kottke.org posts about books

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.

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


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.

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.

The Pocket Book of Boners by Dr. SeussJun 23 2015

Pocket Book Of BonersThe Pocket Book of Boners, composed of four short books published in 1931, was the first published work illustrated by Dr. Seuss. Two of the four books, Boners and More Boners, were illustrated by Seuss -- Still More Boners, and Prize Boners for 1932 were the other two. Other books in the series included The Omnibus Boners, The 2nd Boners Omnibus, and Bigger & Better Boners. After the publication of The Pocket Book of Boners, the Pittsburgh Press ran an article called Craze for Boners Stages Comeback in Recent Book.

What is the best charitable cause in the world?Jun 16 2015

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson examines the act of giving and goes in search of the best charitable cause in the world.

Perhaps the most piercing lesson from effective altruism is that one can make an astonishing difference in the world with a pinch of logic and dash of math.

See also Doing Good Better.

Get with The ProgramJun 11 2015

The Program is an upcoming film about the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity). It's based on David Walsh's book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.

Every Person in New YorkJun 11 2015

Every Person In NY Book

Jason Polan has turned his long-term project to draw each and every person in New York into a book coming out in August. As a long-time Polan fan, I'm looking forward to this.

The Martian trailerJun 08 2015

I have not read the book it's based on, but the movie version of The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, looks quite promising:

I am going to have to science the shit out of this.

Apollo 13 with a touch of Interstellar...I can do that.

Update: A second trailer has been released:

And I have since read the book, which was good. But it will make a better movie.

Theory: the Harry Potter series is about mental illnessJun 08 2015

This is an interesting theory about the Harry Potter series: the whole thing is about a mentally ill young boy (Harry) who is institutionalized by his parents (the Dursleys) in a mental institution (Hogwarts) and the contents of the books are Harry's fantasy.

In the Harry Potter series, his parents are famous wizards, who were famous in all the world for their unparalleled love for the boy Harry, which set the whole series in motion, killing them and leaving the boy a scarred orphan. (This is a fantasy, crafted as the direct opposite of the way in which children usually end up scarred -- through abuse and neglect.)

If we interpret the story as Harry's fantasy, then the Dursleys are Harry's real parents, and the Potters are imaginary. The Durselys either can't cope with the increasingly-delusional boy living with them, or perhaps they are merely abusive, and it's the abuse that's making him delusional. In any event, the parent-figures constantly mistreat him, favor the brother, and inflict endless cruelty and humiliation on him. One day, Harry snaps, and Dudley (who is really Harry's brother) is severely injured, in a way requiring repeated hospital treatments. (In the delusion, Harry imagines that a pig's tail is magically grown from Dudley's buttocks.) As a result of this incident, Harry is taken away to a "special school."

How the iPhone surprised and then crushed the BlackberryJun 04 2015

The full story is behind a paywall,1 but the WSJ's The Inside Story of How the iPhone Crippled BlackBerry is kind of amazing. The piece is an excerpt from Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry.

The next day Mr. Lazaridis grabbed his co-CEO Jim Balsillie at the office and pulled him in front of a computer.

"Jim, I want you to watch this," he said, pointing to a webcast of the iPhone unveiling. "They put a full Web browser on that thing. The carriers aren't letting us put a full browser on our products."

Mr. Balsillie's first thought was RIM was losing AT&T as a customer. "Apple's got a better deal," Mr. Balsillie said. "We were never allowed that. The U.S. market is going to be tougher."

"These guys are really, really good," Mr. Lazaridis replied. "This is different."

"It's OK -- we'll be fine," Mr. Balsillie responded.

RIM's chiefs didn't give much additional thought to Apple's iPhone for months. "It wasn't a threat to RIM's core business," says Mr. Lazaridis's top lieutenant, Larry Conlee. "It wasn't secure. It had rapid battery drain and a lousy [digital] keyboard."

"RIM's chiefs didn't give much additional thought to Apple's iPhone for months."

"RIM's chiefs didn't give much additional thought to Apple's iPhone for months."

"RIM's chiefs didn't give much additional thought to Apple's iPhone for months."

Oof. (via @craigmod)

  1. You know how to circumvent the WSJ's paywall, right? You paste the title of the piece -- in this case, The Inside Story of How the iPhone Crippled BlackBerry -- into Google and click on the story from the search results or in Google News. Boom, instant access.

The quiet introvert revolutionJun 04 2015

Susan Cain, author of the excellent Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, has launched Quiet Revolution, a resource "to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all". There's already quite a bit there...you can take a test to see if you're an introvert, five ways to deal with an open office plan, learn how to connect with extroverts, and 15 ways you can be a better parent to your introverted kid.

Understand that your child's temperament is due to biology. Think your child can just "get over" hating raucous birthday parties? Think again. Introverts' and extroverts' brains are "wired" differently, according to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child. She writes that children's temperaments are innate (although parents play an important role in nurturing that temperament).

Introverts' and extroverts' brains use different neurotransmitter pathways, and introverts and extroverts use different "sides" of their nervous systems (introverts prefer the parasympathetic side, which is the "rest and digest" system as opposed to the sympathetic, which triggers the "fight, flight, or freeze" response). Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that introverts have larger, thicker gray matter in their prefrontal cortices, which is the area of the brain associated with abstract thought and decision-making. If your child tends to be more cautious and reserved than her extroverted peers, rest assured that there's a biological reason for it.

Tree of Codes contemporary ballet performanceJun 03 2015

Tree Of Codes Jamie xx Olafur Eliasson

Director and choreographer Wayne McGregor, artist Olafur Eliasson, music producer Jamie XX (new album!), and dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet are collaborating on a contemporary ballet performance based on Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes.

Award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor's groundbreaking practice embraces dance, science, film, music, and technology to generate intriguing, expansive works. For Tree of Codes, McGregor is collaborating with artist Olafur Eliasson and producer/composer Jamie xx to create a contemporary ballet. Eliasson's large-scale projects, including The New York City Waterfalls and The weather project at the Tate Modern, have captured the attention of audiences worldwide. Mercury Prize-winning Jamie xx blurs the boundaries between artist and audience in sonic environments like the one he created with his band, The xx, at the Armory in 2014.

Triggered by Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes (an artwork in the form of a book which was in turn inspired by Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz), this new, evening-length work features a company of soloists and dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor.

Two performances are planned so far: at the Manchester International Festival (July 2-10) and the Park Avenue Armory (Sept 14-21). (thx, michelle)

In FlightJun 01 2015

Mark Vanhoenacker is a Boeing 747-400 pilot for British Airways who also happens to have a wonderful almost lyrical way with words. In this NY Times piece, Vanhoenacker gives an overview of how a London-to-Tokyo flight functions, from take-off & landings to what pilots see in the dark night skies to the determination of altitude.

Three altimeters in the cockpit -- two bright digital readouts, and one old-school device with hands that turn like those of a clock -- show 31,000 feet.

Yet we know that we are probably not as close to 31,000 feet as these altimeters suggest. We are somewhat lower; or perhaps we are higher. One thing is certain -- it would be easy to find a dozen airliners flying over different parts of the world, all of whose altimeters displayed 31,000 feet, none of which are at the same altitude.

How is this possible?

Planes calculate their altitude by measuring air pressure. The air lies most heavily on places that are lowest, the places that have the most air piled above them. A barometric altimeter (baros, meaning weight) equates high air pressure -- lots of air weighing down -- with low altitude. As a plane climbs, there is less air above it. The altimeter senses less air weight and reports a higher altitude.

There's a problem, however. Air pressure is not constant. It varies across the Earth. It also varies in each place as time and weather pass.

And I love this bit about the names of the geographic waypoints used to navigate the area around Boston:

Boston has etched a particularly rich constellation onto the heavens above New England. There is PLGRM, of course; CHWDH, LBSTA and CLAWW; GLOWB and HRALD for the city's newspapers; while SSOXS, FENWY, BAWLL and OUTTT trace the fortunes of the city's baseball team in long arcs across the stars. There's a NIMOY waypoint; Leonard was born in Boston.

The piece is adapted from Vanhoenacker's new book, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. My dad was a professional pilot for many years1 and I've always loved flying, so I'm definitely going to give this a read.

  1. I wrote about my dad's aviation career for one of my Quarterly packages. I should dig that up and publish it here...it's a good story.

Way More than LuckMay 29 2015

While researching this post on some weekend reading from David Foster Wallace, I stumbled across Way More than Luck, an anthology of notable commencement speeches.

Here, in an anthology of some of the finest of the genre, brilliant creative minds in every sector offer their wisdom: David Foster Wallace on living a compassionate life, Debbie Millman on the importance of taking risks, Michael Lewis on the responsibility that good fortune merits -- and so many other greats. Some of this advice is grand (believe in the impossible), and some of it is granular enough to check off a life list (donate five percent of your money or your time).

See also The Top 7 Commencement Speeches of All Time.

Amazon finally fixes the Kindle's text justificationMay 27 2015

Our national full-justification of text nightmare is over...Amazon has finally ditched fully justified text on the Kindle.

But the new app finally gives the boot to the hideous absolute justification of text that the Kindle's been rocking since 2007. The new layout engine justifies text more like print typesetting. Even if you max out the font size on the new Kindle app, it will keep the spacing between words even, intelligently hyphenating words and spreading them between lines as need may be.

The layout engine also contains some beautiful new kerning options. They're subtle, but once you see them, you can't unsee them: for example, the way that the top and bottom of a drop cap on the Kindle now perfectly lines up with the tops and bottoms of its neighboring lines. Like I said, it's a small detail, but one that even Apple's iBooks and Google Play Books doesn't manage to quite get right.

Huzzah! The company is still working through a backlog of converting titles to the new layout, so give it some time if the changes aren't showing up. (via nextdraft)

QuerklesMay 27 2015


This looks cool...Thomas Pavitte has reinvented the paint-by-numbers with Querkles. Instead of simple numbered areas to fill in, Querkles cleverly uses overlapping circles that you fill in with different shading techniques or colors to reveal hidden faces. Here's a short demo of how it works:

Pavitte has two different books available: Querkles and Querkles Masterpiece, featuring famous faces from the art world. See also coloring books for adults.

Trailer for The End of the TourMay 27 2015

"The more people think you're really great, the bigger the fear of being a fraud is." That's the most resonant line for me from the first trailer for The End of the Tour, the story of a five-day interview between reporter David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace that takes place in 1996, just after Infinite Jest came out.

The movie is based on a book Lipsky published called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I read and thought was great.1 Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky and Jason Segel does as much justice to Wallace as one could hope for, I think. I am cautiously optimistic that this movie might actually be decent or even good. (via @jcormier)

  1. I even took place in a roundtable discussion for Vulture about it.

Informal entrepreneurship and The Misfit EconomyMay 26 2015

Misfit EconomyThe Misfit Economy looks intriguing; the subtitle is "Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs".

Who are the greatest innovators in the world? You're probably thinking Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. The usual suspects.

This book isn't about them. It's about people you've never heard of. It's about people who are just as innovative, entrepreneurial, and visionary as the Jobses, Edisons, and Fords of the world, except they're not in Silicon Valley. They're in the street markets of Sao Paulo and Guangzhou, the rubbish dumps of Lagos, the flooded coastal towns of Thailand. They are pirates, slum dwellers, computer hackers, dissidents, and inner city gang members.

Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black, grey, and informal economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being "deviant entrepreneurs" that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and practices that we can learn from and apply to move formal markets.

Jessica Hische's secrets revealed!May 21 2015

Jessica Hische

One of my favorite designers, Jessica Hische (she did the film titles for Moonrise Kingdom), is coming out with a new book in September called In Progress: See Inside a Lettering Artist's Sketchbook and Process, from Pencil to Vector.

This show-all romp through design-world darling Jessica Hische's sketchbook reveals the creative and technical process behind making award-winning hand lettering. See everything, from Hische's rough sketches to her polished finals for major clients such as Wes Anderson, NPR, and Starbucks. The result is a well of inspiration and brass tacks information for designers who want to sketch distinctive letterforms and hone their skills.

Hische made a video offering a quick tour of the book:

A video posted by @jessicahische on

Looks great!

Wife bonuses and the Primates of Park AvenueMay 18 2015

Primates Of Park Avenue

Wednesday Martin is an anthropologist and author whose upcoming book, Primates of Park Avenue, examines the wealthy stay-at-home moms of Manhattan's Upper East Side like any other primate troop.

After marrying a man from the Upper East Side and moving to the neighborhood, Wednesday Martin struggled to fit in. Drawing on her background in anthropology and primatology, she tried looking at her new world through that lens, and suddenly things fell into place. She understood the other mothers' snobbiness at school drop-off when she compared them to olive baboons. Her obsessional quest for a Hermes Birkin handbag made sense when she realized other females wielded them to establish dominance in their troop. And so she analyzed tribal migration patterns; display rituals; physical adornment, mutilation, and mating practices; extra-pair copulation; and more. Her conclusions are smart, thought-provoking, and hilariously unexpected.

Martin wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about her findings called Poor Little Rich Women.

And then there were the wife bonuses.

I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a "bonus" over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn't work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her "year-end" to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.

A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband's fund had done but her own performance -- how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a "good" school -- the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don't just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.

Women who didn't get them joked about possible sexual performance metrics. Women who received them usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further, proof to an anthropologist that a topic is taboo, culturally loaded and dense with meaning.

Please note that Martin's book is a memoir...not an anthropological study, a memoir. I can't wait to see how they turn this one into a movie.

Update: Polly Phillips in the NY Post: I get a wife bonus and I deserve it, so STFU.

These pricey pairs of designer footwear will join a lineup of Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Diane Von Furstenburg and Rupert Sanderson heels and a closet crammed with handbags from Prada, Chanel and Anya Hindmarch. Every single one was bought with one of my annual bonuses -- the nod from a happy boss for a job well done.

But, in this case, the boss in question is my husband, Al. The role he's rewarding me for is my work as a stay-at-home wife and mother. And the luxury labels are purchased with the "wife bonus" -- 20 percent of his own company bonus -- that I'm proud to receive for putting his career before my own, and keeping our lives together.

After all, he readily admits that, without me staying at home with our 19-month-old daughter, Lala -- not to mention the support and understanding I offer when his work intrudes on our home life -- he couldn't do his job. And he also knows that if we hadn't followed his career abroad, I might still be doing very well in my own.

Weird thing #1: Phillips refers to her husband as her boss. No ironic scarequotes. He's the boss. Which seems to be a point in favor of Martin's thesis of a lack of empowerment.

Weird thing #2: Why the hell call it a "wife bonus" if their income is completely shared and they each get 20% of the end-of-year bonus? I mean, it seems completely reasonable and equitable that they each get some mad money to spend however they want on above-and-beyond items. Why load that arrangement down with the icky "wife bonus"?

Update: Remember when I said "Martin's book is a memoir...not an anthropological study"? This is why: it turns out Martin monkeyed with the timelines quite a bit to create a better narrative.

She says she attended grueling exercise classes at Physique 57 to lose her baby weight after her second son's birth. But the upscale gym did not exist when she claims to have exercised there.

She also describes a posh party where the guests bring the hostess gifts from an upscale macaroon shop. But Ladurée didn't open in New York until 2011, four years after she had moved.

While at a lunch date just prior to the party, Martin and a friend do an accounting of how much their over-privileged peers spend on personal grooming, clothing and transportation. Her friend refers to Uber, even though the car service didn't debut in the city until 2011.

The Times reports that the book's publisher will append a note to future editions of the book explaining the tinkered details and timelines. (via @jtaylorhodge)

What's the most beautiful paragraph or sentence you've ever read?May 15 2015

From Reddit, dozens of people share their favorite lines from literature, from Nabokov to Milne to Dante. Here are a few of my favorites:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh?" he whispered. "Yes, Piglet?" "Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. "I just wanted to be sure of you." -- A.A. Milne

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. -- Carl Sagan

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was. -- Joseph Heller

'Happy,' I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don't have much faith in them and I am no exception - especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they're scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence. -- Hunter S. Thompson

If you need more, try your luck with these. (via @eqx1979)

Only Fish Fall From the SkyMay 14 2015

Only Fish Fall From The Sky

From illustrator Leif Parsons, a new children's book called Only Fish Fall From the Sky.

A dreamworld where it rains fish instead of water, people dance through dinner, and children sleep with tigers -- welcome to the imagination of author/artist Leif Parsons, whose detailed dreamscapes make ONLY FISH FALL FROM THE SKY a charming bedtime book sure to fascinate preschoolers and young readers.

Khoi Vinh says:

The pages are exquisitely, elaborately packed with unexpected details that kids (and adults) can pore over for hours.

Instant order...this sounds like my favorite kind of kid's book, like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs crossed with Richard Scarry or something.

Thing ExplainerMay 13 2015

Thing Explainer

Randall Munroe of xkcd is coming out with a new book called Thing Explainer.

Inspired by his popular comic, "Up Goer Five," THING EXPLAINER is a series of brilliantly -- and simply -- annotated blueprints that explain everything from ballpoint pens to the solar system using line drawings and only the thousand most common English words.

So awesome. I love everything about this. Here's a look at part of one of the blueprints, the Curiosity rover, aka Space Car for the Red World:

Thing Explainer Drawing

Elon Musk's Quest for a Fantastic FutureMay 12 2015

Ashley Vance has written a book about Elon Musk and it comes out next week.

In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, veteran technology journalist Ashlee Vance provides the first inside look into the extraordinary life and times of Silicon Valley's most audacious entrepreneur. Written with exclusive access to Musk, his family and friends, the book traces the entrepreneur's journey from a rough upbringing in South Africa to the pinnacle of the global business world. Vance spent more than 30 hours in conversation with Musk and interviewed close to 300 people to tell the tumultuous stories of Musk's world-changing companies: PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity, and to characterize a man who has renewed American industry and sparked new levels of innovation while making plenty of enemies along the way.

The Washington Post has a list of memorable quotes from the book.

"He's kind of homeless, which I think is sort of funny. He'll e-mail and say, 'I don't know where to stay tonight. Can I come over?' I haven't given him a key or anything yet." - Google chief executive Larry Page on Elon Musk, who owns a home in Los Angeles but doesn't have a place in Silicon Valley, which he visits weekly for his work at Tesla.

Musk took to his Twitter account to dispute two of the quotes on that list, including the one that makes him sound most like a cartoonish supervillain.

It is total BS & hurtful to claim that I told a guy to miss his child's birth just to attend a company meeting. I would never do that.

Musk also says about the book:

Ashlee's book was not independently fact-checked. Should be taken w a grain of salt.

Musk recently got in touch with Tim Urban of the excellent Wait But Why to see if he would be interested in an interview about Musk's work. The first post in that series was posted last week: Elon Musk: The World's Raddest Man.

Update: Bloomberg Business has an excerpt from Vance's book with the intriguing title Elon Musk's Space Dream Almost Killed Tesla.

Musk, of course, wasn't just building rockets. In 2003, about a year after he started SpaceX, Musk helped found Tesla Motors, which planned to sell an electric sports car. Musk had spent years pining after a good electric car, and though he had committed \$100 million to SpaceX, he would now put an additional \$70 million into Tesla and end up as the company's CEO. It was a decision that would almost break both companies.

Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?May 08 2015

Gwyneth Wrong

From juice cleanses to vaccines to gluten to exercise to, uh, vagina steaming, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Gwyneth Paltrow are often found making claims that have little or no scientific evidence behind them. Timothy Caulfield recently wrote a book exploring the world of celebrity pseudoscience called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

But while much has been written about the cause of our obsession with the rich and famous, Caulfield argues that not enough has been done to debunk celebrity messages and promises about health, diet, beauty, or the secret to happiness. From the obvious dangers, to body image of super-thin models and actors, or Gwyneth Paltrow's enthusiastic endorsement of a gluten free-diet for almost everyone, or Jenny McCarthy's ill-informed claims of the risks associated with vaccines, celebrity opinions have the power to dominate our conversations and outlooks on our lives and ourselves.

Julia Belluz of Vox interviewed Caulfield about the book.

JB: So is Gwyneth actually wrong about everything?

TC: It's incredible how much she is wrong about. Even when she is right about stuff -- like telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables -- there is always a bit of a tinge of wrongness. She'll say, "It has to be organic," for example. She is still distracting us with these untrue details, as opposed to just pushing the honest truth.

See also Your detoxing juice cleanse is bullshit.

The Artists' and Writers' CookbookMay 06 2015

Artists and Writers Cookbook

Published in 1961 with an introduction by Alice B Toklas, The Artists' and Writers' Cookbook features recipes and wisdom from dozens of writers and artists, including Harper Lee, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Pearl Buck, Upton Sinclair, John Keats, and Burl Ives. Lee shared her recipe for crackling cornbread:

First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called "cracklings") with:

1 &frac12; cups water-ground white meal

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg

1 cup milk

Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).

Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about \$250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

And Marcel Duchamp offers up a preparation of steak tartare:

Let me begin by saying, ma chere, that Steak Tartare, alias Bitteck Tartare, also known as Steck Tartare, is in no way related to tartar sauce. The steak to which I refer originated with the Cossacks in Siberia, and it can be prepared on horseback, at swift gallop, if conditions make this a necessity.

Indications: Chop one half pound (per person) of the very best beef obtainable, and shape carefully with artistry into a bird's nest. Place on porcelain plate of a solid color -- ivory is the best setting -- so that no pattern will disturb the distribution of ingredients. In hollow center of nest, permit two egg yolks to recline. Like a wreath surrounding the nest of chopped meat, arrange on border of plate in small, separate bouquets:

Chopped raw white onion

Bright green capers

Curled silvers of anchovy

Fresh parsley, chopped fine

Black olives minutely chopped in company with yellow celery leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

Each guest, with his plate before him, lifts his fork and blends the ingredients with the egg yolks and meat. In center of table: Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter, and bottles of vin rosé.

Not to be outdone, MoMA published their own artists' cookbook in 1977, featuring contributions from Louise Bourgeois, Christo, Salvador Dali, Willem De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. Here's Warhol's recipe:

Andy Warhol doesn't eat anything out of a can anymore. For years, when he cooked for himself, it was Heinz or Campbell's tomato soup and a ham sandwich. He also lived on candy, chocolate, and "anything with red dye #2 in it." Now, though he still loves junk food, McDonald's hamburgers and French fries are something "you just dream for."

The emphasis is on health, staying thin and eating "simple American food, nothing complicated, no salt or butter." In fact, he says, "I like to go to bad restaurants, because then I don't have to eat. Airplane food is the best food -- it's simple, they throw it away so quickly and it's so bad you don't have to eat it."

Campbell's Milk of Tomato Soup

A 10 3/4-ounce can Campbell's condensed tomato soup

2 cans milk

In a saucepan bring soup and two cans milk to boil; stir. Serve.

Netflix orders Green Eggs and HamApr 30 2015

Netflix is making a 13-episode animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. The show will premiere in 2018 and the official press release shows that Netflix is fully committed to the premise:

Issued from Netflix headquarters.

Delivered straight to all reporters.

We'd love to share some happy news

based on the rhymes of Dr. Seuss.

Green Eggs and Ham will become a show

and you're among the first to know.

In this richly animated production,

a 13-episode introduction,

standoffish inventor (Guy, by name)

and Sam-I-Am of worldwide fame,

embark on a cross-country trip

that tests the limits of their friendship.

As they learn to try new things,

they find out what adventure brings.

Of course they also get to eat

that famous green and tasty treat!

Cindy Holland, VP of Original Content for Netflix

threw her quote into the mix:

"We think this will be a hit

Green Eggs and Ham is a perfect fit

for our growing slate of amazing stories

available exclusively in all Netflix territories.

You can stream it on a phone.

You can stream it on your own.

You can stream it on TV.

You can stream it globally."

For reference, here's an animated version of Green Eggs and Ham done in the 70s:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the TV seriesApr 29 2015

Ever since I read Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell just after it came out, I've wondered when someone was going to do a movie or miniseries adaptation. Well, BBC has stepped up with a seven-part series that debuts on BBC One in May and on BBC America "this summer". Here's a trailer:

Set at the beginning of the 19th-century, England no longer believes in practical magic. The reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey stuns the city of York when he causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. With a little persuasion and help from his man of business Childermass, he goes to London to help the government in the war against Napoleon. It is there Norrell summons a fairy to bring Lady Pole back from the dead, opening a whole can of worms...

That trailer was a little too trailery for my taste (if you know what I mean), but I'm excited nonetheless. (via ★interesting)

Update: BBC America has put the first episode of the show up on YouTube:

The rest of the episodes are available in a slightly less official capacity as well -- here's episode 2 for instance.

The Hubble Space Telescope turns 25Apr 27 2015

The Hubble Space Telescope was deployed into space on April 25, 1990 and began snapping images of the sky shortly thereafter. Phil Plait, the NY Times, NPR, and How We Get To Next have chosen some of their favorite Hubble images, and Taschen published a coffee table book of Hubble images called Expanding Universe.

Hubble 25Hubble 25Hubble 25Hubble 25Hubble 25

I still find it incredible that we have a telescope orbiting the Earth. Happy birthday, Hubble. Here's to many more.

The glass is already brokenApr 24 2015

"You see this goblet?" asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. "For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, 'Of course.' When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious."

From Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein.

1491, the TV seriesApr 23 2015

1491 TV

Charles Mann's 1491 is one of my all-time favorite books. I mean, if this description doesn't stir you:

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man's first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.

On Twitter yesterday, Mann shared that a documentary series was being made based on the book. The eight-part series is being commissioned by Canada's APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and Barbara Hager, who is of Cree/Metis heritage, will write, direct, and produce.

This is fantastic news. I hope this gets US distribution at some point, even if it's online-only.

Finding ZeroApr 23 2015

Finding Zero

The latest book from Amir Aczel, who has written previously about the compass, the Large Hadron Collider, and Fermat's Last Theorem, is Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers...in particular, the number zero.

Finding Zero is an adventure filled saga of Amir Aczel's lifelong obsession: to find the original sources of our numerals. Aczel has doggedly crisscrossed the ancient world, scouring dusty, moldy texts, cross examining so-called scholars who offered wildly differing sets of facts, and ultimately penetrating deep into a Cambodian jungle to find a definitive proof.

The NY Times has a review of the book, written by another Amir, Amir Alexander, who wrote a recent book on infinitesimals, aka very nearly zero. (via @pomeranian99)

2015 Pulitzer Prize winnersApr 21 2015

Sixth Extinction

Vox has a list of all the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winners. I am especially pleased to see Elizabeth Kolbert win the general nonfiction category for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History...I've been reading her writing on climate change and environmental issues in the New Yorker for years now.

Seveneves by Neal StephensonApr 15 2015

Stephenson Seveneves

Neal Stephenson has made the first 26 pages of his upcoming book, Seveneves, available on his website. About the book:

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain...

Five thousand years later, their progeny-seven distinct races now three billion strong-embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown... to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

The novel is out on May 19.

Update: Seveneves is now out and getting some good reviews on Goodreads. Get it while it's hot.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef WatsonApr 14 2015

Chef WatsonWatson, IBM's evolving attempt at building a computer capable of AI, was originally constructed to excel at Jeopardy. Which it did, handily beating Jeopardy mega-champ Ken Jennings. Watson has since moved on to cooking and has just come out with a new cookbook, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson.

You don't have to be a culinary genius to be a great cook. But when it comes to thinking outside the box, even the best chefs can be limited by their personal experiences, the tastes and flavor combinations they already know. That's why IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education teamed up to develop a groundbreaking cognitive cooking technology that helps cooks everywhere discover and create delicious recipes, utilizing unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine.

In Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, IBM's unprecedented technology and ICE's culinary experts present more than 65 original recipes exploding with irresistible new flavors. Together, they have carefully crafted, evaluated and perfected each of these dishes for "pleasantness" (superb taste), "surprise" (innovativeness) and a "synergy" of mouthwatering ingredients that will delight any food lover.

The Moral Bucket ListApr 13 2015

David Brooks asks: what does life look like when you stop focusing so much on resume building and external achievement and spend more time working on your morality and inner character?

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral -- whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

This essay is adapted from Brooks' newest book, The Road to Character, which is out tomorrow.

When to Rob a Bank...Apr 10 2015

When To Rob A Bank

A new book from the guys who brought you Freakonomics (which is ten years old...ten years): When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants.

Over the past decade, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have published more than 8,000 blog posts on Freakonomics.com. Many of them, they freely admit, were rubbish. But now they've gone through and picked the best of the best. You'll discover what people lie about, and why; the best way to cut gun deaths; why it might be time for a sex tax; and, yes, when to rob a bank. (Short answer: never; the ROI is terrible.) You'll also learn a great deal about Levitt and Dubner's own quirks and passions, from gambling and golf to backgammon and the abolition of the penny.

FWIW, here are the posts about the sex tax and when to rob a bank. (via mr)

The 100 Best Books of the Decade So FarApr 09 2015

Best Books 2010s

From the Oyster Review, a publication by online bookseller Oyster, a list of the 100 Best Books of the Decade So Far. Good to see The Emperor of All Maladies, Cleopatra: A Life, Bring Up the Bodies, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore on there, among others.

Coloring books for adultsApr 06 2015

The two top-selling books on Amazon right now are a pair of coloring books for adults by Johanna Basford: Enchanted Forest and Secret Garden.

Basford Coloring BookBasford Coloring BookBasford Coloring Book

Fans of the books have been posting examples of their coloring-in online; this one is from occasionalartist:

Basford Coloring Book

What This Says™ about contemporary culture is left as an exercise to the reader. Right after you finish coloring your flowers, of course.

Update: I recently discovered that a pal of mine, Souris Hong, did a coloring book for adults a couple of years ago called Outside the Lines.

For anyone who loves creativity and contemporary art, or who simply loves the joy of coloring, comes Outside the Lines, a striking collection of illustrations from more than 100 creative masterminds, including animators, cartoonists, fine artists, graphic artists, illustrators, musicians, outsider artists, photographers, street artists, and video game artists. With contributions from Keith Haring, AIKO, Shepard Fairey, Exene Cervenka, Keita Takahashi, Jen Corace, Ryan McGinness, and more, Outside the Lines features edgy and imaginative pieces ready for you to add your own special touch.

And there's going to be a sequel out in September.

How to play "Wolf Hall"Mar 31 2015

Mike Poulton adapted Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage. The play premiered last year in the UK and just began its run on Broadway here in NYC. There's a book version of the adaptation that contains some notes that Mantel wrote for the actors playing the various characters. The New York Review of Books has an excerpt of Mantel's notes; here's Anne Boleyn:

You do not have six fingers. The extra digit is added long after your death by Jesuit propaganda. But in your lifetime you are the focus of every lurid story that the imagination of Europe can dream up. From the moment you enter public consciousness, you carry the projections of everyone who is afraid of sex or ashamed of it. You will never be loved by the English people, who want a proper, royal Queen like Katherine, and who don't like change of any sort. Does that matter? Not really. What Henry's inner circle thinks of you matters far more. But do you realize this? Reputation management is not your strong point. Charm only thinly disguises your will to win.

The BBC aired a six-part TV version of Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies that finished up a month ago, and PBS will start showing it this weekend. I've watched all but the last part and it's really well done.

After the PartyMar 31 2015

The New Yorker has an excerpt of the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.

Throughout our childhood we three had sat chatting, that was what I was used to, but this was the first time we had done it without Dad living in the house, and the difference was immense. Knowing that he couldn't walk in at any moment, forcing us to think about what we were saying and doing, changed everything.

We had chatted about everything under the sun then too, but never so much as a word about Dad, it was a kind of implicit rule.

I had never thought about that before.

But we couldn't talk about him now, that would have been inconceivable.


1995: The Year the Future BeganMar 27 2015

Netscape 1995

The New Yorker's Louis Menand reviews a new book by W. Joseph Campbell, 1995: The Year the Future Began.

Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky is one of the five things that happened in 1995 that Campbell believes opened the door to the future. The others are the O. J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Dayton negotiations that settled the Bosnian war, and the rise and fall of the Internet browser Netscape Navigator.

The list certainly reflects the inchoate spirit of the age. But that is not Campbell's point. His point is that our contemporary (American) world started with a White House sex scandal; the murder trial of a former football star; a set of agreements hammered out among foreign heads of state on an Air Force base in Ohio; a loner who thought that blowing up a federal office building was justified on political principles; and a computer program that ultimately lost the "browser wars" to Microsoft. You have to admire a historian who proposes to extract reverse-prediction gold from that material.

I graduated from college in 1995 so I'm probably biased, but that year does seem like a cultural turning point in many ways. Interested to read Campbell's book.

Illustrated version of the 1st Harry Potter bookMar 26 2015

In order to keep the Harry Potter gravy train going, Scholastic and Bloomsbury are releasing a fully illustrated version of each of the seven Harry Potter books over the next seven years. Here's the cover for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:


The book will contain 100+ full-color illustrations done by Jim Kay. (via buzzfeed)

Cancer: The Emperor of All MaladiesMar 24 2015

Oh, this sounds fantastic: PBS is set to air a six-hour documentary series, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, starting at the end of March. How have I not heard about this before today?

This "biography" of cancer covers its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control and conquer it, to a radical new understanding of its essence. The series also features the current status of cancer knowledge and treatment -- the dawn of an era in which cancer may become a chronic or curable illness rather than its historic death sentence in some forms.

The series is based on Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which is one of the most interesting books I've read in the past few years. Ken Burns is executive producing and Barak Goodman is directing.

Thanks to Sarah Klein at Redglass Pictures for letting me know about this. Redglass created a pair of videos for the series featuring Terrence Howard and Ken Jeong talking about their experiences with cancer.

Update: All three parts of the series are available on the PBS site for the next two weeks or so.

James Joyce invented words and they are awesomeMar 19 2015


James Joyce is the greatest writer the world has ever known. Arguably! He didn't even bother confining himself to the known language. He created words of his own.

A few highlights from "17 Words Invented by James Joyce":

Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnt-rovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk. This is Joyce's most famous word creation. It's from Finnegans Wake, and it's supposed to sound like a thunderclap. Which it does. If you can figure out how to pronounce it.

Peloothered. This means you're drunk. Someone calls you this in Ireland, and you know you're blotto.

Smilesmirk. Girls on Instagram have basically perfected this one.

Update: Ryan Goodlett advises: "I've found after a handful of languages that Icelandic sounds the best." Agreed! And Kevin Krebs suggests: "you'll want to follow @FW_WOTD." Michael Schwartz says: "You might want to try james Joyce or Kool Keith." I got six out of ten. How embarrassing.

This Book Is a Planetarium by Kelli AndersonMar 11 2015

This Book Is A Planetarium

One of my design heroes, Kelli Anderson, is coming out with a pop-up book called This Book Is a Planetarium. What's unique about this book is that the pop-up elements are functional contraptions, in the vein of her record player wedding invitation. There's a tiny planetarium:

This Book Is A Planetarium

and a speaker for your smartphone:

This Book Is A Planetarium

The news comes via a video profile of Anderson's work by Adobe. So cool.

Did humans and wolves team up to kill off the Neanderthals?Mar 03 2015

My answer to that question, having read nothing about it beyond this article, is "it sounds like a bit of a stretch, but what an interesting thing to think about". This theory about how humans and wolves (and later, dogs) teamed up to outcompete Neanderthals for food is being forwarded by anthropologist Pat Shipman, author of the new book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.

Modern humans formed an alliance with wolves soon after we entered Europe, argues Shipman. We tamed some and the dogs we bred from them were then used to chase prey and to drive off rival carnivores, including lions and leopards, that tried to steal the meat.

"Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired," said Shipman. "Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.

"This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off -- often the most dangerous part of a hunt -- while humans didn't have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey. Dogs would have done that. Then we shared the meat. It was a win-win situation."

At that time, the European landscape was dominated by mammoths, rhinos, bison and several other large herbivores. Both Neanderthals and modern humans hunted them with spears and possibly bows and arrows. It would have been a tricky business made worse by competition from lions, leopards, hyenas, and other carnivores, including wolves.

"Even if you brought down a bison, within minutes other carnivores would have been lining up to attack you and steal your prey," said Shipman. The answer, she argues, was the creation of the human-wolf alliance. Previously they separately hunted the same creatures, with mixed results. Once they joined forces, they dominated the food chain in prehistoric Europe -- though this success came at a price for other species. First Neanderthals disappeared to be followed by lions, mammoths, hyenas and bison over the succeeding millennia. Humans and hunting dogs were, and still are, a deadly combination, says Shipman.

(via @robinsloan)

Ah-Ha to Zig-ZagFeb 25 2015

Kalman Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag

I'm a big fan of Maira Kalman but somehow missed a book she illustrated that came out in October, Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag: 31 Objects from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

"A. Ah-ha! There you Are." begins Maira Kalman's joyfully illustrated romp through the treasures of Cooper Hewitt's design collection. With her signature wit and warm humor, Kalman's ABC book introduces children and adults to the myriad ways design touches our lives. Posing the question "If you were starting a museum, what would you put in your collection?", Kalman encourages the reader to put pen to paper and send in personal letters -- an intimate, interactive gesture to top off her unique tour of the world of design. Objects ranging from a thirteenth-century silk thinking cap to 1889 tin slippers with bows, all the way to Gerrit Rietveld's Zig-Zag chair are brought to colorful life. Kalman's hand-lettered text is whimsical and universal in turns, drawing lessons as easily from a worn old boot as a masterpiece of midcentury modernism. Irresistibly, we are led to agree, "Everything is design."

(via tinybop)

New Dr. Seuss book: What Pet Should I Get?Feb 18 2015

Which Pet Should I Get?

A new Dr. Seuss book will be coming out in July; it's called What Pet Should I Get?

What happens when a brother and sister visit a pet store to pick a pet? Naturally, they can't choose just one! The tale captures a classic childhood moment -- choosing a pet -- and uses it to illuminate a life lesson: that it is hard to make up your mind, but sometimes you just have to do it!

The manuscript for the book was recently discovered by his widow and his secretary while cleaning out his office. Two more new books will be published from other materials they found. (via nextdraft)

Update: The book comes out on July 28. Buzzfeed has an early look at some of the artwork and Michiko Kakutani has a Seussian rhyming review of it in the NY Times.

A new book by the doctor is about to come out.

"What Pet Should I Get?" is its name.

It's short and it's Seuss-ish, not "One Fish Two Fish,"

But it does play a similar game.

Filled with creatures both real and zany,

It shows off his gift for creating a zoo.

Two-legged, four-legged, winged and finned,

Beasties familiar and entirely new!

"Did I marry a pathological liar?"Feb 17 2015

In his new book, Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love, Clancy Martin argues that loving someone requires lying to them. His third wife, Amie Barrodale, recently interviewed Martin about his assertions.

Amie: What if this woman who cheated finds herself fantasizing about it a lot. She's never contacted the guy, and she never will, but she thinks about him every time she sleeps with her husband.

Clancy: Wow, good one. For the record, you're my wife, and if this happens, please lie to me about it.

Amie: Wait, that's a good answer. Why?

Clancy: Because I don't think I could handle the truth, but I want us to stay married. So I'm asking you to be the strong one, since it's your deal, your mental affair. If you feel like it's starting to threaten the relationship -- if the only way for us to continue to be happily married is for you to get the truth out -- well, then I'd ask you to find a gentle, caring way to do it. Don't just say: "I can't stop thinking about this guy I slept with, he was fantastic and had a huge --"

Amie: How come you didn't go into detail about our marriage, or your previous two marriages, in the book?

Clancy: Two reasons: respect for you and my two previous wives, and respect for my daughters. And also, I guess, fear that you guys would all love me less if I were too bluntly honest. But truthfully there are some things I would love to say, but can't, because I know they would really hurt people I love.

(via the morning news)

LOTR's One Ring explainerFeb 10 2015

Here's a good explanation of what the One Ring from Lord of the Rings actually is and what it can do:

I transcribed a short passage from the video:

First, the ring tempts everyone (well, almost everyone) with promises that yes, this little ring can be a mighty weapon or a tool to reshape the world and gosh don't you just look like the best guy to use it. Let's go vanquish the powerful demigod who lives over there to get started, shall we? This is why the hobbits made great ring bearers, because they're pretty happy with the way things are and don't aspire to greatness. Of course, there's Gollum, who started out as a hobbit, but all things considered, he held out pretty well for a couple hundred years. Set the ring on the desk of most men and they wouldn't be able to finish their coffee before heading to Mordor to rule the world and do it right this time.

What's interesting about hearing of The Ring in this focused way is how it becomes a part of Tolkien's criticism of technology. The Ring does what every mighty bit of tech can do to its owner/user: makes them feel powerful and righteous. Look what we can do with this thing! So much! So much good! We are good therefore whatever we do with this will be good!

The contemporary idea of the tech startup is arguably the most seductive and powerful technology of the present moment, the One Ring of our times. It's not difficult to modify a few words in the passage above to make it more current:

First, the startup tempts everyone (well, almost everyone) with promises that yes, this little company can be a mighty weapon or a tool to reshape the world and gosh don't you just look like the best guy to use it. Let's go disrupt the powerful middleman who lives over there to get started, shall we? This is why the nerds made great ring bearers, because they're pretty happy with the way things are and don't aspire to greatness. Of course, there's Sergey and Larry, who started out as nerds, but all things considered, they held out pretty well for a decade. Set the ring on the desk of most men and they wouldn't be able to finish their mail-order espresso before heading to Silicon Valley to rule the world and do it right this time.

Ok, haha, LOL, and all that, but it's curious that nerds (and everyone else) shelled out billions of dollars to watch Peter Jackson's LOTR movies in the early 2000s in the aftermath of the dot com bust. Those were dark times...the power of the startup had just been lost after Kozmo's CEO Dave Isildur was slain by economists while delivering a single pint of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby to far reaches of the Outer Sunset and had not yet been rediscovered by Schachter, Butterfield, and Zuckerberg.

And these nerds, whose spines all tingled when Aragorn charged into the hordes of Mordor -- for Frodo! -- and whose eyes filled with tears when Frodo parted with Sam at the Grey Havens, came away from that movie experience siding with Boromir, Saruman, and Denethor, determined to seize that startup magic for themselves to disrupt all of the things, defeat the evil corporate middlemen, and reshape the world to be a better and more efficient place. And gosh don't you just look like the best guy to use it?

100 bucket list booksJan 23 2015

Amazon has compiled a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime "to create a well-read life". Lots of the usual suspects here, including Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. But there are also some quirkier and more recent picks like A Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Fault in Our Stars, and Unbroken. Went through and counted...I've read 29 of these.

The Hobbit: The Tolkien EditJan 22 2015

Someone called TolkienEditor has cut the three Peter Jackson The Hobbit movies down into a single 4-hour film and put the result up on BitTorrent. Their goal was to make the film hew more closely to the book, put the focus back on Bilbo as the main character, and to quicken the pace of the narrative.

The investigation of Dol Guldor has been completely excised, including the appearances of Radagast, Saruman and Galadriel. This was the most obvious cut, and the easiest to carry out (a testament to its irrelevance to the main narrative). Like the novel, Gandalf abruptly disappears on the borders of Mirkwood, and then reappears at the siege of the Lonely Mountain with tidings of an orc army.

The Tauriel-Legolas-Kili love triangle has also been removed. Indeed, Tauriel is no longer a character in the film, and Legolas only gets a brief cameo during the Mirkwood arrest. This was the next clear candidate for elimination, given how little plot value and personality these two woodland sprites added to the story. Dwarves are way more fun to hang out with anyway.

I enjoyed PJ's The Hobbit, particularly the second one, but my main criticism was the lack of focus on Bilbo. I couldn't rustle up any interest in the dwarves or their quest...they were a bunch of ex-rich dudes trying to get their money back. Bah! Martin Freeman was an amazing Bilbo and we just didn't get enough of him. (via @tcarmody)

Update: There is also a three-hour cut of the film that keeps even closer to the spirit of the book. (via @cdwarren)

Richard Scarry's Business Business TownJan 22 2015

Richard Scarry Business TownRichard Scarry Business TownRichard Scarry Business Town

What if the Busy Busy Town Richard Scarry wrote about was Silicon Valley circa 2015? Meet the fine citizens of Business Town. Great stuff, but did someone forget to credit Ruben Bolling's comic strip Richard Scarry's 21st Century Busy Town Jobs for the inspiration?

Extraordinary BirdsJan 22 2015

Extraordinary Birds

The American Museum of Natural History's research library has an online exhibit of bird illustrations taken from the book Extraordinary Birds. (via @kellianderson)

Stephen Biesty's Incredible Cross-SectionsJan 21 2015

Stephen BiestyStephen BiestyStephen Biesty is a illustrator for books who draws "illustrations that are unrivaled for their ambitious scope and attention to detail". I love this but somehow I hadn't seen any of his apparently quite popular books. Many of them appear to be out of print, but there are some available on Amazon: Stephen Biesty's Incredible Cross-Sections, Stephen Biesty's Incredible Everything, and Into the Unknown.

Looking through these illustrations and also thinking about Richard Scarry's books, I'm reminded of the intricate cross-sections from Wes Anderson's movies. For instance, the boat from The Life Aquatic:

Life Aquatic Cross Section

Biesty's first book with this illustration style came out in 1992, the same year a 23-year-old Anderson shot his first short film, Bottle Rocket. But the director's first real use of the cross-section didn't happen until The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, and even then it wasn't explicit...but the tour of the Tenenbaum house definitely felt detailed in the same way as Biesty's intricate cross-sectional drawings. I'm not the first person to draw parallels between Anderson's work and Scarry, but I wonder if Biesty is somewhere in there too. (via @aaroncoleman0)

Hermione Granger and the Goddamn PatriarchyJan 16 2015

Along with imagining Mary Poppins as one of Doctor Who's Time Lords, one of my favorite literary alternate realities is imagining Hermione Granger as the main character of the Harry Potter books. In 2011, Sady Doyle wrote a review of the books as if Rowling had focused on Hermione.

In Hermione, Joanne Rowling undermines all of the cliches that we have come to expect in our mythic heroes. It's easy to imagine Hermione's origin story as some warmed-over Star Wars claptrap, with tragically missing parents and unsatisfying parental substitutes and a realization that she belongs to a hidden order, with wondrous (and unsettlingly genetic) gifts. But, no: Hermione's normal parents are her normal parents. She just so happens to be gifted. Being special, Rowling tells us, isn't about where you come from; it's about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.

Ditto for the whole "Chosen One" thing. Look: I've enjoyed stories that relied on a "Chosen One" mythology to convince us that the hero is worth our time. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as anyone. But it's hard to deny that "Chosen Ones" are lazy writing. Why is this person the hero? Because everyone says he's the hero. Why does everyone say he's the hero? Because everyone says so, shut up, there's magic.

And more recently, Daniel Dalton had a more overtly feminist and humorous take.

It was clear that she was the one who was protecting Harry and Ron, and this was never more evident than when she revealed she could control time.

She'd been using her Time-Turner to attend twice the number of classes, but she agreed to use it to help Harry save his godfather, even though it meant she'd never be able to use it again.

She'd given up her greatest power for her best friend, because helping people made her feel good.

And though she hoped he understood the sacrifice she was making by letting her education slide, she knew he didn't. Because men.

Over the past year or so, I've been rereading the books and rewatching the movies with my kids through the Hermione-as-hero lens. And I've noticed that even without altering the story as Doyle and Dalton do, Hermione is by far the smartest, most loyal, and bravest young witch or wizard at Hogwarts. Harry has his moments but the kid had a rough and abusive childhood and so his principal talent is getting angry and doing stupid impulsive shit. Mainly, he's manipulated by Voldemort and Dumbledore into doing exactly what they want him to do, and he plays the part splendidly. On the other hand, Hermione is an amazing witch and has a real choice as to how she wants to apply her considerable talents. And she chooses goodness, friendship, and doing the right thing over comfort, power, and even her own family, every time. (via @djacobs)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, now in book formJan 15 2015

Grand Budapest Hotel Book

As an addendum to his 2013 book, The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz has written a book on Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This supplementary, one-volume companion to The Wes Anderson Collection (Abrams 2013) is the only book to take readers behind the scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with in-depth interviews between Anderson and cultural critic and New York Times bestselling author Matt Zoller Seitz. Anderson shares the story behind the film's conception, the wide variety of sources that inspired it -- from author Stefan Zweig to filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch to photochrom landscapes from turn-of-the-century Middle Europe -- personal anecdotes about the making of the film, and other reflections on his filmmaking process.

Here's an interview with Seitz on the book and Inhabiting Wes Anderson's Universe. This new book will look good next to The Wes Anderson Collection and The Making of Fantastic Mr Fox on my bookshelf.

Update: Martin Venezky is the designer of the book and has shared some spreads from the book. Looks gorgeous.

24 pieces of life advice from Werner HerzogJan 14 2015

Werner Herzog Bear

Paul Cronin's book of conversations with filmmaker Werner Herzog is called Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed. On the back cover of the book, Herzog offers a list of advice for filmmakers that doubles as general purpose life advice.

1. Always take the initiative.
2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don't be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.

I bet this is some of the stuff you learn at Herzog's Rogue Film School:

The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those who can tell a story to four year old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream.

My Struggle: Book Four out in April 2015Jan 12 2015

The English translation of the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic My Struggle is coming out in April.

At eighteen years, old Karl Ove moves to a tiny fisherman's village in the far north of the arctic circle to work as a school teacher. No interest in the job itself, his intention is to save up enough money to travel while finding the space and time to start his writing career. Initially everything looks fine. He writes his first few short stories, finds himself accepted by the hospitable locals, and receives flattering attention from several beautiful local girls. But as the darkness of the long arctic nights start to consume the landscape, Karl Ove's life takes a darker turn.

It looks like an alternate translation of the book will be out in the UK in March in case you want to get a head start on everyone else. Or there's always Norwegian lessons...the sixth and final volume was published in Norway in 2011.

Responsive logos and abstraction in designJan 12 2015

Responsive web design is a technique used by web builders where the design adapts to different screen sizes. Designer Joe Harrison has built a page with responsive logos for several well-known brands, including Coca-Cola, Nike, Disney, and Levi's. If you resize the page, you can see the logos change. Here's how the Disney logo looks as your browser window gets smaller (from L to R):

Responsive Disney Logo

As the browser gets smaller, the logos lose detail and become more abstract. By the time you get to the smallest screen width, you're down to just the Disney "D" or Nike swoosh or Heineken red star, aka the bare minimum you need to render the logo recognizable, if only on a subconscious or emotional level. Which reminds me of Scott McCloud's discussion of iconic abstraction (and The Big Triangle) in Understanding Comics, which is still one of the best books on design and storytelling I've ever read. Here's a bit of the relevant passage:

Comics Abstraction

Defining the cartoon would take up as much space as defining comics, but for now, I'm going to examine cartooning as a form of amplification through simplification. When we abstract an image through cartooning, we're not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential "meaning", an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can't.

The reason why those particular logos work responsively is because they each have abstract representations that work on that meaningful emotional level. You see that red Levi's tag or Nike swoosh and you feel something.1 I think companies are having to design logos in this way more frequently. Contemporary logos need to look good on freeway billboards, on letterhead, as iOS icons, and, in the case of the Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest logos, affixed to tiny tweet/like/pin buttons. (via ministry of type)

  1. I've talked about this elsewhere, but in designing the "identity" for kottke.org (such as it is), having an abstract logo identifying element has been an important part of the process. I wanted to have an element (currently the blue gradient) that if you saw it and recognized it, you had a reaction to it on a emotional level. Here's what I wrote about an older kottke.org design: "The yellow-green thing at the top is a tag. Like the red tag on Levi's jeans or even the red stripe on Prada shoes. It's small, out of the way, but when you see it on something, you know exactly what you're holding in your hands." It's my favorite design trick and likely influenced by Understanding Comics more than I realize.

Rise of the RobotsJan 12 2015

From Martin Ford, a book due out in May called Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

Artificial intelligence is already well on its way to making "good jobs" obsolete: many paralegals, physicians, and even -- ironically -- computer programmers are poised to be replaced by robots. As technology continues to accelerate and machines begin taking care of themselves, fewer jobs will be necessary. Unless we radically reassess the fundamentals of how our economy and politics work, this transition could create massive unemployment and inequality as well as the implosion of the economy itself.

See also Humans Need Not Apply. (via Tyler Cowen, who thinks highly of Ford's writing on automation and jobs)

Steven Soderbergh's 2014 media dietJan 09 2015

Once again, Steven Soderbergh kept track of every book, TV show, movie, play, and short story he read or watched in 2014. A sampling: Girls, True Detective, Gone Girl, 2001 (3 times), Dr. Strangelove, Olive Kitteridge, My Struggle: Book One, Boardwalk Empire, and his black & white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark (twice).

Here are his lists for 2013 (House of Cards, Koyaanisqatsi), 2012 (This is Spinal Tap, The Lady in the Lake), 2011 (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Senna), 2010 (Mad Men, Where Good Ideas Come From), and 2009 (Breaking Bad, Slap Shot). (via @khoi)

The 2015 Tournament of BooksJan 09 2015

The Morning News has announced the competitors in their annual Tournament of Books. The ToB features 16 of the best works of fiction published in 2014 pitted against each other in a NCAA Tournament-style contest. It's great fun...I was a judge a few years ago. Books competing this year include All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, and An Untamed State by Roxane Gay.

Kids, the Holocaust, and "inappropriate" playJan 08 2015

On a strong recommendation from Meg, I have been reading Peter Gray's Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Gray is a developmental psychologist and in Free to Learn he argues that 1) children learn primarily through self-directed play (by themselves and with other children), and 2) our current teacher-driven educational system is stifling this instinct in our kids, big-time.

I have a lot to say about Free to Learn (it's fascinating), but I wanted to share one of the most surprising and unsettling passages in the book. In a chapter on the role of play in social and emotional development, Gray discusses play that might be considered inappropriate, dangerous, or forbidden by adults: fighting, violent video games, climbing "too high", etc. As part of the discussion, he shares some of what George Eisen uncovered while writing his book, Children and Play in the Holocaust.

In the ghettos, the first stage in concentration before prisoners were sent off to labor and extermination camps, parents tried desperately to divert their children's attention from the horrors around them and to preserve some semblance of the innocent play the children had known before. They created makeshift playgrounds and tried to lead the children in traditional games. The adults themselves played in ways aimed at psychological escape from their grim situation, if they played at all. For example, one man traded a crust of bread for a chessboard, because by playing chess he could forget his hunger. But the children would have none of that. They played games designed to confront, not avoid, the horrors. They played games of war, of "blowing up bunkers," of "slaughtering," of "seizing the clothes of the dead," and games of resistance. At Vilna, Jewish children played "Jews and Gestapomen," in which the Jews would overpower their tormenters and beat them with their own rifles (sticks).

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. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp's daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing -- for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone's escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Gray goes on to explain why this sort of play is so important:

In play, whether it is the idyllic play we most like to envision or the play described by Eisen, children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children's play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit. The children must, and will, prepare themselves for the real world to which they must adapt to survive.

Like I said, fascinating.

How They Got ThereJan 08 2015

Khoi Vinh is coming out with a book soon called How They Got There: Interviews With Digital Designers About Their Careers. It is, as Tyler Cowen would say, self-recommending. Vinh explains a bit more:

You can read terrific profiles of many of these folks elsewhere, but the conversations that I conducted with them are both narrower and more in-depth. They focus squarely on how these folks discovered their callings in the design profession, how they got their first big breaks, how they put together successful careers in digital media. There are some wonderful, insightful, brilliant, hilarious and amazing stories captured here.

Basically, this is the book that I wish that I could have had handy when I was just starting out, when I was trying to figure out how to get from A to B career-wise. Even better, what I found when I was writing it was that the conversations were so interesting that I felt newly inspired myself. I think you'll feel similarly.

Forget the book (I mean, it looks great), but Khoi, where do you find the time for everything? Three kids, two or three side projects, regular blogger, startup VP...you're almost as productive these days as Beyonce is.

Update: How They Got There is now out and available for purchase.

Healthcare: America's Bitter PillJan 06 2015

Steven Brill has written a book about the making of the Affordable Care Act called America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.

America's Bitter Pill is Steven Brill's much-anticipated, sweeping narrative of how the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was written, how it is being implemented, and, most important, how it is changing -- and failing to change -- the rampant abuses in the healthcare industry. Brill probed the depths of our nation's healthcare crisis in his trailblazing Time magazine Special Report, which won the 2014 National Magazine Award for Public Interest. Now he broadens his lens and delves deeper, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners.

Malcolm Gladwell has a review in the New Yorker this week.

Brill's intention is to point out how and why Obamacare fell short of true reform. It did heroic work in broadening coverage and redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots. But, Brill says, it didn't really restrain costs. It left incentives fundamentally misaligned. We needed major surgery. What we got was a Band-Aid.

I haven't read his book yet, but I agree with Brill on one thing: the ACA1 did not go nearly far enough. Healthcare and health insurance are still a huge pain in the ass and still too expensive. My issues with healthcare particular to my situation are:

- As someone who is self-employed, insurance for me and my family is absurdly expensive. After the ACA was enacted, my insurance cost went up and the level of coverage went down. I've thought seriously about quitting my site and getting an actual job just to get good and affordable healthcare coverage.

- Doctors aren't required to take any particular health insurance. So when I switched plans, as I had to when the ACA was enacted, finding insurance that fit our family's particular set of doctors (regular docs, pediatrician, pediatric specialist that one of the kids has been seeing for a couple of years, OB/GYN, etc.) was almost impossible. We basically had one plan choice (not even through the ACA marketplace...see next item) or we had to start from scratch with new doctors.

- Many doctors don't take the ACA plans. My doctor doesn't take any of them and my kids' doc only took a couple. And they're explicit in accepting, say, United Healthcare's regular plan but not their ACA plan, which underneath the hood is the exact same plan that costs the same and has the same benefits. It's madness.

- The entire process is designed to be confusing so that insurance companies (and hospitals probably too) can make more money. I am an educated adult whose job is to read things so they make enough sense to tell others about them. That's what I spend 8+ hours a day doing. And it took me weeks to get up to speed on all the options and pitfalls and gotchas of health insurance...and I still don't know a whole lot about it. It is the most un-user-friendly thing I have ever encountered.

The ACA did do some great things, like making everyone eligible for health insurance and getting rid of the preexisting conditions bullshit, and that is fantastic...the "heroic work" mentioned by Gladwell. But the American healthcare system is still an absolute shambling embarrassment when you compare it to other countries around the world, even those in so-called "developing" or "third world" countries. And our political system is just not up to developing a proper plan, so I guess we'll all just limp along as we have been. Guh.

  1. I hate the word "Obamacare" and will not use it. It's a derisive term that has been embraced for some reason by ACA/Obama supporters. It needlessly politicizes an already over-politicized issue.

Knausgaard's My Struggle Book 1, the audiobookJan 05 2015

My StruggleBook 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's epic My Struggle is now available in English as an audiobook. This was by far my favorite book of 2014...the first 50 pages punched me in the gut about 10 times and the rest did not disappoint. After a bit of a break to recover, I am looking forward to tackling Book 2 & Book 3 in the next couple of months. (via @tylercowen)

Early Home ComputersJan 02 2015

I know nothing about this book or its author (Kevin Murrell, Director of Britain's National Museum of Computing), but something called Early Home Computers is pretty much self-recommending. Amazon has an excerpt.

If they were considered at all by the average person, computers were thought to be impressive, mysterious, awe-inspiring and frightening in equal measure. Press coverage of the time typically described new computers as 'electronic brains' and they were often depicted as cartoon machines with faces and arms. Despite the best efforts of engineers explaining their inventions, most people knew more about malevolent computers like HAL from Kubrick's film 2001 - A Space Odyssey, than the real thing.

In the UK there was at least one well-known benevolent computer: ERNIE. Electronic Random Number Indicating Equipment, or ERNIE for short, was a special-function computer designed to generate random numbers as part of the government's Premium Bond saving scheme. Each month the computer would produce a random batch of bond numbers and the winning bondholders would be awarded cash prizes. ERNIE became so well known in the popular imagination that winners would write personally to thank him!

Presumably home computers were also benevolent...I like that idea. (via russell davies)

Update: See also Digital Retro.

This book tells the story behind 40 classic home computers of an infamous decade, from the dreams and inspiration, through passionate inventors and corporate power struggles, to their final inevitable demise. It takes a detailed look at every important computer from the start of the home computer revolution with the MITS Altair, to the NeXT cube, pehaps the last serious challenger in the personal computer marketplace.

Good review of Digital Retro here. (via @LangeAlexandra)

The unbreakable Laura HillenbrandDec 31 2014

Wonderful piece on Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken. Hillenbrand has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for more than 25 years and can barely leave her own house, but she has turned her illness into an advantage in some ways.

Somehow, through the dizziness and disorientation, Hillenbrand has managed to produce two of the most critically and commercially successful nonfiction books in recent decades. "Seabiscuit" and "Unbroken" have together sold more than 10 million copies, and the hardcover edition of "Unbroken" remained on The Times's best-seller list for 185 continuous weeks, which by some accounts is the fourth-longest reign of all time. In fact, the hardcover was so successful that Hillenbrand's publisher, Random House, waited nearly four years before releasing a paperback edition this summer; since then, the paperback has held the top position on The Times's list every week except one. Sallye Leventhal, the book buyer for history and politics at Barnes & Noble, told me that Hillenbrand's commercial success is unparalleled. "There are other phenomenal best sellers, but not this phenomenal," she said. "Not with this velocity, year after year after year."

What's startling to consider is that Hillenbrand has done this with little access to the outside world. She is cut off not only from basic tools of reporting, like going places and seeing things, but also from all the promotional machinery of modern book selling. Because of the illness, she is forced to remain as secluded from the public as the great hermetic novelists. She cannot attend literary festivals, deliver bookstore readings or give library talks and signings. Even the physical act of writing can occasionally stymie her, as the room spins and her brain swims to find words in a cognitive haze. There have been weeks and months -- indeed, sometimes years -- when the mere effort to lift her hands and write has been all that she can muster. "In the middle of working on 'Unbroken,'" she told me, "I went just off a cliff and became very suddenly totally bedridden -- I didn't get out of the house for two years." To function as an author, Hillenbrand has been forced to develop a unique creative process. Everything in her working life is organized around the illness: the way she reads, the way she thinks about language, even the way she describes familiar places. When Hillenbrand writes about the "rough, rasping tremor" of the Pacific and the "smoky brown oval" of Pimlico, her readers feel closer to the ocean and the racetrack than Hillenbrand is ever likely to be again.

After you read that, check out Hillenbrand's piece on her illness written for the New Yorker in 2003.

The Quora Anthology 2014Dec 31 2014

Quora is giving their best writers an interesting care package: an anthology of the site's best writing from 2014.

Quora Anthology 2014

But why isn't this an actual book that you can buy in stores, etc.? Seems like a great way to introduce the non-SV part of the world to Quora. (via @pieratt)

Hell and Good CompanyDec 30 2014

Richard Rhodes, who wrote two of my favorite nonfiction books ever (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun), is coming out with a new book in February. Hell and Good Company is a history of the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) inspired and haunted an extraordinary number of exceptional artists and writers, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and John Dos Passos. The idealism of the cause-defending democracy from fascism at a time when Europe was darkening toward another world war-and the brutality of the conflict drew from them some of their best work: Guernica, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Homage to Catalonia, The Spanish Earth.

The war spurred breakthroughs in military and medical technology as well. New aircraft, new weapons, new tactics and strategy all emerged in the intense Spanish conflict. Indiscriminate destruction raining from the sky became a dreaded reality for the first time. Progress also arose from the horror: the doctors and nurses who volunteered to serve with the Spanish defenders devised major advances in battlefield surgery and front-line blood transfusion. In those ways, and in many others, the Spanish Civil War served as a test bed for World War II, and for the entire twentieth century.

World's largest book on saleDec 29 2014

Bhutan Book 01

When I went to the Poptech conference 10 years ago, one of the talks featured one of the world's largest books, a book of photographs of Bhutan. The book used to fetch $10,000 a copy, but Amazon now sells it for just under $300. Something is fishy though...many of the vendors selling the book are shipping it for only $3.99, which seems unlikely for a book that weighs 133 pounds. (via cory)

Update: Long story short, there were two versions of this book made: the big one and a smaller one that's only a foot and a half tall. That Amazon link used to go to the big book but it's the little one now. Make sense? Anyway, here's a link to the big one if you want to buy it for $5,824.34 with free shipping. (thx everyone)

During the CrashDec 23 2014

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote his excellent novel, The Remains of the Day, in only four weeks (more or less).

So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a "Crash". During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I'd get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I'd not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I'd not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

The mythology of the Lord of the RingsDec 23 2014

If you've read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and/or watched the movies1) but didn't delve into the appendices or, shudder, The Silmarillion, this is the video for you. It explains about the Gods who created Middle Earth, what wizards are (not men, but angels), and the specialness of Men and Elves.

  1. I saw all three of The Hobbit movies and the last one really isn't worth watching. Jackson never gets close to making us care about Thorin or the dwarves. Bilbo, played wonderfully by Martin Freeman, should have been the focus...which he was, to a greater extent, in the second movie (which was the best of the three by a wide margin). The problem is, The Hobbit isn't so much a story about Bilbo as it is a story told *by* Bilbo. Anyway.

The best book covers of 2014Dec 16 2014

At the NY Times, Nicholas Blechman weighs in with his picks for the best book covers of 2014.

Area X Book Cover

Dan Wagstaff, aka The Casual Optimist, picked 50 Covers for 2014.

Napoleon The Great Book Cover

From Jarry Lee at Buzzfeed, 32 Of The Most Beautiful Book Covers Of 2014.

Strange New Things Book Cover

Paste's Liz Shinn and Alisan Lemay present their 30 Best Book Covers of 2014.

Wolf In White Van

And from much earlier in the year (for some reason), Zachary Petit's 19 of the Best Book Covers of 2014 at Print.

On Such A Full Sea Book Cover

Wolf Hall BBC miniseriesDec 15 2014

Wolf Hall Tv

Wait, how did I miss this...Hilary Mantel's excellent pair of novels about Thomas Cromwell & Henry VIII, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are being turned into a six-part BBC miniseries. Outstanding! Noted Shakespearian actor Mark Rylance will play Cromwell with Homeland's Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.

BBC One will be airing the show in Britain in January while American audiences without access to BitTorrent will have to wait until PBS airs it in April.

Marbled paper, what a curious nameDec 10 2014

Wow, the art of making marbled paper, a short film from 1970.

Charmingly British, just like the film about the Teddy Grays candy factory or the putter togetherer of scissors. Super cool how the inks are placed on a water bath, swirled expertly to make patterns, and then transferred to the paper. Also of note: the segment on the conservation of old books starting at around 9:55...I never knew they took them apart like that to dunk the pages in water! Sadly, the Cockerell Bindery ceased operation in the late 1980s with the death of Sydney Cockerell and its contents were sold at auction. (thx, matt)

Amazon PrimedDec 08 2014

Photographer Noah Kalina (of Everyday fame) keeps a blog of his purchases from Amazon called Amazon Primed. Recently documented purchases include a Weber grill and a shoulder mount for a camera. Now Kalina has turned his blog into a book published by Amazon.

The 100 greatest console video games, 1977-1987Dec 08 2014

100 Console GamesThe 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987 is a recent book chronicling the best games from the first golden era in console video games, from the Intellivision1 to the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo.

  1. My older cousins from Minneapolis had an Intellivision. And cable. And MTV. And scrambled The Movie Channel which you could kind of make out every few seconds. Which to a country bumpkin like me was certainly sufficiently advanced technology. Anyway, I loved playing Tron: Deadly Discs, Pitfall!, and Kool-Aid Man on the Intellivision whenever I was over.

Old MacDonald Had An Apartment HouseDec 05 2014

My favorite book when I was a kid was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett.1 So I was excited when the kids brought home a book from the library from the same authors that I hadn't seen before: Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House. The story is about an apartment building super who starts growing food and raising livestock in vacant apartments as the increasingly alarmed tenants move out. Totally awesome 70s hippie energy crisis stuff. It didn't click that I had actually read (and loved!) this book as a kid until we reached this page:

Old MacDonald Had An Apartment Building

Love that page. Hot and cold running sweet potato vines.

  1. I still have my 1970s-era copy that I read with my kids. It's delicate though, so I bought them their own copy to read on their own too. The upsetting part is there are minor differences in the text (but not drawings) of the two books. And the new phrasing is worse...no idea why they'd change it.

Richard Scarry's Busy Town in the 21st CenturyNov 26 2014

21c Busy Town

Oh, this is great. The butchers, farmers, doctors, and children's book librarians of Richard Scarry's original Busy, Busy Town give way to the non-lending officer, one-percenter service provider, fart-sound app maker, and lowly immigrant in Tom the Dancing Bug's 21st century Busy Town.

Beautiful portraits of animals by photographer Brad WilsonNov 25 2014

Brad Wilson

For his recently released book Wild Life, Brad Wilson shot photos of all kinds of animals on a black background, resulting in unusually expressive portraits.

Brad WilsonBrad Wilson

Reminds me of Jill Greenberg's monkey portraits...expressive in the same way.

Lauren IpsumNov 21 2014

Lauren Ipsum is a book about computer science for kids (age 10 and up) published by No Starch Press.

Meet Lauren, an adventurer who knows all about solving problems. But she's lost in the fantastical world of Userland, where mail is delivered by daemons and packs of wild jargon roam.

Lauren sets out for home, traveling through a journey of puzzles, from the Push and Pop Cafe to the Garden of the Forking Paths. As she discovers the secrets of Userland, Lauren learns about computer science without even realizing it-and so do you!

Sounds intriguing. And 1000 bonus points for making the protagonist a girl. There's an older self-published version of the book that's been out for a couple of years. I like the older description slightly better:

Laurie is lost in Userland. She knows where she is, or where she's going, but maybe not at the same time. The only way out is through Jargon-infested swamps, gates guarded by perfect logic, and the perils of breakfast time at the Philosopher's Diner. With just her wits and the help of a lizard who thinks he's a dinosaur, Laurie has to find her own way home.

Lauren Ipsum is a children's story about computer science. In 20 chapters she encounters dozens of ideas from timing attacks to algorithm design, the subtle power of names, and how to get a fair flip out of even the most unfair coin.

Has anyone read it?

How Star Wars Conquered the UniverseNov 20 2014

In his recent book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor tells the story of how avant garde cinema fan George Lucas built one of the biggest movie franchises ever.

How did a few notes scribbled on a legal pad in 1973 by George Lucas, a man who hated writing, turn into a four billion dollar franchise that has quite literally transformed the way we think about entertainment, merchandizing, politics, and even religion? A cultural touchstone and cinematic classic, Star Wars has a cosmic appeal that no other movie franchise has been able to replicate. From Jedi-themed weddings and international storm-trooper legions, to impassioned debates over the digitization of the three Star Wars prequels, to the shockwaves that continue to reverberate from Disney's purchase of the beloved franchise in 2012, the series hasn't stopped inspiring and inciting viewers for almost forty years. Yet surprisingly little is known about its history, its impact -- or where it's headed next.

(via mr)

The real LolitaNov 20 2014

Real Lolita

Near the end of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?

For years, no one picked up on the fact that Sally Horner really was abducted by a man named Frank La Salle in 1948 and the crime was a definite influence on Nabokov in writing Lolita, not until Alexander Dolinin suggested it in 2005. Sarah Weinman explores the connection in Hazlitt.

On her way home from school the next day, though, the man sought her out again. Without warning, the rules had changed: Sally had to go with him to Atlantic City -- the government insisted. She'd have to convince her mother he was the father of two school friends, inviting her to a seashore vacation. He would take care of the rest with a phone call and a convincing appearance at the Camden bus depot.

His name was Frank La Salle, and he was no FBI agent -- rather, he was the sort G-men wanted to drive off the streets, though Sally didn't learn that until it was far too late. It took 21 months to break free of him, after a cross-country journey from Camden, New Jersey, to San Jose, California. That five-cent notebook didn't just alter Sally Horner's own life, though: it reverberated throughout the culture, and in the process, irrevocably changed the course of 20th-century literature.

(via @DavidGrann)

The Marshmallow Test, the bookNov 19 2014

Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test was developed by psychologist Walter Mischel to study self-control and delayed gratification. From a piece about Mischel in the New Yorker:

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Mischel has written a book about the test, its findings, and learning greater self-control: The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

The world's leading expert on self-control, Walter Mischel has proven that the ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life, predicting higher SAT scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth. But is willpower prewired, or can it be taught?

In The Marshmallow Test, Mischel explains how self-control can be mastered and applied to challenges in everyday life -- from weight control to quitting smoking, overcoming heartbreak, making major decisions, and planning for retirement. With profound implications for the choices we make in parenting, education, public policy and self-care, The Marshmallow Test will change the way you think about who we are and what we can be.

Here's a video of the test in action:

Update: A recent study showed that the environment in which the test is performed is important.

Now a new study demonstrates that being able to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by innate ability. Children who experienced reliable interactions immediately before the marshmallow task waited on average four times longer -- 12 versus three minutes -- than youngsters in similar but unreliable situations.

(thx, maggie & adam)

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