (and how little control we have over ourselves sometimes).

As Rotman did, I have been attempting exposure therapy with some success. When I went in for a physical a few months ago, I told the nurse that I might faint during the blood draw. She had me lay down on the table and just before she came over with the kit, I popped my headphones in and put on some relaxing music (Tycho I think). I broke out in a sweat and the procedure took much longer than it should have — she had to stick me *twice* because she didn’t get enough the first time — but I got through it without passing out. Progress to build on, I hope!

  1. Aside from a trip to the emergency room from — you guessed it! — a fainting incident when I was 24. Came to on the floor of the bathroom having slammed my mouth on the edge of the counter. It was exactly as painful as it sounds and it totally fucked up my grill.

  2. And wow, did the nurse look alarmed when I came to a few seconds later. They all look alarmed, even when I tell them ahead of time that I might faint. One of the last times, the nurse said, “I didn’t think you were actually serious.” (That fainting experience was the weirdest one I’ve ever had. According to the nurse, I was out for about 6-8 seconds but had a whole experience in my head that lasted for at least a half hour. I wasn’t near death, but it felt very real and I can definitely see how some people would interpret that as an out-of-body or religious experience.)

Personal stories about political objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2017

Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker have collected a group of writers to tell stories about political objects they own.

Batches of POLITICAL OBJECTS stories will appear on HILOBROW before, on, and just after the inauguration, and will continue to roll out through the end of March. The objects include overtly political artifacts both charismatic and absurd, and items whose stealthily political nature will surprise you; the stories range from the uplifting to the poignant to the unexpectedly illuminating. It’s a terrific collection.

Stephen Duncombe wrote about a God Bless Hysteria protest sign and Ben Greenman wrote about a Matchbox car.

Soon enough, I found what I didn’t know I was looking for — a Corvette. This was early May of 2016. Prince had just died. I had just started writing a book about him. I knew that I needed a little red Corvette, somehow, as a talisman. The only problem was that the one from the bin was black. I bought it. I took it home. I went into the closet and found the model paints that my sons no longer use. I painted it red.

The civics test for US naturalization

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Among the requirements that all immigrants must meet to become a naturalized US citizen is a civics test covering US history and government. The test contains 100 questions, 10 of which are verbally posed by a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer…no multiple choice. Applicants must answer 6 out of 10 correctly to pass. The questions include:

What is the supreme law of the land?
What is freedom of religion?
What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the President of the United States now?
Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
When must all men register for the Selective Service?
Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did?
Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
Name two national U.S. holidays.

You can take a 20-question multiple choice test on the USCIS website or if you want to see how many you can answer out of 100 with no multiple choice, I knocked up a Google Sheets version here — access is read-only but you can make a copy and take the test by choosing File / Make a copy… from the menu. Here’s a full list of the questions and suggested answers to check your work. Without studying, some of the questions are more difficult than you’d think, particularly if your last political science and American history classes were 25 years ago in high school.

And like all tests, this one is imperfect.1 In 2001, Dafna Linzer wrote about her test-taking experience.

Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?

I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.

There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”

Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”

The Simpsons lampooned this aspect of the test in 1996 when Apu answered a question about the Civil War2 during his civics test.

Examiner: “Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War?”

Apu: “Actually there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, economic factors both domestic and international…”

Examiner: “Hey, hey…”

Apu: “Yep?”

Examiner: “Just… just say ‘slavery’”.

Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”

This would never happen in a million years, but I would love for someone to sit down with Donald Trump to see how many of these he could answer. Like I said, if you haven’t studied, some of the questions are not that easy. But surely the President of the United States should be able to get almost all of them correct…

  1. I was always good at tests in school because I learned early on the difference between the correct answer and the answer you’re supposed to give. Most of the time, they’re the same but not always.

  2. The question from the actual test reads “Name one problem that led to the Civil War” and the three suggested answers are “slavery”, “economic reasons”, and “states’ rights”.

Wired in the 1990s

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

I used to work at Wired, and later at The Verge, and at both places we had a lot of reverence for “Wired in the 90s.” You’d say it fast like that, too — “wired-in-the-90s” — and it was a universally recognized shorthand for relevance, cool, slick design, smart writers, the “culture of now.” I suspect it probably stands for that for a lot of Kottke readers too.

Yesterday, for reasons unknown, my RSS reader spit up a random Kevin Kelly post from 2012 called “Predicting the Present” that excerpts a bunch of quotes from the early years of Wired. Here are some of them (I tried to pick fun ones):

We as a culture are deeply, hopelessly, insanely in love with gadgetry. And you can’t fight love and win.

Jaron Lanier, Wired 1.02, May/June 1993, p. 80

The idea of Apple making a $200 anything was ridiculous to me. Apple couldn’t make a $200 blank disk.

— Bill Atkinson, Wired 2.04, Apr 1994, p. 104

Marc Andreessen will tell you with a straight face that he expects Mosaic Communications’s Mosaic to become the world’s standard interface to electronic information.

— Gary Wolf, Wired 2.10, Oct 1994, p. 116

The human spirit is infinitely more complex than anything that we’re going to be able to create in the short run. And if we somehow did create it in the short run, it would mean that we aren’t so complex after all, and that we’ve all been tricking ourselves.

— Douglas Hofstadter, Wired 3.11, Nov 1995, p. 114

Of all the prospects raised by the evolution of digital culture, the most tantalizing is the possibility that technology could fuse with politics to create a more civil society.

— Jon Katz, Wired 5.04, Apr 1997

It is the arrogance of every age to believe that yesterday was calm.

— Tom Peters, Wired 5.12, Dec 1997

Separately, Ingrid Burrington was leafing through a 1996 issue of Wired and found this beauty:

AI-based investment systems will cut a swath through Wall Street, automating thousands of jobs or downgrading their skills.

— Clive Davidson, freely quoting Ron Liesching, Wired 4.12, Dec 1996

Elena Ferrante’s novels to become a TV series

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a series of four novels set in post-war Naples, will be turned into a 32-part TV miniseries directed and co-written by Italian director Saverio Costanzo.

Mr. Costanzo, best known for “Private” and “Hungry Hearts” (which co-starred Adam Driver), said in a telephone interview that the biggest challenge to adapting the novels for television was how “to convey the same emotions as the books in a cinematographic way.”

He added that he was writing the script with the Italian writers Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci, and that Ms. Ferrante was also expected to contribute to the screenplay. (He expects to communicate with the author via email.)

The series will be filmed in Italy in Italian. The first season will cover the first book, with eight episodes of 50 minutes each. Filming is expected to begin in Naples this year and the first season is expected to air in the fall of 2018.

This could be amazing or it could be terrible. Or I guess it could be mediocre. Or anywhere in between really. [Uh, thanks for that hard-hitting analysis, Jason. -ed] (via @tedgioia)

Every book Barack Obama recommended during his presidency

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2017

President Obama is a reader. NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani interviewed Obama about his reading just before he left office.

Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.

During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.

During his tenure in office, the President publicly recommended 86 different books, compiled into one list by Entertainment Weekly. Here are several of them, some of which I have also read and recommended on this very site:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro
Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Working, Studs Terkel
Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow
The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin
What Is the What, Dave Eggers

Our most widely read US President, for sure.

Update: I’m getting some pushback on my assertion that Obama was “our most widely read US President”. Since “widely read” seems to have multiple meanings, I should have been more explicit on what I meant. I didn’t mean that he had written the most books read by the most people (that is perhaps Teddy Roosevelt) or had read the most books (George W. Bush and Roosevelt were both voracious readers, as were Jefferson, Clinton, and Lincoln). I meant that compared to previous Presidents, Obama has read books from the widest spectrum of viewpoints and authors. Among the list of 86 (which are not the books he read in office but just the ones he publicly recommended) are books on politics (of course), science, economics, sports, and medicine, some classics, children’s books, plenty of fiction, and science fiction. Most importantly, the list includes many books written by women and persons of color. Judging by this (partial) George W. Bush reading list (which includes only two books written by women (one of whom is his daughter)), outside of Clinton and perhaps Carter, I would wager very few Presidents have read many books by women and no more than a token few books by black authors.

Advice on how to play a gig by Thelonious Monk

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2017

Advice from Thelonious Monk

In 1960, saxophonist Steve Lacy wrote down a list of advice from jazz pianist Thelonious Monk on how to play music. Among the items on the list:

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!

Always leave them wanting more.

What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

As is the case with most thoughtful advice, many of Monk’s points apply to things other than music. (via swiss miss)