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The Pigeon Photographer: Aerial photographs from the turn of the century

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 20, 2018

Pigeon Camera 01.jpg

The New Yorker has some genuinely exciting early aerial photographs, taken by birds. They’re excerpts from a new book, The Pigeon Photographer, about Dr. Julius Neubronner.

Neubronner developed the pigeon camera for practical purposes. At first, he was simply hoping to track the flights of the birds in his flock. But his invention also represented a more sublime achievement. The images his pigeons captured, featured in “The Pigeon Photographer,” a recent book from Rorhof, are among the very early photos taken of Earth from above (the earliest were captured from balloons and kites) and are distinct for having the GoPro-like quality of channelling animal movement. That perspective that is so commonplace to us now, in which the rooftops stretch out before us as though they were made of a child’s blocks, and people crawl along like ants, was a rare sight when Neubronner took his pigeon pictures. The photos offered a glimpse of the world rendered pocket-size, as it eventually would be via a hundred types of new technology—by airplanes, or skyscrapers, or Google Earth.

But there’s also something a bit wild about the photos, precisely because they were taken by birds. Their framing is random and their angles are askew; sometimes a wing feather obscures the view. Pigeons are surely the most pedestrian of birds, but, looking at these oddly graceful photographs, or at Neubronner’s pictures of the birds looking stately and upright in their photo kits, they start to seem like heavenly creatures.

These pictures remind me quite a bit of the chapters in Paul Saint-Amour’s Tense Future on the relationship between aerial photography and modernist art. (I can’t recall if he mentions the pigeons or not.)

Whoa, SmugMug bought Flickr; the CEO is committed to "breathing new life” into the service

The ten works with the most citations on Wikipedia are… not necessarily what you might expect

Microsoft PowerPoint is Turing-complete: this video explains just what that means.

A tough, moving read: seven sex workers discuss what it means to lose Backpage

Prince’s original studio version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” set to band rehearsal videos from 1984:

The Onion: "Single Mother Hogging 2 Jobs"

Photos of the Great Wall of China in the fog and unfettered by tourists

Sexual Harassment Was Rampant at Coachella 2018. "During the 10 hours I was reporting on this story, I was groped 22 times."

"Ready to Feel Old? Michelle From 'Full House' is Now Two People." I full-on LOL'd at this.

Since 2016, Half of All Coral in the Great Barrier Reef Has Died (because of anthropogenic climate change). Soon we'll call it the Great Barely a Reef.

There's no quick links archive yet. If you'd like to see 'em all, follow @kottke on Twitter.

Building a better Kindle (or, Why Buttons Matter)

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 20, 2018

Kindle Interface

Do you ever read something that feels like it was written just for you? That’s how I feel whenever Craig Mod writes about digital reading. His latest essay, “Reconsidering the Hardware Kindle Interface,” doesn’t have a title that pops unless you 1) love reading; 2) know that Craig is really good at making design talk exciting and accessible.

The big, simple, so obvious that it seems trite to point it out statement here is that hardware buttons on e-readers are good and important. When your primary mode of interaction is to do one or two things over and over again, hardware buttons are really smart and valuable. I’ll let Craig explain why:

Hardware buttons inextricably tie you to a specific interaction model. So for the iPhone to be a flexible container into which anything can be poured it makes most sense to have (almost) no hardware controls.

But the hardware Kindle? Oh, what a wonderful gift for Amazon designers. The Kindle is predictable! We know what we’re getting on almost every page. And the actions of the user are so strictly defined — turn page, highlight, go back to library — that you can build in hardware buttons to do a lot of heavy lifting. And yet! Amazon seems to ignore (to lesser and greater degrees depending on the device) how predictable a hardware Kindle is.

Specifically, dedicated hardware buttons mean that you can remove the amount of unpredictability that happens when you touch the screen. Touching the screen now means “I’m going to interact with the content.”

What benefit comes of making the content of the book a first class object? It removes the brittleness of the current interaction model. Currently —when you tap — you might invoke a menu, a page turn, a bookmark, or a highlight. Meta actions are on a layer above content interactions. A Kindle is just a content container. And so this feels upside down.

Touchscreens work best when they allow direct and explicit engagement with the objects on the screen.

If the content of the book was the only screen object, a tap on a word would instantly bring up the dictionary. A drag would highlight. A single tap on an image would zoom in. Suddenly the text is alive and present. Your interaction with it? Thoughtless. Confident. No false taps. No accidental page turns. No accidental bookmarks. This further simplifies the logic of the touch engine watching for taps in the background, making these interactions faster, programmatic logic simpler.

Doesn’t it just sound like a goddamn delight?

Behind the scenes at comic book stores

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 20, 2018

io9 has a solid interview with Dan Gearino, author of a new book called Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us A New Geek Culture. It’s about the history of comic book stores, the economics of the industry, how they’ve survived a range of boom-and-bust cycles, and wave after wave of cultural and technological transformation. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Publishers sell most of their material to comic shops on a nonreturnable basis. By contrast, bookstores and other media retailers—some of which sell the same products as comic stores do—can return unsold goods. The result is that comic shops bear a disproportionately high level of risk when a would-be hit series turns out to be a dud. And there are plenty of duds.

The staff at Laughing Ogre, and at shops across the country, let me into their worlds for what turned out to be a tumultuous year, from the summer of 2015 to the summer of 2016. The two major comics publishers, Marvel and DC, did most of the damage, with many new series that did not catch on, relaunches of existing series that often failed to energize sales, and a monthslong delay for one of the top-selling titles, Marvel’s Secret Wars. The notable failures were almost all tied to periodical comics, single issues that are sold mainly to people who shop as a weekly habit. In other words, the leading publishers spent the year pissing off some of their most loyal customers and undermining their retailers. And yet, much of the sales slide was offset by growth of independent publishers and by small hits such as Princeless, big hits such as the sci-fi epic Saga, and many in between.

The storytellers who read aloud to Cuban cigar rollers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2018

In a practice that started in 1865 and still continues today, lectores (storytellers) in Cuban cigar factories read to the workers while they roll cigars. They read the news, novels, horoscopes, recipes…it’s like a live daily radio show or podcast for the workers.

I’m not just a reader; I’m rather a cultural promoter of sorts. I usually try to bring topics that can influence their day-to-day, and help them face certain issues.

(Gee, that sounds like what I do here!) The practice started as a way to educate and entertain workers and eventually helped fuel the Cuban independence movement…a little knowledge goes a long way. Nowadays, the practice is less revolutionary. From a piece in The Economist about lectores:

The workers themselves choose the lectores. “This is the only job in Cuba that is democratically decided,” says an employee. The audience is demanding. Torcedores signal approval by tapping chavetas, oyster-shaped knives, on their worktables; slamming them on the floor shows displeasure. They vote on reading material: Ms Valdés-Lombillo recently finished “A Time to Die” by Wilbur Smith, a South African novelist, and “Semana Santa en San Francisco”, by Agustin García Marrero, a Cuban. When the readings get steamy, torcedores provide an accompaniment of suggestive sound effects. They laugh when a horoscope suggests that someone might inherit a fortune.

This piece in Mental Floss also contains some interesting tidbits:

One lectora, Maria Caridad Gonzalez Martinez, wrote 21 novels over her career. None were published; she simply read them all aloud to her audience.

Robot successfully assembles an Ikea chair

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Fittingly using only off-the-shelf components, a team of researchers in Singapore built a robot capable of assembling a Stefan chair from Ikea (minus actually bolting it together). The assembly time was around 20 minutes, about 5-10 minutes slower than a typical human would take.

It took a few attempts to get it right. Early on, the robots dropped wooden pins, let go of parts too soon, and performed moves that did more to dismantle the chair than assemble it. Some moves required a part to be held by both robots at the same time, and since industrial robots are far stronger than Ikea furniture, a number of mistakes ended badly. “We bought four chair kits and broke a few of them,” said Pham.

Once the robot can fully assemble Ikea furniture in near-human timeframes, I propose we stop all robotics and AI research. When humanity no longer has to struggle with Ikea assembly, we can live like Scandinavian kings and not have to worry about AI murderbots killing us all (before they get bored, of course).

Your personality, according to IBM Watson

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Watson is IBM’s AI platform. This afternoon I tried out IBM Watson’s Personality Insights Demo. The service “derives insights about personality characteristics from social media, enterprise data, or other digital communications”. Watson looked at my Twitter account and painted a personality portrait of me:

You are shrewd, inner-directed and can be perceived as indirect.

You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much. And you are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them.

Experiences that give a sense of discovery hold some appeal to you.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

Initial observations:

- Watson doesn’t use Oxford commas?

- Shrewd? I’m not sure I’ve ever been described using that word before. Inner-directed though…that’s pretty much right.

- Perceived as indirect? No idea where this comes from. Maybe I’ve learned to be more diplomatic & guarded in what I say and how I say it, but mostly I struggle with being too direct.

- “You are generally serious and do not joke much”… I think I’m both generally serious and joke a lot.

- “You prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment”… I don’t understand what this means. Does this mean volunteering? Or that I prefer more intellectual activities than mindless entertainment? (And that last statement isn’t even true.)

Watson also guessed that I “like musical movies” (in general, no), “have experience playing music” (definite no), and am unlikely to “prefer style when buying clothes” (siiiick burn but not exactly wrong). You can try it yourself here. (via @buzz)

Update: Ariel Isaac fed Watson the text for Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address and well, it didn’t do so well:

Trump Personality

Trump is empathetic, self-controlled, and makes decisions with little regard for how he show off his talents? My dear Watson, are you feeling ok? But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like rap music…

Closing the racial wealth gap: debunking 10 common myths

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

A report called What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap was released this month by a group of economists and researchers from Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. They report that the racial wealth gap in the United States is “large and shows no signs of closing”; this holds true at all levels in the wealth spectrum:

The white household living near the poverty line typically has about $18,000 in wealth, while black households in similar economic straits typically have a median wealth near zero. This means, in turn, that many black families have a negative net worth.

The 99th percentile black family is worth a mere $1,574,000 while the 99th percentile white family is worth over 12 million dollars. This means over 870,000 white families have a net worth above 12 million dollars, while, out of the 20 million black families in America, fewer than 380,000 are even worth a single million dollars. By comparison, over 13 million of the total 85 million white families are millionaires or better.

The authors then address ten common myths about the racial wealth gap, many of which are just straight-up racist — if only blacks just worked harder, saved more, learned more about financial literacy, etc. — particularly the one about black family disorganization:

The increasing rate of single parent households is often invoked to explain growing inequality, and the prevalence of black single motherhood is often seen as a driver of racial wealth inequities. These explanations tend to confuse consequence and cause and are largely driven by claims that if blacks change their behavior, they would see marked increases in wealth accumulation. This is a dangerous narrative that is steeped in racist stereotypes.

Single motherhood is a reflection of inequality, not a cause. White women still have considerably more wealth than black women, regardless whether or not they are raising children. In fact, single white women with kids have the same amount of wealth as single black women without kids. Recent research also reveals that the median single-parent white family has more than twice the wealth of the median black or Latino family with two parents. These data show that economic benefits that are typically associated with marriage will not close the racial wealth gap (Traub et al. 2017). Having the “ideal” family type does not enable black households to substantially reduce the racial gulf in wealth.

And overall, the authors conclude that the wealth gap is structural in nature, cannot be solved through the individual actions of blacks, and can only be solved through “a major redistributive effort or another major public policy intervention to build black American wealth”.

These myths support a point of view that identifies dysfunctional black behaviors as the basic cause of persistent racial inequality, including the black-white wealth disparity, in the United States. We systematically demonstrate here that a narrative that places the onus of the racial wealth gap on black defectiveness is false in all of its permutations.

We challenge the conventional set of claims that are made about the racial wealth gap in the United States. We contend that the cause of the gap must be found in the structural characteristics of the American economy, heavily infused at every point with both an inheritance of racism and the ongoing authority of white supremacy.

Gosh, it’s almost like if one group of people owned another group of people for hundreds of years — like the wealth of the group was literally the bodies, minds, and souls of the members of the other group — and then systematically and economically discriminated against them for another 100+ years, it’s nearly impossible for them to catch up. (via @eveewing)

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Steven Johnson, the author of the recent Wonderland and a whole gaggle of other books in the kottke.org wheelhouse,1 is coming out with a new book in September called Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most.

Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.

Full of the beautifully crafted storytelling and novel insights that Steven Johnson’s fans know to expect, Farsighted draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature. Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we’ve actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.

In a post on his website, Johnson explains where the idea for the book came from and some specific stories that can be found in its pages.

Some of the threads bring back characters from my earlier works: The Invention Of Air’s Joseph Priestley and Ben Franklin make an important cameo in the opening pages, and the book examines two key turning points in the life of Charles Darwin, building on the Darwin stories woven through Good Ideas. But there are also stories drawn from critical decisions in urban planning — New York’s decision to bury Collect Pond in the early 1800s, and to build the High Line in the early 2000s — alongside stories of hard choices drawn from military history, most notably the decision process that led to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011. There are insights drawn from cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and sociology. But it is also in many ways a book about the importance of storytelling. There’s as much Middlemarch in the book as there is modern neuroscience.

Pre-ordered, obviously.

  1. Every so often, I am asked why I don’t write a book, “you know, like kottke.org but in book form”. There are many answers to that, but one of the biggest is that Steven Johnson writes the books that I would write in the way I would want to write them, except he does it way better than I would. I’m aware this is perhaps a dumb reason, but it’s infinitely easier and more enjoyable for me to just read his books that to bother working on my own.

20 Years of Lauryn Hill

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Yesterday, hip hop legend Lauryn Hill announced The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill 20th Anniversary Tour 2018.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of seminal hip-hop album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, and Lauryn Hill is marking the occasion with a special anniversary tour dedicated to the album. Hill will be performing Miseducation in full, and each stop on the tour will feature “special guest performers” that haven’t been named yet. Plus, a portion of ticket sales will be donated to Hill’s MLH Foundation, which backs a huge group of charities built to help people all over the world-including the Africa Philanthropic Foundation, Appetite For Change, Apps & Girls, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

And Nerdwriter’s Evan Puschak, always with his ear to the ground (or perhaps with his ear to Drake’s Nice for What), just came out with this mini-doc celebrating of Hill’s music, influences, and people she’s influenced:

This might be one of the best Nerdwriter videos yet: no commentary, just clips of Hill performing and talking, music she was influenced by, and people & music that were influenced by her…an impressionistic portrait of a significant and uncompromising artist.

How to reduce opioid addiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

This morning I ran across news from two different studies about reducing deaths from opioid overdoses and they both had the same solution: medication-assisted treatment. First, from a study involving inmates in Rhode Island correctional facilities:

The program offers inmates methadone and buprenorphine (opioids that reduce cravings and ease withdrawal symptoms), as well as naltrexone, which blocks people from getting high.

The data set is small but the results are encouraging: there were fewer overdose deaths of former inmates after the program was implemented in 2016.

In the 90s, France used a similar program to cut heroin overdose deaths by 79%:

In 1995, France made it so any doctor could prescribe buprenorphine without any special licensing or training. Buprenorphine, a first-line treatment for opioid addiction, is a medication that reduces cravings for opioids without becoming addictive itself.

With the change in policy, the majority of buprenorphine prescribers in France became primary-care doctors, rather than addiction specialists or psychiatrists. Suddenly, about 10 times as many addicted patients began receiving medication-assisted treatment, and half the country’s heroin users were being treated. Within four years, overdose deaths had declined by 79 percent.

Brutalist architecture built with Lego

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

Brutal Lego

Brutal Lego

Brutal Lego

The proprietor of the @brutsinlego account and his/her children build simple Brutalist structures out of Lego and post the results to Instagram.

BTW, the term Brutalist does not refer to the frequently brutal (adj. “direct and lacking any attempt to disguise unpleasantness”) appearance of buildings built in this style, but after the French term béton brut (raw concrete) that describes the unfinished concrete surfaces of these buildings.

Further BTW: Google Translate variously translates “brut” to “gross”, “raw”, “crude”, “undefined”, “dry”, and “rude”. Brut and brutal also likely have the same Latin root, so to some extent, the assumption that Brutalism refers to the blunt appearance of these buildings has some merit.

“What do census tracts with highest concentrations of particular populations look like?”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

The use of satellite imagery has revolutionized many areas of science and research, from archaeology to tracking human rights abuses to (of course) climate science. This vantage point makes different sorts of observations possible than looking at ground level does.

In what she calls “a work in progress”, Jia Zhang, a PhD candidate at MIT Media Lab, used census data to collect chunks of satellite images from areas with the highest concentrations of white, black, Asian, and Native American & Alaska Native people. The result is striking (but perhaps not surprising):

Census Satellite

I’m looking forward to seeing more of Zhang’s work in this area.

A lovely ode to stop motion animation

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

In this short film, animator and director Ainslie Henderson talks about how he designs puppets for his stop motion animations, creating a charming little stop motion music video in the process.

Puppet-making often begins by just gathering stuff, like materials that I find attractive. Wood and sticks and wire and leaves and flowers and petals and bits of broken electronics…things that have already had a life are lovely to have in puppets.

The calmness of airplane pilots

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

Yesterday a Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas experienced an in-flight engine explosion and had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. The explosion tore a hole in the fuselage and a passenger started to get sucked out of the hole before being pulled back in (she subsequently died). As Wired’s Jack Stewart notes in an informative piece about how emergencies like this are handled, the plane’s pilot sounded remarkably calm in her communications with air traffic control:

The pilots don’t reach out to air traffic control until that descent is underway. “Something we teach students from day one is aviate, navigate, communicate — in that order,” says Brian Strzempkowski, who trains pilots at Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies.

“They’d say mayday three times, say their call sign, engine failure, descending to 10,000 on heading of XYZ,” says Moss. The pilot, air traffic controllers, and an airline dispatch unit work to find the best airport for an emergency landing. In less critical circumstances, it may be better to fly a little farther to a larger airfield with more facilities, but in extreme emergencies — such as this one — the pilot can ask for priority, and the controllers will clear the path for her to land at the closest runway, in any direction.

As terrifying as this looks, the pilot talking to air traffic control sounded remarkably calm. “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” she said.

You can listen to the air traffic control audio here:

The pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was a Navy fighter pilot, so that explains some of her chill. And Neil Armstrong’s combat experience in the Navy surely contributed to his calmness when he took manual control to steer the LM around an unsuitable landing site w/ very little fuel left while trying to land on the surface of the dang Moon with unknown alarms going off — you can read all about it here and listen to Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mission Control discussing the whole thing here as if they’re trying to decide on a lunch place.

But the Navy angle is not the whole story. I’ve talked a bit before about my dad, who was a working pilot when I was a kid. He was sometimes not the most relaxed person on the ground, but at the controls of a plane, he was always calm and collected.

It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark. You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don’t know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second. In a calm voice, my dad said, “we’d better go around and try this again”.

The storm was nearly on top of us as we looped around to try a second time. It was around this time he announced, even more calmly, that we were “running a little low” on fuel. Nothing serious, you understand. Just “a little low”.

How these pilots talk is not an accident. That characterless voice emanating from the flight deck during the boarding process telling you about your destination’s weather sounds conversationally beige…until something like losing an engine at 30,000 feet happens and that exact same voice, and the demeanor that goes with it, takes on a razor’s edge of magnificent competence and steadiness and even heroism.