kottke.org posts about books

The Complacent ClassJul 25 2016

Complacent ClassThe Complacent Class is a forthcoming book by Tyler Cowen.

Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.

The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition -- we're working harder than ever to avoid change. We're moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.

Of course, this "matching culture" brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We're more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.

Cowen is also releasing another book called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to "think big."

It is only available by emailing him that you've pre-ordered The Complacent Class. Oh, and a reminder about how I (try to) read books.

The quest to upgrade humans to godsJul 20 2016

In Sapiens (which I enjoyed and recommend), Yuval Noah Harari gave us a "brief history of humankind". In his upcoming Homo Deus, Harari turns "his focus toward humanity's future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods".

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style -- thorough, yet riveting -- famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die 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 put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century -- from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

The legs of New YorkJul 15 2016

NY LegsNY LegsNY LegsNY Legs

Stacey Baker, who is a photo editor at the NY Times, spends some of her leisure time photographing the legs of women on the streets of NYC. Her Instagram account has 78K+ followers and now she's turned the project into a book: New York Legs.

NY Legs Cover

Great cover.

The man who became a goatJul 13 2016

Goatman

In response to feeling like he was psychologically "stuck in a big, dark hole", designer Thomas Thwaites decided to become a goat. At least part time.

From this, he builds a goat exoskeleton-artificial legs, helmet, chest protector, raincoat from his mum, and a prosthetic goat stomach to digest grass (with help from a pressure cooker and campfire)-before setting off across the Alps on four legs with a herd of his fellow creatures. Will he make it? Do Thwaites and his readers discover what it truly means to be human?

A book detailing his experience came out earlier this year.

You may remember Thwaites as the guy who built a toaster from scratch (also a book). Like completely from scratch...he smelted his own iron ore.

Wes Anderson's Bad DadsJul 11 2016

Bad Dads

Wes Anderson's films are chock full of bad fathers and father figures. Bad Dads, the third book in the Wes Anderson Collection, showcases some of the art from the annual Bad Dads art show (prints!) at the Spoke Art Gallery in San Francisco.

Harry Potter and the Artificial IntelligenceJul 11 2016

Max Deutsch trained a neural network using the first four Harry Potter books and then asked it to write its own chapter.

"The Malfoys!" said Hermione.

Harry was watching him. He looked like Madame Maxime. When she strode up the wrong staircase to visit himself.

"I'm afraid I've definitely been suspended from power, no chance - indeed?" said Snape. He put his head back behind them and read groups as they crossed a corner and fluttered down onto their ink lamp, and picked up his spoon. The doorbell rang. It was a lot cleaner down in London.

Hermione yelled. The party must be thrown by Krum, of course.

Harry collected fingers once more, with Malfoy. "Why, didn't she never tell me. ..." She vanished. And then, Ron, Harry noticed, was nearly right.

"Now, be off," said Sirius, "I can't trace a new voice."

Rowling, your job is safe for now. Deutsch did the same thing with the Hamilton soundtrack...the result is not particularly good but that last line!

Police racism: a tale of two justice systemsJul 08 2016

In 1974, Studs Terkel published a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. One of the people he talked to for the book was Chicago police officer Renault Robinson. Robinson is African American and offered up his views to Terkel on how blacks are policed differently...here are the relevant bits of the interview. On traffic stops:

"About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. It's easier to stop a person on the pretext of a traffic violation than to stop him on the street. It's a lot easier to say, "Your tail light's out." "Your plate is dented." "You didn't make that turn right." You can then search his automobile, hoping you can find some contraband or a weapon. If he becomes irritated, with very little pushing on your part, you can make an arrest for disorderly conduct. These are all statistics which help your records.

Certain units in the task force have developed a science around stopping your automobile. These men know it's impossible to drive three blocks without committing a traffic violation. We've got so many rules on the books. These police officers use these things to get points and also hustle for money. The traffic law is a fat book. He knows if you don't have two lights on your license plate, that's a violation. If you have a crack in your windshield, that's a violation. If your muffler's dragging, that's a violation. He knows all these little things....

So if they stop the average black driver, in their mind the likelihood of finding five or six violations out of a hundred cars is highly possible.... After you've stopped a thousand, you've got 950 people who are very pissed off, 950 who might have been just average citizens, not doing anything wrong - teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people. The police don't care. Black folks don't have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree."

And on the type of young white male that the job was attracting at the time:

A large amount of young white officers are gung ho. It's an opportunity to make a lot of arrests, make money, and do a lot of other things. In their opinion, black people are all criminals, no morals, dirty and nasty. So the black people don't cooperate with the police and they have good cause not to. On the other hand, they're begging for more police service. They're over-patrolled and under-protected.

The young white guys turn out to be actually worse than their predecessors. They're more vicious. The average young white policeman comes from a working-class family, sometimes with less than a high-school education. He comes with built-in prejudices. The average young white cop is in bad shape. I think he can be saved if a change came from the top. If it could be for just eight hours a day. They may still hate niggers when they got off duty. They may still belong to the John Birch Society or the Ku Klux Klan. So what? They could be forced to perform better during the eight hours of work."

Reading about this stuff, I keep going back to the 9 principles of policing drawn up by London's Metropolitan Police in the 1820s in which the power of the police comes from the people, force is to be used minimally, and the efficacy of policing is judged on the absence of crime, not on the number of arrests or people sent to jail.

Redditt Hudson served as a police officer in St. Louis during the 1990s. He shared his perspective on race and policing with Vox last year: I'm a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing.

It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed.

And no matter what an officer has done to a black person, that officer can always cover himself in the running narrative of heroism, risk, and sacrifice that is available to a uniformed police officer by virtue of simply reporting for duty.

(via @tonyszhou)

I Contain MultitudesJul 07 2016

I Contain Multitudes

Crackerjack science writer Ed Yong is coming out with his very first book in a month's time. It's called I Contain Multitudes (good title!) and is about "astonishing partnerships between animals and microbes".

Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Ed Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light-less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are.

The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squid with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.

I will read anything described as "like a David Attenborough series shot through a really good microscope".

How happy is Twitter?Jul 06 2016

Using a 5000-word dictionary of words rated on their happiness, the Hedonometer measures the average happiness on Twitter.

Happy Twitter

Christmas is always the happiest day of the year ("merry", "happy", and "joy" are all pretty positive) while shootings and terrorist attacks are Twitter's saddest events. The recent mass shooting in Orlando seems to be the least happy Twitter has been over the past 7+ years.

The Hedonometer also analyzes the overall happiness of movies based on their scripts. The happiest movie is Sex in the City while the saddest is Omega Man (followed by The Bourne Ultimatum). Somehow, the fourth happiest movie is Lost in Translation, which might be reason for some overall skepticism about the project's sensitivity to context.

The happiness over time of individual movie scripts has been analyzed by the Hedonometer too. Pulp Fiction's happiest moment is when Vincent and Mia go to Jackrabbit Slim's and the low point is "Bring out the Gimp".

Happy Pulp Fiction

The system has analyzed books as well...the low point of the entire Harry Potter series seems to be the event at the end of The Half-Blood Prince.

Update: Grain of salt and all that, but the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers have pushed the happiness quotient on Twitter lower again so that the two least happy days have both occurred in the past month. There's been a general feeling that 2016 has been a bad year, like George RR Martin is writing it. I wish the data were available for a closer analysis, but if you look at the chart, you can see that Twitter's overall happiness starts to rise around the end of 2012 but starts to fall again right around the beginning of 2016...the effect is quite clear, even just from eyeballing it.

The winners of the 2015 50 Books/50 Covers competitionJun 27 2016

The AIGA and Design Observer have announced the results of the 50 Books/50 Covers competition for books published in 2015. The competition recognizes excellence in design of books and, separately, book covers. Here are a couple of my favorite covers:

50books Covers 201550books Covers 2015Oreo by Fran Ross was designed by Erik Carter and Moon-Kie Jung's Beneath the Surface of White Supremacy was designed by Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein.

Six million years of human history, explained in 10 minutesJun 24 2016

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

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

Britain votes to leave the EUJun 24 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What comes next?

You've been freed

Do you know how hard it is to lead?

You're on your own

Awesome. Wow

Do you have a clue what happens now?

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

When you hurt me, you hurt yourself

Try not to hurt yourself

When you play me, you play yourself

Don't play yourself

When you lie to me, you lie to yourself

You only lying to yourself

When you love me, you love yourself

Britain just played itself.

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

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

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

On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe ItselfJun 23 2016

Big Picture Carroll

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

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

Yeah, that sounds right up my alley.

The most frequently stolen booksJun 08 2016

Most Stolen Books

Vintage/Anchor Books recently tweeted out a photo of a Most Stolen Books shelf at a bookstore. Some of the books on the shelf include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (one of many Murakamis), Charles Bukowski's Hollywood, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

According to research by Candice Huber, books by Bukowski and Kerouac are indeed popular targets for theft from bookstores, along with those by Hemingway, David Sedaris, and The Great Gatsby. All of the books listed are by men, and most by "manly" men. This 2009 list from the UK is slightly different: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book both rank high.

Libraries are a different story. According to Huber, the most frequently stolen library books are the Guinness Book of World Records, which is a favorite around our house,1 and The Bible. Thieves could use the Good Book's wisdom more than many, I guess. Art books, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and test prep books are also popular with the light-fingered. Judging from my personal experience hanging around garages and auto mechanics when I was a kid, Chilton's Auto Repair manuals were also lifted quite often.

  1. "Daddy, our copy is from 2014. We should get the one from this year, so we can check if any of the records have been broken."

Michael Lewis on irrationality in human decision-makingJun 06 2016

Michael Lewis Undoing

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

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

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

The Gene: An Intimate HistoryJun 02 2016

Siddhartha Mukherjee, who wrote The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer and one of my favorite recent reads, is out with a new book called The Gene: An Intimate History.

Siddhartha Mukherjee has a written a biography of the gene as deft, brilliant, and illuminating as his extraordinarily successful biography of cancer. Weaving science, social history, and personal narrative to tell us the story of one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times, Mukherjee animates the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices.

The book comes recommended by Tyler Cowen, who IIRC also recommended Emperor of All Maladies to me.

This book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge, plus it is engaging to read. Overall it confirmed my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use.

This is on the must-read list this summer. Somehow. When I get a second.

On bullshit and Donald TrumpJun 02 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Star Wars prequels predicted our current political momentJun 02 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Frog and Toad and the Self"May 27 2016

Frog And Toad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killers of the Flower Moon by David GrannMay 26 2016

Osage Dancers

David Grann has been relatively quiet lately on Twitter and at the New Yorker, where he is a staff writer; he hasn't written anything for them in more than four years. I figured he was busy writing a book and so he was. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is about the murders of the members of the Osage Indian Nation in the 1920s.

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

Sounds fantastic. Grann's previous books are The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, which should be out in movie form sometime soon.

13 books recommended by Ta-Nehisi CoatesMay 24 2016

In a conversation last year with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates recommended that readers of his acclaimed Between the World and Me check out a baker's dozen other books, including his mentor David Carr's The Night of the Gun, The Half Has Never Been Told (previously mentioned here), and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.

I could have imagined Isabel Wilkerson's excellent The Warmth of Other Suns on this list too; it's the most eye-opening American history book I've read in years. (Paging Lin-Manuel Miranda to make a play out of this.)

Bill Gates' summer reading listMay 23 2016

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in addition to attempting to save the world, is also a voracious reader. He recently recommended five books that you should read this summer. On the list is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which I might finally try, having absolutely loved Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon when I read them a few years ago. Gates also recommends Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, which I read earlier this year and think about every few days. I wrote a bit about Sapiens and the invention of farming, which is a topic about which Gates disagreed with Harari.

Tom Hanks is back as Robert Langdon in InfernoMay 09 2016

Robert Langdon is back. The Da Vinci Code's Dan Brown wrote a book about a secret riddle related to Dante's Inferno and Tom Hanks is back to star in the movie version. Oh yes.

Confession: The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons are two of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. Further even more embarrassing confession: my pleasure in The Da Vinci Code is not even guilty...I think it's just a straight-up good action adventure movie. In summary: are you sure you want to trust my movie advice in the future? (via trailer town)

Jane Jacobs born 100 years ago todayMay 04 2016

Jane Jacobs Google Doodle

Jane Jacobs, journalist, activist, and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (one of my favorite books of all time), was born 100 years ago today. Curbed has a big collection of stories in celebration and Vox also has an appreciation of her career.

When Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, she was a lone voice with no credentials speaking up against the most powerful ideas in urban planning. Fifty-five years later, on Jacobs' 100th birthday (honored in today's Google Doodle), urban dwellers are all living in her vision of the great American city.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a reaction to urban planning movements that wanted to clear entire city blocks and rebuild them. Jacobs argued this ignored everything that made cities great: the mixture of shops, offices, and housing that brought people together to live their lives. And her vision triumphed.

Fun and sorta weird fact: neither The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Robert Caro's The Power Broker (about Jacobs' foe Robert Moses) is available in ebook format.

Update: From an interview with Jacobs included in Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations:

If I were running a school, I'd have one standing assignment that would begin in the first grade and go on all through school, every week: that each child should bring in something said by an authority -- it could be by the teacher, or something they see in print, but something that they don't agree with -- and refute it.

BTW, I started the audiobook version of The Power Broker today and it is already so good. (via brainpickings)

Lessons from a 747 pilotMay 04 2016

Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot for British Airways and also the author of the well-reviewed Skyfaring, a book about the human experience of flight. Vanhoenacker recently shared six things he's learned from being a pilot for the past 15 years.

I came up with the term "place lag" to refer to the way that airliners can essentially teleport us into a moment in a far-off city; getting us there much faster, perhaps, than our own deep sense of place can travel. I could be in a park in London one afternoon, running, or drinking a coffee and chatting to the dog-walkers. Later I'll go to an airport, meet my colleagues, walk into a cockpit, and take off for Cape Town. I'll fly over the Pyrenees and Palma and see the lights of Algiers come on at sunset, then sail over the Sahara and the Sahel. I'll cross the equator, and dawn will come to me as I parallel the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, and finally I'll see Table Mountain in the distance as I descend to the Mother City.

Then, less than an hour after the long-stilled wheels of the 747 were spun back to life by the sun-beaten surface of an African runway, I'll be on a bus heading into Cape Town, sitting in rush hour traffic, on an ordinary morning in which, glancing down through the windshield of a nearby car, I'll see a hand lift a cup of coffee or reach forward to tune the radio. And I'll think: All this would still be going on if I hadn't flown here. And that's equally true of London, and of all the other cities I passed in the long night, that I saw only the lights of. For everyone, and every place, it's the present.

The Art of AtariApr 27 2016

Art Of Atari

The Art of Atari showcases the design of the iconic company's video game packaging, advertisements, catalogs, and other stuff. Judging from my reaction to just the cover, I might die of nostalgia if I were to see the inside. Might be worth the risk though.

See also season 3 of Boss Fight Books featuring books on SMB3, Mega Man 3, Katamari Damacy, and more. (via df & @robinsloan)

The World According to Star WarsApr 26 2016

World According Star Wars

In The World According to Star Wars, Cass Sunstein explores the philosophy and life lessons of Star Wars.

In this fun, erudite and often moving book, Cass R. Sunstein explores the lessons of Star Wars as they relate to childhood, fathers, the Dark Side, rebellion, and redemption. As it turns out, Star Wars also has a lot to teach us about constitutional law, economics, and political uprisings.

Update: Sunstein, who is a professor at Harvard Law School, gave the commencement address last year at Penn Law. He starts off, dryly: "Graduates, faculty, family, friends, our topic today is Star Wars."

(via @EmilyBrenn)

String Theory, David Foster Wallace on TennisApr 18 2016

Roger FedererString Theory, a collection of David Foster Wallace's writings on tennis will be out next month.1 The five pieces in the book include his NY Times' essay on Federer and a 1991 piece from Harper's. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an introduction, which was published recently in the New Yorker.

The collection is also available on the Kindle, without the Sullivan intro.

  1. Hi, this is a footnote. Because Wallace. That's it.

Charles Dickens, Star Wars, and the genre of serializationApr 13 2016

In a new video, Even Puschak talks about the rise of the serialization genre, from Dickens to Flash Gordon to General Hospital to Star Wars. Now that our entertainment is increasingly serialized, he argues that audiences have a unique opportunity to shape what we watch. (Case in point: the increased importance of non-white and non-male characters in The Force Awakens and Rogue One.)

Further reading: Wired's You Won't Live to See the Final Star Wars Movie, which I've thought about almost every week since I read it.

Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters.

Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea. It evolved from the narrative techniques not of auteur or blockbuster films but of comic books and TV, and porting that model over isn't easy. It needs different kinds of writers and directors and a different way of looking at the structure of storytelling itself. Marvel prototyped the process; Lucasfilm is trying to industrialize it.

And Puschak recommends Consuming Pleasures by Jennifer Hayward.

Ranging from installment novels, mysteries, and detective fiction of the 1800s to the television and movie series, comics, and advertisements of the twentieth century, serials are loosely linked by what may be called "family resemblances." These traits include intertwined subplots, diverse casts of characters, dramatic plot reversals, suspense, an such narrative devices as long-lost family members and evil twins. Hayward chooses four texts to represent the evolution of serial fiction as a genre and to analyze the peculiar draw that serials have upon their audiences: Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend, Milton Canif's comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and the soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live. Hayward argues that serial audiences have developed active strategies of consumption, such as collaborative reading and attempts to shape the production process. In this way fans have forced serial producers to acknowledge the power of the audience.

All this makes me realize that I've often thought of kottke.org as a serial. The "family resemblances" amongst all my posts might be difficult to see sometimes, but it's there most of the time. In my mind, at least.

Hamilton: now in book formApr 13 2016

Hamilton The Book

The Broadway musical Hamilton is having a bit of a moment right now. Ok, not really. Lin-Manuel Miranda's smash hit has seemingly had one loooong moment since he performed "Alexander Hamilton" in front of the President and Mrs. Obama at the White House in 2009.

The show is sold out1 until who knows when, the original cast album went gold and won a Grammy, and they're doing spin-off productions in Chicago, LA, and SF -- all this scarcely more than a year since Rebecca Mead wrote up Miranda and Hamilton in the New Yorker.2 Bernie Sanders took in the show last week. And this week, a book about the production of the play came out.

Hamilton: The Revolution gives readers an unprecedented view of both revolutions, from the only two writers able to provide it. Miranda, along with Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the project from its earliest stages -- "since before this was even a show," according to Miranda -- traces its development from an improbable performance at the White House to its landmark opening night on Broadway six years later. In addition, Miranda has written more than 200 funny, revealing footnotes for his award-winning libretto, the full text of which is published here.

Add to that a flurry of articles (several from the NY Times, which has a dedicated staff of 162 reporters on the beat) that came out in the past week or so: Why Hamilton Matters, Lin-Manuel Miranda: By the Book (he's never finished Infinite Jest), 'Hamilton' and History: Are They in Sync?, A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn't As Revolutionary As It Seems, and The C.E.O. of 'Hamilton' Inc. How much bigger can this thing get?

Update: And now Miranda has won a Pulitzer.

  1. Hey, if anyone's got a ticket and wants to take me, I'm free literally any time/day/year. Hahahaha. No seriously, email me. Hahaha. (No, really. AFTER ALL I'VE DONE FOR YOU UNGRATEFUL MOTH

  2. You know who else Mead wrote up in the New Yorker many years ago?! Hint: it's not actually Hitler this time...

Parent HacksApr 08 2016

Parent Hacks

Asha Dornfest runs the Parent Hacks blog and she's collected some of her best tips into a new book, Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids.

A parent hack can be as simple as putting the ketchup under the hot dog, minimizing the mess. Or strapping baby into a forward-facing carrier when you need to trim his fingernails-it frees your hands while controlling the squirming. Or stashing a wallet in a disposable diaper at the beach-who would ever poke through what looks like a used Pamper?

Dave Pell from Nextdraft tipped me off to the book, writing:

My friend Asha Dornfest has turned her excellent parenting blog into an even more excellent parenting book with 134 ingenious ideas for simplifying life with kids. Parent Hacks is so good that I may even have a few more kids.

Adult coloring book by Chris PiascikApr 01 2016

Chris Piascik Coloring Book

I'd missed that Chris Piascik, who sometimes illustrates posts on this site (this one is my favorite), came out with an adult coloring book last month called Weird & Funny & Cool Stuff to Color and Draw!: For Kids & Cool Adults.

The invention of the jump shotMar 30 2016

Jump Shot

It is perhaps difficult to believe, but the jump shot was not always a part of basketball. It had to be invented. Rise and Fire by Shawn Fury is the story of that invention, which is still -- *cough* Steph Curry -- being tinkered with in the lab.

In his short post about the book (he calls it "new and fun"), Tyler Cowen shares this excerpt:

But in March 1963, a month before his final game for the Celtics, [Bob] Cousy complained to the Associated Press, "I think the jump shot is the worst thing that has happened to basketball in ten years." Cousy's objections? "Any time you can do something on the ground, it's better," he said, sounding very much like a coach who would have enjoyed benching Kenny Sailors or Bud Palmer. "Once you leave the ground, you've committed yourself." Jump shot critics discouraged players from flying into the air because they feared the indecision that came when someone left their feet. They feared the bad passes from players who jumped with no clear plan of what they'd do in the air. Staying grounded meant fewer mistakes. It was simply a safer way to play the game, if not as exciting.

1963 was more than 50 years ago, but well into the modern era in the NBA. (I know, pre-merger, but still. We're not talking George Mikan here.) Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West were all playing, as was a rookie named John Havlicek, who played for the Celtics until the late 70s.

The Beach at NightMar 28 2016

Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian novelist of the critically acclaimed Neapolitan Novels, is coming out with a children's book called The Beach at Night.

Elena Ferrante returns to a story that animated the novel she considers to be a turning point in her development as a a writer: The Lost Daughter. But this time the tale takes the form of a children's fable told from the point of view of the lost (stolen!) doll, Celina.

The book has been out in Italy since 2007, but with so much interest in Ferrante (and her true identity), the English language version is now on its way.

BTW, I started reading the Neapolitan Novels last week and have barely put them down since...I should finish the second book tonight. So good.

The University of XKCDMar 22 2016

Randall Munroe's best-selling Thing Explainer, in which he explains scientific concepts using only the 1000 most common words, will be incorporated into the upcoming editions of some of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's high school science textbooks.

Mr. Munroe, 31, said the project appealed to him. He recalled as a child a foldout diagram showing different animals at the starting line of a race and then sprinting/flying/crawling to show the different speeds of different species. "For some reason, I fixated on that illustration," he said. "It stuck with me my entire life."

Mr. Munroe said he hoped his drawings would break up the monotony and pace of a typical textbook. "I'm hoping it will be, 'Oh, here's a kind of fun and unexpected component,'" he said.

I think Bill Gates would approve.

Things Organized NeatlyMar 21 2016

Things Organized Neatly

The Tumblr Things Organized Neatly is now a book of the same name.

See also Always. Be. Knolling.

Questlove's book about food and creativityMar 15 2016

something to food about

Questlove is coming out with a book about food and creativity next month called something to food about.

In conversations with ten innovative chefs in America, he explores what makes their creativity tick, how they see the world through their cooking and how their cooking teaches them to see the world. The conversations begin with food but they end wherever food takes them. Food is fuel. Food is culture. Food is history. And food is food for thought.

Love that cover.

Moby Dick Big ReadMar 15 2016

As part of the Moby Dick Big Read project, dozens of people collaborated on an unabridged audiobook of Moby Dick. Each chapter has a different reader and the readers included Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton started things off with chapter one:

(via @sampotts)

New book by James Gleick: Time TravelMar 14 2016

James Gleick, Time Travel

James Gleick, author of The Information, Chaos, and Genius, is coming out with a new book this fall called Time Travel. William Gibson has given it his thumbs up. Really excited for this one (it comes out on my birthday!) and curious to see how liberally he treats his subject...for instance, cameras are time machines.

Quentin Blake's handwriting typefaceMar 09 2016

Twits

If you've read a book like Danny the Champion of the World or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you have seen the work of illustrator Quentin Blake.

Type foundry Monotype have created a typeface from Blake's distinctive handwriting. Each letter has four variants so the text looks more random, like actual handwriting:

Quentin Blake font

Prison RamenMar 09 2016

Prison RamenPrison Ramen is a cookbook of instant ramen recipes from prison inmates and celebrities (Samuel L. Jackson wrote the foreword).

Instant ramen is a ubiquitous food, beloved by anyone looking for a cheap, tasty bite-including prisoners, who buy it at the commissary and use it as the building block for all sorts of meals. Think of this as a unique cookbook of ramen hacks. Here's Ramen Goulash. Black Bean Ramen. Onion Tortilla Ramen Soup. The Jailhouse Hole Burrito. Orange Porkies -- chili ramen plus white rice plus 1/2 bag of pork skins plus orange-flavored punch. Ramen Nuggets. Slash's J-Walking Ramen (with scallions, Sriracha hot sauce, and minced pork).

(via @marcprecipice)

Simple advice for personal financeMar 07 2016

Index CardThe Index Card is a new book by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack about simple advice for personal finance. The idea for the book came about when Pollack jotted down financial advice that works for almost everyone on a 4x6 index card.

Now, Pollack teams up with Olen to explain why the ten simple rules of the index card outperform more complicated financial strategies. Inside is an easy-to-follow action plan that works in good times and bad, giving you the tools, knowledge, and confidence to seize control of your financial life.

I learned about their book from a piece by Oliver Burkeman on why complex questions can have simple answers.

But there's a powerful truth here, which is that people dispensing financial advice are even less neutral than we realise. We're good at spotting the obvious conflicts of interest: of course mortgage providers always think it's a great time to buy a house; of course the sharp-suited guys from SpeedyMoola.co.uk think their payday loans are good value. But it's more difficult to see that everyone offering advice has a deeper vested interest: they need you to believe things are complex enough to make their assistance worthwhile. It's hard to make a living as a financial adviser by handing clients an index card and telling them never to return; and those stock-tipping columns in newspapers would be dull if all they ever said was "ignore stock tips". Yes, the world of finance is complex, but it doesn't follow that you need a complex strategy to navigate it.

There's no reason to assume this situation only occurs with money, either. The human body is another staggeringly complex system, but based on current science, Michael Pollan's seven-word guidance -- "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" -- is probably wiser than all other diets.

Burkeman wrote one of my favorite books from the past year, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.

The trouble with transportersMar 07 2016

In Star Trek, do you die every time you use the transporter? How would you know if you did or didn't? I love the Ship of Theseus vs Cutty Sark comparison.

Update: See also John Weldon's animated short To Be from The National Film Board of Canada and philosopher Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. From the Wikipedia entry on the latter:

Part 3 argues for a reductive account of personal identity; rather than accepting the claim that our existence is a deep, significant fact about the world, Parfit's account of personal identity is like this:

At time 1, there is a person. At a later time 2, there is a person. These people seem to be the same person. Indeed, these people share memories and personality traits. But there are no further facts in the world that make them the same person.

Parfit's argument for this position relies on our intuitions regarding thought experiments such as teleportation, the fission and fusion of persons, gradual replacement of the matter in one's brain, gradual alteration of one's psychology, and so on. For example, Parfit asks the reader to imagine entering a "teletransporter," a machine that puts you to sleep, then destroys you, breaking you down into atoms, copying the information and relaying it to Mars at the speed of light. On Mars, another machine re-creates you (from local stores of carbon, hydrogen, and so on), each atom in exactly the same relative position. Parfit poses the question of whether or not the teletransporter is a method of travel -- is the person on Mars the same person as the person who entered the teletransporter on Earth? Certainly, when waking up on Mars, you would feel like being you, you would remember entering the teletransporter in order to travel to Mars, you would even feel the cut on your upper lip from shaving this morning.

Then the teleporter is upgraded. The teletransporter on Earth is modified to not destroy the person who enters it, but instead it can simply make infinite replicas, all of whom would claim to remember entering the teletransporter on Earth in the first place.

(via @DailyNousEditor & marko)

Update: But maybe you can build a Star Trek transporter with built-in no-cloning rules using quantum teleportation.

Oscars book clubMar 01 2016

Not all of them are direct adaptations, but a number of the movies up for Oscars this year were based on books (or otherwise have book versions). We've already talked about The Revenant, The Martian, and The Big Short -- collectively henceforth known, along with The Danish Girl, as The The Media1 -- but I was unaware that Bridge of Spies and Carol were both based on books (Strangers on a Bridge and The Price of Salt, or Carol respectively). As for best picture winner Spotlight, the Boston Globe's investigative team wrote a book about the events that inspired the movie, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church.

  1. Apologies to The The, whose lack of Googleability likely hasn't helped their popularity.

What are gravitational waves?Feb 12 2016

From PHD Comics, and explanation of what gravitational waves are and why their discovery is so important to the future of science. (via df)

Update: Brian Greene's explanation of gravitational waves to Stephen Colbert is the best one yet:

Greene is great at explaining physics in terms almost anyone can understand. Even though it's more than 15 years old now, his book, The Elegant Universe, still contains the best explanation of modern physics (quantum mechanics + relativity) I've ever read.

The Hummingbird Effect: what does the wine press have to do with astronomy?Feb 11 2016

In How We Got to Now, the TV series based on the book of the same name, Steven Johnson explains how the wine press was used to print books, which resulted in a surge in demand for reading glasses, which had yet more unintended effects.

Johnson calls this cascade of inadvertent invention the Hummingbird Effect.

This is how change happens in the natural world: sometime during the Cretaceous age, flowers began to evolve colors and scents that signaled the presence of pollen to insects, who simultaneously evolved complex equipment to extract the pollen and, inadvertently, fertilize other flowers with pollen.

Over time, the flowers supplemented the pollen with even more energy-rich nectar to lure the insects into the rituals of pollination. Bees and other insects evolved the sensory tools to see and be drawn to flowers, just as the flowers evolved the properties that attract bees. The symbiosis between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar ultimately created an opportunity for much larger organisms -- the hummingbirds -- to extract nectar from plants, though to do that they evolved a extremely unusual form of flight mechanics that enable them to hover alongside the flower in a way that few birds can even come close to doing. In other words, they had to learn an entirely new way to fly.

In an interview with Popular Mechanics, Johnson shared another example:

At the start of the 20th century, in Brooklyn, a printer was doing full-color magazines. In the summer the ink didn't set up properly. The printer hired a young engineer, Willis Carrier, to devise a way to bring down the temperature and humidity in the room. He built this contraption that made the printing possible. Then the workers were like, "I'm gonna have my lunch in the room with the contraption, it's cool in there." Carrier says, "Hmm, that's interesting." He sets up the Carrier Corporation, which air-conditions movie theaters, paving the way for the summer blockbuster. Before air conditioning, a crowded theater was the last place you wanted to go. After a/c, summer movies become part of the cultural landscape.

How to write telegrams properlyFeb 11 2016

From a small booklet written by Nelson Ross in 1928, a guide on How to Write Telegrams Properly.

Handwriting in Telegrams -- There is a classic joke of the telegraph business which may not be out of place here. A lady, filing a message with the counter clerk for transmission, first enclosed it in an envelope. When the clerk tore open the envelope to prepare the telegram for sending, she reached for it indignantly with the exclamation: "The idea! That is my personal telegram and I don't want anyone else to see it."

It must be remembered that a telegram is transmitted letter by letter. Telegraph operators, like post office employees, are expert in reading handwriting, but even so, words cannot be guessed at. If you write the word "opportunity" very clearly as far as "oppo" and the rest of the word is a mere scribble, it cannot be transmitted in that fashion. It must be "opportunity" or nothing. If you sign your name "John" followed by a series of hen tracks, neither can that be transmitted. You may have intended the word for "Johnson," but you cannot reasonably expect the telegraph employee to be a mind reader as well as an operator.

How did telegrams hit moving targets? Like so:

Messages for Persons on Trains -- A message addressed to a passenger on a train should show the name of the railroad, train number or name or time due, place where the message is to be delivered, and also the point for which the passenger is bound. If the train is run in 13 sections, the section should be specified if known. A sample address is: "John Smith, en route Los Angeles, Care Conductor, Southern Pacific, Train 103, El Paso, Texas." Even though when the train stop at El Paso and John Smith is paged, he may be pacing the Platform for fresh air and exercise, the conductor will strive hard to effect delivery. If you expect to have occasion to telegraph a friend setting out on a journey, it is a good idea to get from him his Pullman berth and car number, so that you will be able to indicate this on your telegram. Telegraph clerks generally will be found to be courteous in aiding you to determine the progress of the train and station where it most likely can be intercepted.

And sending money was possible as well, using the HTTPS of its time:

The procedure is simple. A person wishing to send a sum of money by wire merely calls at the telegraph office, fills out an application blank, and pays the clerk the amount to be sent and the fee for its transmittal. The telegraph companies have a secret code which they use in directing their agent in the distant city to make payment to the person designated. The payee is notified to call at the office for a sum of money, or a check is sent to the payee, as may be directed. It is optional with the sender of the money order, whether the payee shall be required to identify himself absolutely or whether identification shall be waived. The Western Union Telegraph Company alone handles more than $250,000,000 annually in telegraphic money orders.

I wonder what sort of shenanigans telegraph hackers got up to trying to intercept those "secret codes" and make fake payouts. See also The Victorian Internet.

The real story of The RevenantFeb 10 2016

Revenant Mountains

From Richard Grant, the real life story of Hugh Glass, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. As Grant allows, the story of Glass's life is "a blend of history and mythology" and is only a little less plausible than the events of the movie (and the novel on which the movie is based).

The expedition leader, a terminally luckless man named Andrew Henry, assigned two hunters to travel ahead of the main group. Most historians think that Hugh Glass was not one of them, because these northern plains and mountains were a new environment to him, and other men had more experience hunting here. But Glass was a loner by nature and stubborn as they come, and it seems clear that he was off breaking orders, hunting by himself when he surprised a huge female grizzly bear with cubs.

She might have weighed 500 pounds, even 800 is not inconceivable. He shot her as she charged, but as he surely knew, even a .53 calibre rifle ball was unlikely to stop an enraged grizzly. She ripped his scalp to ribbons with her three-inch claws and shredded his throat. Accounts of the mauling vary slightly, but all agree that Glass was "tore nearly all to peases", as one mountain man later recorded. There were deep lacerations on his back, his face, one leg, his chest and one shoulder and arm. In Michael Punke's book, based on Glass's life, she picks him up in her teeth and shakes him. Most versions of the story have the dead bear, having finally succumbed to the rifle wound, lying on top of the half-dead Glass.

I saw The Revenant two weeks ago and thought it was good but not great. Underwhelmed, I guess I'd say. As usual, Leo was too distracting as himself to fully blend into the rest of the movie...Leo's DiCaprio-ness always breaks the fourth wall for me.

Harry Potter and Cursed ChildFeb 10 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

On Twitter this morning, Little Brown UK announced that they will be publishing an 8th Harry Potter book called Harry Potter and Cursed Child. The book is the rehearsal script of the play of the same name co-written by Rowling. Which is a bit disappointing, to be honest...play scripts are not fully-formed books. Anyway, from the play's website, here's the vague plot:

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn't much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Even though employees are probably still in their jammies at home, you can already pre-order the book on Amazon. (via mic)

The geniuses of the adaptable characterFeb 09 2016

I really enjoyed this piece by Catherine Nichols about a literary technique invented by 19th century female novelists that she calls adaptation.

Adaptation is a kaleidoscopic way of understanding human nature, and a novelistic technique for showing that character isn't fixed. In real life, people change constantly, depending on who's in the room, or what they've each understood of the others' nature and mood.

Here's an example from Pride and Prejudice:

The first time Mr. Darcy tries to express his interest in Elizabeth, he asks her to dance, and she refuses. Later, he sees her reading, and he comments to other people in the room that reading is important and his library is huge. Really great library at Darcy's house. Elizabeth, however, doesn't take the hint. Any shy person might recognize the arrows in his flirting quiver-standing around near her and saying to his friends that he likes the things that he thinks she likes. It's as effective for him as it usually is for the rest of us; she doesn't know, or doesn't want to, that flirting is taking place.

Then, the next time Mr. Darcy is alone with Elizabeth and his friends, he adapts. He makes an unflattering observation about Mr. Bingley's personality, offered to Elizabeth as a gift. He's changing his approach based on a comment she made in the previous scene. He can only change within the range of his own character, which is shy (he'd never say this in another context), clever (no one fully gets the insult except for Elizabeth), and sort of mean. It's an incredibly efficient scene, and it's how Darcy, a man with few lines and no third person narration spilling his secrets, can be as well-developed a character as Elizabeth herself.

For my money, P&P is one of best novels of all time. The adaptation technique goes a long way toward explaining why it's such an effective lens into human nature.

A New Way to DinnerFeb 08 2016

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs of Food52 are coming out with a new book called A New Way to Dinner.

A smart, inspiring cookbook of 100+ recipes from the founders of the powerhouse web site Food52 showing just how they -- two busy working parents -- actually plan, shop, and cook for delicious dinners (and breakfasts, lunches, and desserts) -- all through the week. The secret? Cooking ahead.

I need this. I want to cook more, eat better, and not dine out so much, but I just haven't been able to get it together. And I love the title..."dinner" cleverly works both as a noun and a verbed noun.

What's it like in space?Feb 05 2016

What's It Like In Space?

For her new book, Ariel Waldman asked dozens of astronauts about their experiences in space.

With playful artwork accompanying each, here are the real stories behind backwards dreams, "moon face," the tricks of sleeping in zero gravity and aiming your sneeze during a spacewalk, the importance of packing hot sauce, and dozens of other cosmic quirks and amazements that come with travel in and beyond low Earth orbit.

Waldman is the co-creator of the very cool spaceprob.es.

Update: This book is now out, shipping, released...launched, if you will.

Pretty Much Everything by Aaron James DraplinFeb 03 2016

Draplin Book

You're probably familiar with Aaron James Draplin through his work on Field Notes. Well, as his upcoming book shows, Draplin is an uncommonly prolific designer who has done a ton of amazing work.

Pretty Much Everything is a mid-career survey of work, case studies, inspiration, road stories, lists, maps, how-tos, and advice. It includes examples of his work -- posters, record covers, logos -- and presents the process behind his design with projects like Field Notes and the "Things We Love" State Posters. Draplin also offers valuable advice and hilarious commentary that illustrates how much more goes into design than just what appears on the page. With Draplin's humor and pointed observations on the contemporary design scene, Draplin Design Co. is the complete package for the new generation of designers.

I've been a fan of his for a long time...this is an easy purchase.

A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry in the United StatesFeb 02 2016

American Slave Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: In his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist details how slavery played a central role in the making of the US economy.

As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, slavery and its expansion were central to the evolution and modernization of our nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, catapulting the US into a modern, industrial and capitalist economy. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a sub-continental cotton empire. By 1861 it had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution, and was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. It was through slavery and slavery alone that the United States achieved a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and was transformed into a global power rivaled only by England.

(via @alexismadrigal)

Infinite Jest turns 20Feb 01 2016

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

DFW Letter To MP

(via @john_overholt)

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

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

I Hate the Lord of the RingsFeb 01 2016

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

On the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disasterJan 28 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 equations that changed the worldJan 28 2016

17 Equations

In the book In Pursuit of the Unknown, Ian Stewart discusses how equations from the likes of Pythagoras, Euler, Newton, Fourier, Maxwell, and Einstein have been used to build the modern world.

I love how as time progresses, the equations get more complicated and difficult for the layperson to read (much less understand) and then Boltzmann and Einstein are like, boom!, entropy is increasing and energy is proportional to mass, suckas!

The Brownstone by Paula ScherJan 22 2016

The Brownstone by Paula Scher

I had no idea mega-designer Paula Scher wrote a children's book back in the early 70s. Just recently re-released in a new edition, The Brownstone is the story of the inhabitants of a NYC apartment building all trying to live together and get along.

Living in harmony with your neighbor isn't always easy, but it's doubly difficult if you're a bear living in a New York City brownstone, getting ready to hibernate, and the kangaroos' tap dancing upstairs and Miss Cat's piano playing reverberate through the walls and floors.

The original has been long out of print (copies are $275 and up), so this is good news.

Absurdly challenging recipes from actual cookbooksJan 22 2016

Ben Schott collects some instructions from the cookbooks of noted chefs that will likely never be attempted by the home chef (unless you're this woman). Like this one from A New Napa Cuisine that calls for phytoplankton:

20 grams marine phytoplankton
100 grams water
4 matsutake mushrooms, peeled and left whole

Or this one from Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck Cookbook to make frankincense hydrosol:

50 grams golden frankincense tears
100 grams water

I've owned several cookbooks where one recipe on page 107 calls for the product of a recipe on page 53 which in turn calls for the output of a recipe on page 28. Rube Goldberg cooking. Living in NYC, it's often easier, faster, cheaper, and tastier to walk to the restaurant in question and just order the damn thing. Or head to Shake Shack instead.

Horizontal historyJan 21 2016

At Wait But Why, Tim Urban turns history on its side by thinking about time-synchronized events around the world, as opposed to events through the progression of time in each part of the world.

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s -- it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

He does this mainly by charting and graphing the lifetimes of famous people, revealing hidden contemporaries.

Horizontal History Graph

I've been slowly making my way through Ken Burns' remastered The Civil War.1 At a few points in the program, narrator David McCullough reminds the viewer of what was going on around the world at the same time as the war. In the US, 1863 brought the Battle of Gettysburg and The Emancipation Proclamation. But also:

In Paris that year, new paintings by Cezanne, Whistler, and Manet were shown at a special exhibit for outcasts. In Russia, Dostoevsky finished Notes from the Underground. And in London, Karl Marx labored to complete his masterpiece, Das Kapital.

And a year later, while the advantage in the war was turning towards the US:1

In 1864, a rebellion in China that cost 20 million lives finally came to an end. In 1864, the Tsar's armies conquered Turkistan and Tolstoy finished War and Peace. In 1864, Louis Pasteur pasteurized wine, the Geneva Convention established the neutrality of battlefield hospitals, and Karl Marx founded the International Workingmen's Association in London and in New York.

Urban explicitly references the war in his post:

People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history's greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869).

The Civil War. The Origin of Species. Alice in Wonderland. The infancy of Impressionism. Pasteurization. Das Kapital. Gregor Mendel's laws of inheritance. All in an eight-year span. Dang.

  1. Which is simply excellent. I had forgotten how powerful the storytelling technique Burns devised for his documentaries is. Really really worth your time to watch or re-watch.

  2. In talking about the Civil War, I've been trying to use Michael Todd Landis' new language...so, "labor camps" instead of "plantations" and "United States" instead of "Union".

A brief history of The Flatiron BuildingJan 20 2016

Flatiron Building by Edward SteichenA photo of NYC's Flatiron Building, taken in 1904 by Edward Steichen.

Fun fact: the Flatiron Building was not so named because of its resemblance to a clothes iron. It was actually named after the building's owner, Archibald W. Flatiron.

Ok, not really. But *puts on mansplaining suspenders* the part about the building not being named after its resemblance to an iron is true. It was the piece of land that was so-named, long before the building was even built. A man named Amos Eno owned the property and it became known as "Eno's flatiron". The canny Eno, knowing his property was conveniently located right next to Madison Square, erected a screen on top of the small building at the very tip of the triangle and made it available for motion picture advertising in the 1870s. From Alice Alexiou's The Flatiron:

He set up a canvas screen on top of the Erie ticket office roof, and charged the enterprising owners of stereopticons or "magic lanterns" -- these were the first slide projectors, invented about twenty years earlier and now extremely popular -- to project advertisements upon the screen. Madison Square, just opposite, provided the perfect place for the spectators. To keep them interested, the operator alternated pictures with the ads, all in rapid succession. "Niagara Falls dissolves into a box of celebrated boot blacking, and the celebrated blacking is superseded by a jungle scene, which fades into an extraordinarily cheap suite of furniture," wrote a reporter in Scribner's Magazine in August 1880. Sometimes in the Young Men's Christian Association paid to add their messages -- "The blood of Christ cleanses all from sin," "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved" -- to the mix. On balmy evenings, the slide displays lasted until as late as ten o'clock. Even in cold and nasty weather, the free shows drew crowds. The New York Times began using Eno's screen for their news bulletins. The experiment drew huge crowds. "All the important events of the day were rapidly displayed in large letters... so that the public was at once informed of the news. From 7 o'clock until midnight the bulletins appeared in quick succession... The latest move in Erie, the Tweed trial, the hotel inspections, the doings of Congress... the messages being transmitted by telegraph from the Times office, as soon as received," the Times reported on January 14, 1873. The New York Tribune now also began buying time on Eno's screen. On election nights, Eno's flatiron was now the nerve center of New York, as Democratic and Republican Party bigwigs held court across the street in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and tens of thousands of New Yorkers filled Madison Square, where, staring at the screen, the waited eagerly for election returns.

Not to get all Victorian Internet on you, but that sounds a little like Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat.

Eno was not the first to use such a system to disseminate information. Before baseball games were broadcast on the radio, enterprising business and newspaper owners used information from frequent telegraph messages to display scores from the games in increasingly engaging ways. In Georgia, they even cosplayed games from telegraph intel:

"A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report," read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn't enough to entice you, the paper also noted that "A great many ladies were present.")

Which brings us back to that photo of the Flatiron. Just as the telegraph-assisted baseball game wasn't "the real thing" or in some sense "authentic", neither is Steichen's print. For starters, it's not the only one. Steichen made three prints from that same shot, one in 1904, another in 1905, and the last in 1909, the one shown above. You'll notice that each of the prints is a slightly different color...he applied a different pigment suspended in gum bichromate over a platinum print for each one. The 1909 print was time-delayed, a duplicate, and painted on...was it even a proper photograph? Perhaps some in that era didn't think so, but I believe time has proved that "great interest prevailed and all enjoyed" Steichen's photographs. *snaps suspenders*

Michael Pollan gets his own Netflix seriesJan 15 2016

Food writer Michael Pollan -- author of The Botany of Desire (my fave of his) and originator of the world's best simple diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." -- is the subject of a four-part Netflix series called Cooked. The series is based on Pollan's book of the same name and debuts on February 19.

Each episode will focus on a different natural element and its relationship to both ancient and modern cooking methods. In the "Fire" episode, Pollan will delve into the cross-cultural tradition of barbecue by looking at fire-roasts of monitor lizards in Western Australia and visiting with a barbecue pitmaster; in the "Water" episode, he'll take lessons from kitchens in India and cover the issues surrounding processed foods. An episode titled "Air" explores the science of bread-making and gluten, while the final episode, "Earth," looks at how fermentation preserves raw foods. Every episode will also feature Pollan in his home kitchen in Berkeley, California, with the intention of underscoring the viewpoint that "surrounded as we are by fast food culture and processed foods, cooking our own meals is the single best thing we can do to take charge of our health and well being."

Announcing this show only a month out and unaccompanied by a trailer? I have no idea what Netflix is thinking sometimes.

Update: Cooked is now available on Netflix. The NY Times has a review. (via @Ilovetoscore)

Filling plot holes in The Force AwakensJan 11 2016

Some people were bothered over supposed gaps in the plot in The Force Awakens. I wasn't...save the hand-wringing for more weighty fare. But if you were, the novelization of the movie connects some of the dots left detached. Here are some of the more interesting ones (spoilers, obvs):

The Resistance had no idea Starkiller Base existed. This is extrapolated on quite a bit. Snoke's decision to destroy the New Republic is about flushing out the Resistance. Utter annihilation of the enemy is a mere side effect. Snoke knew using the weapon would give away the base's location. The Resistance would then send a reconnaissance team to scout the place and the First Order could follow the scouts back to the Resistance HQ and destroy them once and for all. While this is what happens in the movie, the motivations are a bit murkier.

Kylo Ren knows who Rey is. After failing to call Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber to his hand, Ren turns to Rey -- who is now holding the blue lightsaber -- and he declares, "It IS you," and then the fight begins.

Ok, whoa. What does that mean?

Han hadn't seen Kylo Ren/Ben since he became an adult. When Ben removes the helmet of Kylo Ren, Han Solo is shocked by how grown-up his son looks as he hasn't seen him since he became an adult. This lends credence to the theory that Snoke seduced a teenaged Ben to the Dark Side. Speaking of which, Leia knew Snoke was trying to get his claws in her son since he was a child and never told Han until right before the Starkiller mission.

[Rey] struggles with the Dark Side almost immediately. Rey might look serene as she finds the Force and battles a badly injured Kylo Ren, but she is fighting with rage. After beating down her opponent, a voice inside her encourages her to kill him. She rejects the notion, but is still struggling with herself when the rift opens up and separates the two of them.

[Ren] also cracked open something in Rey's mind. One of the advantages of a book is internal narration. When Ren attempts to retrieve the map from Rey's brain he senses something weird within her mind. Not resistance, but a barrier. Probing at it is what causes Rey to suddenly find herself -- with no provocation -- inside Ren's mind. Now this is just speculation, but it certainly sounds like someone had walled off Rey's Force sensitivity and Kylo Ren accidentally broke down the wall.

The script for the movie clarifies a few things as well.

Luke Skywalker Immediately Knows Who Rey Is and Why She Is Here. The script describes Luke Skywalker as being older now, with white hair and a beard. It says that he looks at Rey with a "kindness in his eyes, but there's something tortured, too." Most interestingly, it says that Luke "doesn't need to ask her who she is, or what she is doing here." Does this mean that he knows Rey is his child? Or does this mean that he knows because of the Force? The script only adds that "his look says it all."

Kylo Ren Is Horrified By His Actions. The script gives us some internal insight into Kylo Ren after he just killed his father Han Solo. The screenplay notes that "Kylo Ren is somehow WEAKENED by this wicked act," noting that he is "horrified" and his "SHOCK is broken only when" Chewbacca cries out in agony.

Fun fact that I just discovered: the novelizations of all three of the original Star Wars movies were released before the movies came out! Star Wars the book came out 6 months before the movie, Empire a month before, and Jedi a couple of weeks before. I'm amazed you could walk into a bookstore an entire month before The Empire Strikes Back was released and discover that Vader was Luke's father. Truly a different approach to spoilers.

Pastrami on RyeDec 18 2015

Pastrami On RyePastrami on Rye is a full-length history of the NYC Jewish deli, written by Judaism scholar Ted Merwin. From a review in The Economist:

Jewish delicatessens may now be known for knishes, latkes and pastrami sandwiches, but back in their heyday, during the 1920s and 1930s in the theatre district in New York, they also served beluga caviar, pâté de foie gras and Chateaubriand steak. Jewish classics were gussied up and defiled: chopped chicken liver was served with truffles. Treyf, like oysters and pork chops, was eaten with abandon alongside kosher delicacies.

That reminds me...a trip to Katz's is looooooong overdue.

The best book cover designs for 2015Dec 15 2015

Book Cover Design

Book Cover Design

Book Cover Design

Check out more great covers at the NY Times, Buzzfeed, and The Casual Optimist. Compare with last year's picks.

Trailer for The BFGDec 09 2015

Here's the teaser trailer for the Spielberg-directed adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG. Hmm. (via the slick new trailer town)

Update: The full trailer has dropped.

I was about to say something about how Spielberg rarely directs animated films but BFG isn't actually animated. Or is it? CG has gotten so good and blockbusters so reliant on special effects that it's hard to tell what's real. I mean, superhero movies are so laden with special effects that they might as well be considered animated. They're all basically Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but done so seamlessly that you can't tell Toontown from the real world.

Don't Let Kids Play FootballDec 07 2015

Today, the NY Times is running an editorial by Dr. Bennet Omalu called Don't Let Kids Play Football. Omalu was the first to publish research on CTE in football players.

If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms. If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage, which we know now by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a disease that I first diagnosed in 2002.

Depending on the severity of the condition, the child now has a risk of manifesting symptoms of C.T.E. like major depression, memory loss, suicidal thought and actions, loss of intelligence as well as dementia later in life. C.T.E. has also been linked to drug and alcohol abuse as the child enters his 20s, 30s and 40s.

The story of Omalu, his research, and its suppression by the NFL is the subject of Concussion, a movie starring Will Smith that comes out on Christmas Day, as well as a book version written by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

58 commonly misused words and phrasesDec 02 2015

From Steven Pinker's book, The Sense of Style, here are some of the most common words and phrases that trip people up.

Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.

Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.

Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: "Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals," Pinker writes. "But I still like it."]

Correct: "This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it."

Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness. [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.]

Correct: The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.

A deplorable enormousness!

America's junk news binge epidemicNov 30 2015

In the midst of this piece by Matt Taibbi on Republican presidential candidates blaming media bias for their outright falsehoods are two paragraphs which perfectly sum up the state of contemporary news media:

It's our fault. We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that's basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.

The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.

If Americans are getting intellectually fat and lazy binging on junk news, perhaps the solution is something akin to "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," Michael Pollan's advice for healthy eating: Follow the news, not too much, mostly facts.

Update: I was reminded that Clay Johnson wrote an entire book called The Information Diet (at Amazon).

The modern human animal spends upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 in a state of constant consumption. Not eating, but gorging on information ceaselessly spewed from the screens and speakers we hold dear. Just as we have grown morbidly obese on sugar, fat, and flour-so, too, have we become gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, and tweets.

We're all battling a storm of distractions, buffeted with notifications and tempted by tasty tidbits of information. And just as too much junk food can lead to obesity, too much junk information can lead to cluelessness. The Information Diet shows you how to thrive in this information glut-what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. In the process, author Clay Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential for everyone who strives to be smart, productive, and sane.

Johnson spoke at Webstock the same year I did...here's a video of his talk about Industrialized Ignorance. (via @philipashlock)

This Book is a CameraNov 30 2015

This Book Is A Camera

Kelli Anderson is at it again. Her pop-up book, This Book is a Planetarium, is due out this spring, but in the meantime, she's made a book that turns into an actual camera. And you can buy it or make your own. Here's how the camera works:

My copy arrived in the mail the other day and I can't wait to try it out.

The best books of 2015Nov 24 2015

The person I listen to the most regarding books I should be reading is Tyler Cowen...he has never once steered me wrong. So when he wrote about the best fiction of 2015, I perked up. I've been hearing many good things about Elena Ferrante's series (Cowen himself flagged her The Lost Daughter as a favorite back in 2008) but his assertion that her recent series of novels ranks as "one of the prime literary achievements of the last twenty years" puts it solidly on my holiday beach reads list. The New World by Chris Adrian & Eli Horowitz and Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty also sound particularly interesting.

Update: Cowen recently shared his list of best non-fiction books of the year as well. Biographies rule the list: on Elon Musk, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, and Genghis Khan. What a list...but I have to say that reading biographies of Thatcher or Kissinger doesn't appeal at all.

Update: The NY Times weighs in with their list of 100 Notable Books of 2015. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an appearance, as do the latest installments by Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Update: From Buzzfeed, The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015 and from Slate, The Overlooked Books of 2015.

Update: The NY Times Sunday Book Review names their 10 Best Books of 2015. Coates and Ferrante feature. By my count, 7 of the 10 books are written by women.

Update: From Slate, a list of the best audiobooks of 2015. The Economist's best books of the year, including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes. For part one of their best books list, The Guardian asked writers for their favorite books of the year; Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers got multiple mentions (but is not yet out in the US).

Update: Amazon's editors picked their 100 best books of the year and Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies topped the list. The top non-fiction book is Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family.

Update: A design-oriented list from Michael Bierut, including The Making of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'.

Update: Bill Gates shared his favorite books of 2015, including Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

For The Millions Year in Reading 2015, they asked a bunch of writers for their reading recommendations. Joyce Carol Oates recommends the Didion biography The Last Love Song while Celeste Ng read The Suicide Index.

The Atlantic asked their editors and writers to share The Best Book I Read This Year. This is one of several lists to include The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf.

Update: The NY Times book critics weigh in with their favorite books of the year. Moar Ferrante! Moar Coates!

Sweet Home MississippiNov 12 2015

Englishman and writer Richard Grant moved from lower Manhattan to rural Mississippi. He wrote a book about the experience, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.

On a remote, isolated strip of land, three miles beyond the tiny community of Pluto, Richard and his girlfriend, Mariah, embark on a new life. They learn to hunt, grow their own food, and fend off alligators, snakes, and varmints galore. They befriend an array of unforgettable local characters-blues legend T-Model Ford, cookbook maven Martha Foose, catfish farmers, eccentric millionaires, and the actor Morgan Freeman. Grant brings an adept, empathetic eye to the fascinating people he meets, capturing the rich, extraordinary culture of the Delta, while tracking its utterly bizarre and criminal extremes. Reporting from all angles as only an outsider can, Grant also delves deeply into the Delta's lingering racial tensions. He finds that de facto segregation continues. Yet even as he observes major structural problems, he encounters many close, loving, and interdependent relationships between black and white families-and good reasons for hope.

Grant shared a bit of what's in the book for the NY Times.

Mississippians were generally puzzled by our arrival, but warm and welcoming. As we were unpacking, an African-American tractor driver stopped by and talked for an hour. On the second day, a white family from Pluto came over with a bottle of wine and a selection of guns to shoot. Cathy Thompson, a labor and delivery nurse, had bought an AK-47 for stress relief during menopause. "I don't know what women in New York do," she said in a fast-paced drawl. "Probably see a therapist, or get on meds. I got my AK and a T-shirt that said, 'I'm Out of Estrogen and I Have a Gun.'"

It soon became apparent that a) we held very different political views and b) this was not going to be a problem. Noting our lack of furniture, Cathy went through her storage areas and produced two beds, a couch, a kitchen table and chairs, two armchairs and two wingback chairs. "Y'all can have this stuff on permanent loan," she said. "And I noticed y'all just have the one vehicle. That's going to get inconvenient out here, so I want you to drive our Envoy whenever you need to, and think of it as your second vehicle. I'll show you where the keys are."

How the Empire State Building was builtNov 11 2015

Here is one of the original architectural drawings done for the Empire State Building by William Lamb:

Empire State Building Drawing

Scott Christianson wrote a brief piece (taken from his new book 100 Documents That Changed the World: From the Magna Carta to Wikileaks) on how the building was designed and built. The whole thing happened incredibly fast: the first architectural contract was signed in September 1929 and after only 410 days of construction, the building was opened in May 1931.

Has your cool neighborhood stopped being cool? Or have you?Nov 11 2015

Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street, writes about the ever-changing neighborhoods in NYC.

I think there's more to these "the city is dead now" complaints than money. People have pronounced St. Marks Place dead many times over the past centuries -- when it became poor, and then again when it became rich, and then again when it returned to being poor, and so on. My theory is that the neighborhood hasn't stopped being cool because it's too expensive now; it stops being cool for each generation the second we stop feeling cool there. Any claim to objectivity is clouded by one's former glory.

A more progressive Richard ScarryNov 09 2015

In a photo set on Flickr, Alan Taylor compares the 1963 and 1991 editions of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever and notes many changes to make it more progressive and inclusive, particularly with regard to gender roles. For instance, in this one, Mother is joined by Father in the kitchen:

Inclusive Richard Scarry

And in this one, "beautiful screaming lady" becomes "cat in danger":

Inclusive Richard Scarry

(via fusion)

This Bridge Will Not Be GrayOct 30 2015

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray

From Dave Eggers and Tucker Nichols comes This Bridge Will Not Be Gray (at Amazon), a children's book about how the Golden Gate Bridge came to be painted orange.

In this book, fellow bridge-lovers Dave Eggers and Tucker Nichols tell the story of how it happened -- how a bridge that some people wanted to be red and white, and some people wanted to be yellow and black, and most people wanted simply to be gray, instead became, thanks to the vision and stick-to-itiveness of a few peculiar architects, one of the most memorable man-made objects ever created.

The kids and I sat down with the book last week and they loved it. The pages on the design of the bridge prompted a discussion about Art Deco, with detours to Google Images to look at photos of the bridge,1 The Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building. The next day, on the walk to school, we strolled past the Walker Tower, a 1929 building designed by Ralph Thomas Walker, one of the foremost architects of the 20th century. We were running a little early, so I stopped and asked the kids to take a look and think about what the building reminded them of. "Art Deco" came the reply almost immediately.

I'm really gonna miss reading to my kids -- Ollie mostly reads by himself now and Minna is getting close -- but I hope that we're able to keep exploring the world through books together. NYC is a tough place to live sometimes, but being able to read about something in a book, even about a bridge in far-away San Francisco, and then go outside the next day to observe a prime example of what we were just reading is such a unique and wonderful experience.

  1. We also looked at several photos of the bridge under construction, including this one of a construction worker standing on some wires near one of the towers without much separating him and the water below. I've heard about this gentlemen from the kids several times since. Like, "remember that guy standing on the wires when the Golden Gate Bridge was being built? I bet he isn't scared of spiders."

Book covers in motionOct 29 2015

From Henning Lederer, a series of 55 vintage book covers gently animated. Lederer previously did an animation of Fritz Kahn's famous poster, Der Mensch als Industriepalast.

Puffin Pixels: 8-bit classicsOct 23 2015

Robin Hood Puffin Pixels

Perhaps attempting to capitalize on the popularity of Minecraft with young boys, Random Penguin1 has released the Puffin Pixels Series of books. The covers of The Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and four more titles are done in the style of 8-bit video games. The cover illustrations were done by Michael Myers. (via @gavinpurcell)

  1. I know it's Penguin Random House, but Random Penguin would have been more fun.

The unease of impossible idealism and extreme altruismOct 19 2015

New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar has written a book on people who are wholly devoted to helping others called Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. At least a few of the books' subjects were first profiled in the NYer by MacFarquhar, including this amazing story of a couple who adopted 20 children and a Japanese monk confronting his culture's suicide problem.

David Wolf of The Guardian recently wrote about MacFarquhar and her unique writing style, writing from the perspective of her subjects, like they themselves had written the piece.

MacFarquhar attributes her restlessness with form to getting "productively bored": "For a profile, I do try to make the piece sound and feel as though it were written by the person themselves, rather than by me. What I'm trying to get at is a sense of intimacy, a sense that you are, insofar as is possible, inside the mind of the person, so that you understand why they're in love with the ideas they fell in love with, what moves them, what drives them."

These principles guide most of her stylistic decisions. Anything that diminishes the immediacy of the reader's access to her subject is thrown out. "People think I'm a total freak for not using the first person," she says. "The way I think about it is that if you're making a conventional feature film, all it takes is for the director to walk across the camera just once and you have a completely different relationship to the whole story. For that reason, even though it sometimes means sacrificing great scenes, I take myself out."

What point of view is that? It's like a mix of first person and third person. Is one-third person POV a thing?

Slaughterhouse 90210 (the book)Oct 16 2015

Slaughterhouse 90210

In 2009, back in the heyday of witty Tumblrs, Maris Kreizman started marrying pop culture imagery with literary quotes on Slaughterhouse 90210. Kreizman has turned her efforts into a book, out last week.

Slaughterhouse 90210 is subversively brilliant, finding the depth in the shallows of reality television, and the levity in Lahiri. A picture of Taylor Swift is paired with Joan Didion's quote, "Above all, she is the girl who 'feels things'. The girl ever wounded, ever young." Tony Soprano tenderly hugs his teenage son, accompanied by a line from Middlemarch about, "The patches of hardness and tenderness [that] lie side by side in men's dispositions." The images and quotes complement and deepen one another in surprising, profound, and tender ways.

I am a sucker for the high/low culture thing.

The Man Who Designed ManhattanOct 16 2015

Michael Bierut, How ToMichael Bierut is popping off right now. The School of Visual Arts recently honored him with their Masters Series Award, which includes an exhibition of his work that runs until early November. And he's also out with a new book with a large title, How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World.

Update: Bierut's brief interview in the WSJ is worth a read. I enjoyed his Jack Donaghy-esque take on NYC work fashion:

I always wear a necktie to work. I didn't claw my way all the way from Ohio just to dress like a farmer.

And his love for Wile E. Coyote:

He had this endless faith and brand loyalty and never thought to try the competition even though Acme products failed him time and time again.

Although in fairness, the deck was stacked against the Coyote (see rule #7). (via @PaulAntonson)

The Steal Like An Artist JournalOct 09 2015

Kleon Artist Steal JournalAustin Kleon, whose bestselling books you may have seen in airport bookstores (as well as regular bookstores), is out with a new one: The Steal Like An Artist Journal. The subtitle is A Notebook for Creative Kleptomaniacs, which, aren't we all? Kleon writes:

For years, people have asked me what kind of notebook I recommend, so I went ahead and made the notebook I always wished existed. Based on my New York Times best-selling book, The Steal Like An Artist Journal will help get your creative juices flowing and record new (and stolen) ideas, thoughts, and discoveries. Think of it as a daily course in creativity: a portable workshop and coursebook, jammed full of inspiration, prompts, quotes, and exercises designed to turn you into a creative kleptomaniac.

The Warmth of Other SunsOct 07 2015

Warmth Suns Cover

I read a lot of books by and about white men, many of them dead. So when a friend enthusiastically recommended The Warmth of Other Suns, I jumped at the chance to expand my reading horizons. I'm so glad I did...this is an amazing book.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the Southern US to the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970. During that time, roughly 6 million African Americans moved north and west to escape Jim Crow laws, discrimination, low wages, the threat of physical violence & death, and everyday humiliation & lack of freedom in the South. In the North, they found freedom, new opportunities, and better lives for their families, but they had less success escaping poverty, racism, and discrimination.

Wilkerson tells the story of the entire Migration by focusing on the paths of three people leaving the South:

Warmth Suns

Ida Mae Gladney, a Mississippi sharecropper pictured above with flowers in her hair, moved to Chicago with her family in 1937 and lived to cast a vote for Barack Obama.

Warmth Suns

George Starling, pictured above on the left, worked in the citrus groves of Florida before leaving for New York in 1945. He found a job as a baggage handler (and unofficial welcoming committee member) on a train, working the north/south lines that ferried millions of black Southerners to their new homes in the North.

Warmth Suns

Robert Foster, the gentleman above in the bow tie, became a surgeon and moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in 1953. There, he rose to the upper ranks of black society and became personal physician to Ray Charles. Foster left the South so thoroughly behind that his daughter didn't know many of the details of his Louisiana childhood until she read it in Wilkerson's book.

Through her compelling straight-forward prose, wonderful storytelling, and diligent journalism, Wilkerson more than convinces me that the Great Migration is the greatest untold, misunderstood, and largely unknown occurrence of the American 20th century. I don't say this often, but The Warmth of Other Suns is a must-read, particularly if you want to begin to understand the racial issues still confronting the US today.

Why is there something rather than nothing?Oct 05 2015

That is the question that physicist Lawrence Krauss answers in his book, A Universe from Nothing. The book's trailer provides a little more context.

Everything we see is just a 1% bit of cosmic pollution in a Universe dominated by dark matter and dark energy. You could get rid of all the things in the night sky -- the stars, the galaxies, the planets, everything -- and the Universe would be largely the same.

And my favorite line from the trailer:

Forget Jesus, the stars died so you could be born.

(via open culture)

The Life-Changing Magic of Losing ShitOct 02 2015

Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up encourages you to examine all of your possessions one by one, ask if they "spark joy", and if they don't, get rid of them. Christina Xu recently lost her backpack with some of her most-used and valuable possessions and came away from the experience with a different spin on the KonMari method.

Involuntarily losing shit is the ultimate version of the KonMari method. It brutally takes things away at random and makes you fight to get them back so that you remember and reaffirm the value of each one.

This will henceforth be known as the XuHulk method.

On the declining ebook reading experienceOct 01 2015

When reports came out last month about declining ebook sales, many reasons were offered up, from higher pricing to the resurgence of bookstores to more efficient distribution of paper books to increased competition from TV's continued renaissance, Facebook, Snapchat, and an embarrassment of #longread riches. What I didn't hear a whole lot about was how the experience of reading ebooks and paper books compared, particularly in regard to the Kindle's frustrating reading experience not living up to its promise. What if people are reading fewer ebooks because the user experience of ebook reading isn't great?

Luckily, Craig Mod has stepped into this gap with a piece asking why digital books have stopped evolving. As Mod notes, paper books still beat out digital ones in many ways and the industry (i.e. Amazon) hasn't made much progress in addressing them.

The object -- a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth -- requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

Contrast this with opening a Kindle book -- there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. Wherein every step of opening The Conference of the Birds fills one with delight -- delight at what one is seeing and what one anticipates to come -- opening a Kindle book frustrates. Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven't missed anything.

The Kindle is a book reading machine, but it's also a portable book store. 1 Which is of great benefit to Amazon but also of some small benefit to readers...if I want to read, say, To Kill A Mockingbird right now, the Kindle would have it to me in less than a minute. But what if, instead, the Kindle was more of a book club than a store? Or a reading buddy? I bet something like that done well would encourage reading even more than instantaneous book delivery.

To me, Amazon seems exactly the wrong sort of company to make an ebook reader 2 with a really great reading experience. They don't have the right culture and they don't have the design-oriented mindset. They're a low-margin business focused on products and customers, not books and readers. There's no one with any real influence at Amazon who is passionately advocating for the reader. Amazon is leaving an incredible opportunity on the table here, which is a real bummer for the millions of people who don't think of themselves as customers and turn to books for delight, escape, enrichment, transformation, and many other things. No wonder they're turning back to paper books, which have a 500-year track record for providing such experiences.

PS. Make sure you read Mod's whole piece...you don't want to miss the bit about future MacArthur Genius Bret Victor's magic bookshelf. <3

  1. And it's a weird sort of store where you don't really own what you buy...it's really more of a long-term lease. Which would be fine...except that Amazon doesn't call it that.

  2. And I still want an ereader that's great for more than just books. Which is now the iPad/iPhone I guess?

Vargic's Miscellany of Curious MapsSep 30 2015

Vargic MapsVargic MapsVargic Maps

In his upcoming book, Vargic's Miscellany of Curious Maps, Martin Vargic builds maps of imaginary worlds like the Map of the Internet, the Map of Literature, the Map of Stereotypes, The Music Map, The Map of YouTube, and The Corporate World Map. (via @tcarmody)

The History of CartographySep 25 2015

History Of Cartography

Published in 1987, copies of Volume 1 of The History of Cartography are expensive and difficult to find.1 The subsequent two volumes aren't much less expensive. So the publisher of the series, The University of Chicago Press, has made PDFs of the books available online for scholars and map enthusiasts to use.

  1. Copies are $250 on Amazon.

101 Easy Asian RecipesSep 25 2015

101 Easy Asian RecipesLucky Peach is coming out with a cookbook called 101 Easy Asian Recipes. I've always been a little intimidated by Asian cooking.1 Other types of cuisine seem easy: French is butter & salt, Italian is olive oil & garlic, American is roast chicken & burgers. Plus, Asian cuisine is a huge umbrella of wonderful foods from all sorts of different cultures that it's difficult to know where to start. I've been wanting to cook less Western at home, and I'm hoping this cookbook will give me some good ideas on how to proceed.

  1. Truthfully, I've always been a little intimidated by cooking in general, but as I've been doing it more often over the past couple of years, some of that trepidation has fallen away.

The Food Lab cookbookSep 22 2015

The Food Lab Cookbook

Kenji Lopez-Alt, whose work you and I have followed at Serious Eats for several years now, has come out with a cookbook called The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.

Ever wondered how to pan-fry a steak with a charred crust and an interior that's perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge when you cut into it? How to make homemade mac 'n' cheese that is as satisfyingly gooey and velvety-smooth as the blue box stuff, but far tastier? How to roast a succulent, moist turkey (forget about brining!) -- and use a foolproof method that works every time?

Instant purchase for me. You take a peek inside the book at Kenji's site.

Leadership merit badgesSep 21 2015

Michael Lopp, Head of Engineering at Pinterest, recently gave a talk at the Cultivate conference in which he talks about different merit badges that a leader might earn if there were such a thing. Check the video for the whole list, but here are a few of them:

Influence without management authority
Delegate something you care about
Ship a thing
Ask for help from an enemy
Fail spectacularly

Part of the list made me think of parenting, which reminded me of Stella Bugbee's recommendation of the book Siblings Without Rivalry on Cup of Jo.

I have a VERY, VERY unlikely book that I often reference as a boss: Siblings Without Rivalry. It's not about money or business per se, but I've found since reading it that I put so many of its lessons into practice managing my team at work. I love the way it teaches you to listen, repeat the issues without taking sides, empathize and then teach the parties involved to solve their own disputes. It also helps at home. (Duh.)

A Burglar's Guide to the CitySep 21 2015

A Burglar's Guide to the City

An upcoming book from BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar's Guide to the City examines architecture through Ocean's Eleven-tinted glasses.

At the core of A Burglar's Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.

Update: The book is now out, accompanied by a spiffy new website.

How a volcanic eruption changed the worldSep 03 2015

The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 was the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. According to Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D'Arcy Wood, the eruption affected the world's weather for at least three years, inspired artists & writers, triggered famine, contributed to the world's cholera epidemic, and altered economic systems all over the world.

Here, Gillen D'Arcy Wood traces Tambora's global and historical reach: how the volcano's three-year climate change regime initiated the first worldwide cholera pandemic, expanded opium markets in China, and plunged the United States into its first economic depression. Bringing the history of this planetary emergency to life, Tambora sheds light on the fragile interdependence of climate and human societies to offer a cautionary tale about the potential tragic impacts of drastic climate change in our own century.

William Broad reviewed the book recently for the NY Times.

The particles high in the atmosphere also produced spectacular sunsets, as detailed in the famous paintings of J.M.W. Turner, the English landscape pioneer. His vivid red skies, Dr. Wood remarked, "seem like an advertisement for the future of art."

The story also comes alive in local dramas, none more important for literary history than the birth of Frankenstein's monster and the human vampire. That happened on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where some of the most famous names of English poetry had gone on a summer holiday.

The Tambora eruption must have also unleashed quite a racket, perhaps louder than Krakatoa's loudest sound in the world.

The Danish GirlSep 02 2015

The Danish Girl is an upcoming film starring Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, who was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It's based on a novel of the same name which presents a fictionalized account of Elbe's life.

The film may well net Redmayne another Oscar nomination, but I don't know how the transgender community will react. From a quick look on Twitter and the past reception of Oscar-hopeful films dealing with similar issues (see The Imitation Game's portrayal of Alan Turing's sexuality), I'm guessing it may not be so well-received.

BLDGBLOG's end-of-summer reading listAug 25 2015

From the always excellent BLDGBLOG, a list of recommended books for your end-of-summer reading. Included on the list are a novel about drug cartels, a book about crime in the future, a history of Nazi concentration camps, and a book on rust, about which I have personally heard good things.

Kingdom of booksAug 24 2015

Amazon has garnered an enormous share of the book market, and their "activities tend to reduce book prices, which is considered good for consumers." But hundreds of writers (including Philip Roth and V. S. Naipaul) are trying to convince the Department of Justice that -- regardless of the lower prices -- Amazon's monopoly is hurting consumers. From The New Yorker's Vauhini Vara: Is Amazon creating a cultural monopoly?

J.R.P.G. Torkelson's Lorne of the Rings trilogyAug 24 2015

This is a guide to the famous Lorne of the Rings trilogy of movies. All your favorite characters are here, from Samsclub Gunjeans to Starman to Flowbee the Haddock to Aerosmith, daughter of Lord Efron to Gumball, son of Groin.

This is one of those that goes from "oh how can this predictable thing actually be funny" to "oh my pants are wet because I peed in them because laughing" very quickly. (via waxy)

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of NeurodiversityAug 18 2015

Neurotribes

Added to the series of things I thought I posted about but never did is Steve Silberman's new book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, out next week.

What is autism? A lifelong disability, or a naturally occurring form of cognitive difference akin to certain forms of genius? In truth, it is all of these things and more-and the future of our society depends on our understanding it. WIRED reporter Steve Silberman unearths the secret history of autism, long suppressed by the same clinicians who became famous for discovering it, and finds surprising answers to the crucial question of why the number of diagnoses has soared in recent years.

Jennifer Senior wrote a largely positive review for the NY Times.

"NeuroTribes" is beautifully told, humanizing, important. It has earned its enthusiastic foreword from Oliver Sacks; it has found its place on the shelf next to "Far From the Tree," Andrew Solomon's landmark appreciation of neurological differences. At its heart is a plea for the world to make accommodations for those with autism, not the other way around, and for researchers and the public alike to focus on getting them the services they need. They are, to use Temple Grandin's words, "different, not less." Better yet, indispensable: inseparably tied to innovation, showing us there are other ways to think and work and live.

Update: NeuroTribes has won the prestigious 2015 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. The Guardian's Stephen Moss interviewed Silberman about the prize and book.

Silberman was born in New York, the son of two teachers who were communists and anti-war activists. "I was raised to be sensitive to the plight of the oppressed. One of the things I do is frame autism not purely in a clinical or self-help context, but in a social justice context. I came to it thinking I was going to study a disorder. But what I ended up finding was a civil-rights movement being born."

He says the fact he is gay also conditioned his approach. "My very being was defined as a form of mental illness in the diagnostic manual of disorders until 1974. I am not equating homosexuality and autism -- autism is inherently disabling in ways that homosexuality is not -- but I think that's why I was sensitive to the feelings of a group of people who were systematically bullied, tortured and thrown into asylums."

Obama's summer 2015 reading listAug 13 2015

Obama's off for a couple of vacation weeks on Martha's Vineyard and is taking the following books with him on vacation: All That Is by James Salter, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Solid.

My summer reading list so far: Quiet, The Antidote, The Martian, Ready Player One, and the kids and I are slowly working our way through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Update: POTUS has also made a Spotify playlist of his favorite summer songs. The Temptations, Dylan, Coldplay, and Aretha. No Jay or Bey?

Update: Ah, he also made a list for a summer night and there's some Beyonce on there. Thank you, Mr. President.

The invention of the era of flightAug 11 2015

Wright first flight

David McCullough (Truman, John Adams, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award) recently published a new book on The Wright Brothers. James Salter has a nice review in the New York Review of Books.

They knew exactly the importance of what they had accomplished. They knew they had solved the problem of flight and more. They had acquired the knowledge and the skill to fly. They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance.

Now they had only to build a motor.

Update: British Pathe has footage of a flight by the Wright Brothers:

It's labelled "First Flight" but the footage is actually from much later...that is clearly not Kitty Hawk and the first two-person flights did not occur until 1908. It is also unclear whether Orville and Wilbur were flying together in the video. From Salter's piece:

He and Wilbur had never flown together so that if there were ever a fatal accident it would not involve both of them, and one of them would live to continue the work. On that one occasion, they took off to fly together, with Orville at the controls, side by side.

If the footage is from the flight Salter describes, that would make it from 1910. (via @SavageReader)

Procrastination vs. impatienceAug 07 2015

From the abstract of a paper on the relationship between impatience and procrastination, this caught my eye:

We find substantial evidence of time inconsistency. Namely, more that half of the participants who receive their check straight away instead of waiting two weeks for a reasonably larger amount, subsequently take more than two weeks to cash it.

This reminded me of a passage I read recently in Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote1 about the pitfalls of positive visualization.

Yet there are problems with this outlook, aside from just feeling disappointed when things don't turn out well. These are particularly acute in the case of positive visualisation. Over the last few years, the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have constructed a series of experiments designed to unearth the truth about 'positive fantasies about the future'. The results are striking: spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go, it has emerged, actually reduces most people's motivation to achieve them. Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less than those who were invited to reflect on the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so.

In one ingenious experiment, Oettingen had some of the participants rendered mildly dehydrated. They were then taken through an exercise that involved visualising drinking a refreshing, icy glass of water, while others took part in a different exercise. The dehydrated water-visualisers -- contrary to the self-help doctrine of motivation through visualisation -- experienced a significant reduction in their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure. Far from becoming more motivated to hydrate themselves, their bodies relaxed, as if their thirst were already quenched. In experiment after experiment, people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused visualising success with having already achieved it.

In a similar way, it may be that the people who received their checks right away but didn't cash them "relaxed" as though they had actually spent the money, not just gotten the check. (via mr)

  1. This book was endlessly fascinating to me, like reading the user's manual on how my brain works for the first time. Like, wait, I don't have to be anxious about not setting goals? And it can actually make me happier? Sign me up!

John Hersey's HiroshimaAug 06 2015

In August of 1946, the New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to a piece called Hiroshima by John Hersey. As an introduction, the editors wrote:

TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.

For the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the New Yorker has digitized Hersey's piece. The piece is quite long (30,000 words) so it can also be found in book form if that's easier to read. Here's the opening paragraph to get you going:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor's widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order's three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city's large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man's house in Koi, the city's western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition -- a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next -- that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The piece made quite an impression upon its release, which you can read about on Wikipedia.

The New Devil's DictionaryAug 05 2015

From The Verge, The New Devil's Dictionary, a new economy take on Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary.

lifehack (v.): To embarrass your ancestors by bragging about an "ingenious" solution to a trivial problem.

operating system (n.): A set of instructions designed to make a particular machine incompatible with other machines.

See also Greg Knauss' The Devil's Dictionary 2.0 from many years ago.

blogosphere, noun. An poisonous environment of methane, self-satisfaction and other hot gasses.

podcast, verb. The audible form of "blog," in much the same way that a series of unhappy grunts and splashes is the audible form of "stomach flu."

Philip Glass: Words Without MusicAug 04 2015

Philip Glass by Chuck Close

I thought I'd posted about Philip Glass' new memoir, Words Without Music, when it came out back in April, but I can't find anything in the archives, so let's do it right now. I was reminded of it after reading this review by Dan Wang, which pushed Glass' book to the top of my queue.

These biographical details are manifestations of a quality I admire. Glass never needed much convincing to drop everything in his life to go on a risky venture. I'm not familiar with the many plot twists in his life, and found the book engaging because I had no idea what new adventure he was going to go on next. It's astonishing how open-minded he is. Consider: His decision to go to India was based entirely on seeing a striking illustration in a random book he grabbed off a friend's shelf. In addition, he never hesitated to go into personal debt, at times quite steep, because his music couldn't wait. The book is filled with instances of him saying "sure, when?" to improbable proposals without dwelling on their costs.

He seemed uninterested in stabilizing his position with more regular income. He never took up an honorary conductor position. He never ensconced himself in a plush conservatory professorship. And he didn't even apply for grants because he didn't like that they imposed terms.

See also the 2007 documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. (via mr)

Star Wars: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm BoyAug 03 2015

Lucasfilm is coming out with a set of books about the first three Star Wars movies written by authors of acclaimed teen and preteen books. The first is Star Wars: A New Hope. The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy.

Star Wars Kids Books

The other two are called Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. So You Want to Be a Jedi? and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Beware the Power of the Dark Side! (via dooce)

Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical CompanionJul 31 2015

Mad Men

One of my favorite movie/TV critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, is coming out with a book this fall on Mad Men called Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical Companion.

Mad Men Carousel, authored by Abrams' bestselling author Matt Zoller Seitz, will gather all of Seitz's widely read (and discussed) Mad Men essays in a single volume. Rather than simply recalling the plot through lengthy summary, Seitz's essays dig deep into the show's themes, performances and filmmaking, with the tone and spirit of accessible, but serious, film or literary criticism. This novel-sized volume will be designed to have a 1970s feel and will be broken into seven sections, one for each season.

Seitz wrote the dreamy The Wes Anderson Collection.

The Making of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'Jul 31 2015

Making of 2001

Last year, Taschen came out with a limited edition book on The Making of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Only a couple thousand were made and one of them is selling on Amazon for $1750. This year, they're releasing a regular edition for a much more reasonable $47. (via @michaelbierut)

Designers' summer reading picksJul 24 2015

Wired asked a bunch of noted designers -- Paola Antonelli, John Maeda, Jessica Walsh, Milton Glaser, etc. -- for their summer reading picks. Among their selections were Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, An Engineer Imagines by Peter Rice, The Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger, and Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.

How Buildings LearnJul 20 2015

In the mid-90s, Stewart Brand published a fantastic book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built.

Buildings have often been studies whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time. How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis that proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time.

From the connected farmhouses of New England to I.M. Pei's Media Lab, from "satisficing" to "form follows funding," from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth-this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory.

In 1997, Brand and the BBC did a six-part TV series based on the book. Brand has put the series on his YouTube channel; here's the first part to get you going:

(via open culture)

Put Harriet Tubman on the $20 billJul 15 2015

Harriet Tubman

Adding her voice to a chorus of others, Amy Davidson makes a great case for putting Harriet Tubman on the US $20 bill and kicking Andrew Jackson to the curb.

On September 17, 1849, Araminta, who now called herself Harriet, ran away to freedom, along with two of her brothers. Their owner, Eliza Brodess-Pattison's granddaughter-in-law-had been making moves to sell them, and the fear was that the family would be broken up. Brodess put an ad in the local newspaper, offering a hundred-dollar reward each for "Minty," Harry, and Ben. (The only extant copy of the ad was found in 2003, in a dumpster.) Almost immediately, Tubman began making trips back to Maryland, organizing the escapes of relatives, friends, and scores of other slaves, often just ahead of armed men pursuing them. On one trip, she discovered that her husband, John Tubman, who was free himself, was living with another woman; he had no interest in going north. He is a man who seems not to have known Tubman's worth.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of biographies1 on people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and the Wright brothers. My favorite, which I read at least three times, was Ann Petry's Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tubman is one of history's greatest badasses. Put her on the damn bill.

  1. Our local public library had a series of biographies for kids...I wish I could remember what these books were. I did a little research just now but nothing came up. I remember them being small (hardcovers but the size of paperbacks), no dust jackets, and plainly titled (e.g. "Abraham Lincoln"). There were around 50 titles and must have been 20-30 years old when I read them in the early 80s. I devoured them as a kid and would love to pass them along to my kids.

Winners of the 2014 50 Books | 50 Covers competitionJul 14 2015

50 Books 2014

Design Observer and the AIGA have announced the winners of their 50 Books | 50 Covers competition to find the best designed books and book covers published last year. The books are here and the covers are here.

Area X Book CoverWolf In White VanOn Such A Full Sea Book Cover

They're publishing a book and putting on an exhibition in New Orleans of the winners and need your help on Kickstarter to make it happen.

Fibonacci sequence hidden in ordinary division problemJul 06 2015

If you divide 1 by 999,999,999,999,999,999,999,998,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999 (that's 999 quattuordecillion btw), the Fibonacci sequence neatly pops out. MATH FTW!

Fibonacci division

At the end of Carl Sagan's Contact (spoilers!), the aliens give Ellie a hint about something hidden deep in the digits of π. After a long search, a circle made from a sequence of 1s and 0s is found, providing evidence that intelligence was built into the fabric of the Universe. I don't know if this Fibonacci division thing is on quite the same level, but it might bake your noodle if you think about it too hard. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Update: From svat at Hacker News, an explanation of the magic behind the math.

It's actually easier to understand if you work backwards and arrive at the expression yourself, by asking yourself: "If I wanted the number that starts like 0.0...000 0...001 0...001 0...002 0...003 0...005 0...008 ... (with each block being 24 digits long), how would I express that number?"

(thx, taylor)

Books in the films of Wes AndersonJul 06 2015

Books loom large in Wes Anderson's movies. Several of his films open with opening books and Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on an actual book. Here's a nicely edited selection of bookish moments from Anderson's films.

In the work of Wes Anderson, books and art in general have a strong connection with memory. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) begins with a homonymous book, as does Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) begins and ends with a book. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ends with a painting of a place which no longer exists. These movies have a clear message: books preserve stories, for they exist within them and live on through them.

A guide to Don DeLillo's booksJul 03 2015

This list ranking Don DeLillo's novels into categories ranging from "Classic" to "Avoid" from 2007 excludes his two most recent novels, but if you have little exposure to the author, it's a good place to start.

White Noise. DeLillo's breakthrough success, arguably still his quintessential masterpiece, and the funniest and most sustained example of his talent. Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, struggles with information overload, simulated disasters, an "airborne toxic event," the most photographed barn in America, and a drug that neutralizes the fear of death. If you're going to like DeLillo, this is the book that will make it happen.

Confession: aside from attempting to tackle Underworld1 more than 10 years ago, I have not read any DeLillo. I should probably fix that? (via @davidgrann)

  1. I bought my copy of Underworld at a San Francisco used book store at the same time I bought Infinite Jest. Like I said, Underworld didn't do it for me, but reading IJ became an odd sort of turning point in my life.

Compasses don't work on Mars, so how do you navigate?Jul 02 2015

Unlike the Earth, Mars and the Moon don't have strong directional magnetic fields, which means traditional compasses don't work. So how did the Apollo rovers and current Mars rovers navigate their way around? By using manually set directional gyroscope and wheel odometers.

While current un-crewed rovers don't have to return to the comfort of a lunar module, some aspects of the Apollo systems live on in their design. Four U.S. Martian rovers have used wheel odometers that account for slippage to calculate distance traveled. They've also employed gyroscopes (in the form of an inertial measurement units) to determine heading and pitch/roll information.

One of the fun things about reading The Martian is you get to learn a little bit about this sort of thing. Here's a passage about navigation on Mars where astronaut Mark Watney is trying to get to a landmark several days' drive away.

Navigation is tricky.

The Hab's nav beacon only reaches 40 kilometers, so it's useless to me out here. I knew that'd be an issue when I was planning this little road trip, so I came up with a brilliant plan that didn't work.

The computer has detailed maps, so I figured I could navigate by landmarks. I was wrong. Turns out you can't navigate by landmarks if you can't find any god damned landmarks.

Our landing site is at the delta of a long-gone river . NASA chose it because if there are any microscopic fossils to be had, it's a good place to look. Also, the water would have dragged rock and soil samples from thousands of kilometers away. With some digging, we could get a broad geological history.

That's great for science, but it means the Hab's in a featureless wasteland.

I considered making a compass. The rover has plenty of electricity, and the med kit has a needle. Only one problem: Mars doesn't have a magnetic field.

So I navigate by Phobos. It whips around Mars so fast it actually rises and sets twice a day, running west to east. It isn't the most accurate system, but it works.

I wonder why the rovers in the story weren't outfitted with directional gyroscopes and wheel odometers? (See also the operations manual for the lunar rovers.) (via @JaredCrookston)

Some science book reading listsJun 30 2015

From John Horgan, a list of 25 Terrific Science(y) Books. There are some unorthodox picks here (next to some no-brainers):

Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922. Yeah, it's a work of fiction, but as I argued a few years ago, Joyce was a more astute observer of the mind than anyone before or since. He exemplifies Noam Chomsky's dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, 1962. This sneaky, subversive assault on conventional notions of scientific truth and progress triggered a revolution itself within the philosophy of science. Be sure to note where Kuhn compares scientists with drug addicts.

From Steven Weinberg, a list of the 13 best science books for the general reader. Solid list. But The Origin of Species is more than a little tough for the lay reader; I tried reading it a few years ago and it was a slog. I recommend The Elegant Universe and The Making of the Atomic Bomb w/o reservation.

Beyond TufteJun 25 2015

From designer Karl Sluis, a list of nine great book about information visualization not written by Edward Tufte. Gonna keep my eye out for Stephen Few's Now You See It and David McCandless' The Visual Miscellaneum, but Herbert Bayer's World Geographic Atlas is a little too rich for my blood.

Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive ThinkingJun 25 2015

Antidote Book

"Success through failure, calm through embracing anxiety..." This book sounds perfect for me. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.

Self-help books don't seem to work. Few of the many advantages of modern life seem capable of lifting our collective mood. Wealth -- even if you can get it -- doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. Romance, family life, and work often bring as much stress as joy. We can't even agree on what "happiness" means. So are we engaged in a futile pursuit? Or are we just going about it the wrong way?

Looking both east and west, in bulletins from the past and from far afield, Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual group of people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. Whether experimental psychologists, terrorism experts, Buddhists, hardheaded business consultants, Greek philosophers, or modern-day gurus, they argue that in our personal lives, and in society at large, it's our constant effort to be happy that is making us miserable. And that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty -- the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid. Thought-provoking, counterintuitive, and ultimately uplifting, The Antidote is the intelligent person's guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.

I learned about the book from Tyler Cowen, who notes:

[Burkeman] is one of the best non-fiction essay writers, and he remains oddly underrated in the United States. It is no mistake to simply buy his books sight unseen. I think of this book as "happiness for grumps."

Given Cowen's recent review of Inside Out, I wonder if [slight spoilers ahoy!] he noticed the similarity of Joy's a-ha moment w/r/t to Sadness at the end of the film to the book's "alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty". Mmmm, zeitgeisty!

The Population Bomb defusedJun 23 2015

In the 1960s, the idea of an overpopulated planet took hold, sparked by the publication of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich.

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Ehrlich advocated radical population control methods, including voluntary incentivized sterilization, a tax on things like diapers, and adding chemicals to temporarily sterilize people into the food and water supply. Retro Report has a look at how the Population Bomb was defused by a combination of different factors, including urbanization, the Green Revolution, and a decrease in poverty.

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