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Errol Morris on Stephen Hawking, “a king of infinite space”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2018

From an interview with Errol Morris on his friend Stephen Hawking (about whom he made a documentary), Morris shares why Hawking’s A Brief History of Time resonated with so many people beyond the scientific community.

I read the book on the plane on the way over. I was surprised, because I had been told that it was a book about theoretical physics and cosmology. But it was something much more than that. It was a work of literature.

He had done something strange and unusual and powerful. He had described himself and his own situation in terms of his science. Hawking’s greatest discovery — Hawking Radiation — was, in its own way, a tour de force. He was combining elements from general relativity, from quantum mechanics, and from thermodynamics in a new way. There’s something extraordinary about it, but what was most extraordinary about it is that here you have this entity, a black hole, from which nothing can escape. The gravitational field is so strong, surrounded by an event horizon. Nothing can escape from the black hole. Nothing inside that event horizon can get out.

What did Hawking show? Hawking showed that black holes are not entirely black. Radiation can escape from a black hole. He showed the mechanism through which this could occur.

At the same time, he’s telling you that he’s been condemned to this chair, to motor neuron disease, to ALS, and is really unable to talk. He’s lost his ability to speak, and now has to use a computer device, a clicker, a screen with a built-in dictionary and cursor. Despite the disease, he’s not trapped inside of himself. He’s able to communicate. He would always cite the famous line from Hamlet, “Bounded …”

“… in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

The whole thing is well worth a read. Like this bit about Hawking’s voice double:

Q: What was the process of working on the film with him like? Not all of those passages are from the book. Were you sending him questions?

A: Yes. He was writing answers, and some of the material was taken from lectures that he had given. Some of it was written for the film. I called him the first nontalking talking head. It became pretty clear that you had to assemble a dictionary of Hawking shots, but there’s no point in interviewing him for those, because it’s not synced. It’s a voice synthesizer. He gave us the voice synthesizer so we could just assemble his voice in the office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he insisted on calling “the pseudo-Cambridge.” There’s nothing like this project.

Q: Wait. He sent you the synthesizer so he could send you an answer and then you could feed it through the synthesizer to get the sound of his voice delivering the answer?

A: That’s correct.

Call Me By Your Name, but with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger

How novelist Amy Dawes became the Writer in Residence at her local tire store

New issue of Noticing, fresh off the presses. Featuring thoughts on time, attention, trees, and 20 years of blogging.

Sports franchises have changed how players eat. Inside the Philadelphia 76ers’ executive chef’s operation:

“When we look at a girl story, most of us go a tiny bit stupid. We fail to see beyond the limits of our own generic expectations”

XOXO is coming back

The historical populations of about 25,000 US towns and cities, aggregated from Wikipedia census data & visualized

“When I found out that someone with Hawking’s job was called a cosmologist, I knew that was what I wanted to be.”

The history of the late 19th/early 20th century Anti-Flirt Club, by @AlexisCoe:

"The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees."

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John Oliver on Bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrency

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2018

Using Beanie Babies, Chicken McNuggets, and the comedy talents of Keegan-Michael Key, John Oliver tries to explain the wild world of Bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrency, the latter of which he describes as “everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about computers”.

My favorite part was the explanation of how difficult hacking the blockchain is: “[like] turning a Chicken McNugget back into a chicken”.

This was very hard to keep watching after Oliver started detailing cryptocurrency scams and charlatans trying to take advantage of people. One of Oliver’s targets, Brock Pierce, was actually canned from the company he co-founded after the segment aired.

Isle of Dogs cast interviews

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2018

As a promo for Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, snippets from the cast interviews were animated using the dog characters played by Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Bob Balaban, and others. It’s amazing how much some of the dogs’ features & expressions mirror those of the actors who provide the voices. The bit starting at 2:30 with Jeff Goldblum is just straight flames.

Recipes by algorithm

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 16, 2018

Cover:Cheese is a website charting the progress of EMMA, the Evolutionary Meal Management Algorithm. This is what it sounds-like: a relatively basic attempt to automatically generate food recipes from other recipes.

The trick is, since it’s not just wordplay, and the results can’t be processed and validated by machines alone, somebody’s gotta actually make these recipes and see if they’re any good. And a lot of them are… not very good.

med okra
lot sugar
boil: sugar
okra sugar

NOTE: This one is still around. Don’t make it. You basically end up with a pan full of mucus

But there are some surprises. Apparently eggplant mixed with angel’s food cake is pretty tasty. Or at least, tastier than you might guess. Anyways, at least the algorithm is learning, right?

Translating Homer in public

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 16, 2018

siren vase 2.jpg

I can’t claim to have finished Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey by Homer — epic poems are, well, epic — but I’m a huge fan of everything I’ve read, and especially Wilson’s Twitter feed, which is often devoted to explicating some small bit of Homeric text and comparing her approach to that of other translators.

Here, for example, she takes on the depiction of the Sirens. I’m going to pick and choose a few tweets, but you should read as much of the thread as you can.

This last observation prompted a haunting distillation by Lev Mirov of Odysseus’s journey and his encounter with the Sirens:

Back to Wilson, who translates the brutally short passage of the sirens this way:

She explains:

Translation is hard, but translation in public is harder and better. There’s a richness in the commentary, and also a reckoning with the accretion of meanings that have come down through past readings, that you don’t often get without diving into scholarly apparatus. It’s not just peeling back the plaster; it’s trying to understand the work that plaster did in holding the whole structure together. Just remarkable.

A world-historical theory of tool use

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 16, 2018

early tools.jpg

I love reading and rereading about the origin of humanity. I love that it’s not settled science: we’re still making new discoveries about when humans first left Africa, how and when we interbred with other hominins, and what makes us human in the first place. It’s just the coolest story, which is also every story.

Popular Science has a really nice new primer on the current state of research on early humanity. Embedded in it is a series of studies on tool use by early humans in Kenya that caught my attention. Basically, the tools got smaller and more portable, the materials used were more exotic (sourced from farther away), and they were decorated with pigments.

“That’s where there’s a similarity to technology in recent times; things start out big and clunky and they get small and portable,” says Richard Potts, head of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and a co-author of the papers. “The history [of] technology has been the same ever since.”

I wonder, though, if all three vectors hold up across history: greater portability, greater range of materials, and greater decorative value.

I suspect the null hypothesis would be that technologies that work tend to stay roughly the same over time. (For most of early human history, our tools didn’t change up that much, which is exactly why the burst of activity in east Africa is noteworthy.) You need something to shake things up: either sudden availability of new materials, or a deprivation of old ones (like the Bronze Age collapse, which eventually helped usher in the Iron Age).

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

“One of the things we see is that around 500,000 years ago in the rift valley of southern Kenya, all hell breaks loose. There’s faulting that occurs, and earthquake activity was moving the landscape up and down. The climate record shows there is a stronger degree of oscillation between wet and dry. That would have disrupted the predictability of food and water, for those early people,” Potts says. “It’s exactly under those conditions that almost any organism—but especially a hunter-gatherer human, even an early one—would begin to expand geography of obtaining food or obtaining resources. It’s under those conditions that you begin to run into other groups of hominins and you become aware of resources beyond your usual boundaries.”

A literal world map

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Literal World Map

Literal World Map

Literal World Map

This is a map of the literal translations for the names of the world’s countries (bigger size). Some of the translations include:

Panama: Place of Abundant Fish
Paraguay: People Born Along the River
Namibia: The Vast Place
Ethiopia: Land of Burnt Faces
Egypt: Temple of the Soul of Ptah
Spain: Land of Many Rabbits
Hungary: 10 Arrows
Qatar: Land of Tar
Israel: He That Striveth with God
Thailand: Land of the Free
Nauru: I Go to the Beach
Australia: Southern Land

A spreadsheet of the translations and their sources is available here. See also a world map of every country’s tourism slogan. (via @danielhale)

Update: See also the Etymological Map of Africa. (via @danielhale)

Update: Two things. 1. This is not my map. I didn’t make it…it seems that (based on the logo in the lower right-hand corner) an Australian credit card comparison company did, but I can’t find any record of them having posted it anywhere online. 2. I have gotten many messages indicating the map is incorrect in one aspect or another, so you might want to take the whole thing with a healthy grain of salt (despite the research).

A surgery resident analyzes medical scenes from TV & movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Annie Onishi is a general surgery resident at Columbia University and Wired asked her to break down scenes from movies and TV shows featuring emergency rooms, operating rooms, and other medical incidents. Spoiler alert: if you seek medical treatment from a TV doctor, you will probably die. Secondary spoiler alert: that adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart scene in Pulp Fiction is not as implausible as you might think, even if some of the details are wrong.

“To share something is to risk losing it”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Remember the Broccoli Tree and its eventual fate?

For the past few years, Patrik Svedberg has been taking photos of a beautiful Swedish tree he dubbed The Broccoli Tree. In a short time, the tree gained a healthy following on Instagram, becoming both a tourist attraction and an online celebrity of sorts. (I posted about tree two years ago.) Yesterday, Svedberg posted a sad update: someone had vandalized the tree by sawing through one of the limbs.

Very soon after, it was decided by some authority that the vandalism meant the entire tree had to come down. A work crew arrived and now it’s gone.

In a short video, John Green shares his perspective on the loss of the tree and the meaning of sharing with others in the age of social media.

To share something is to risk losing it, especially in a world where sharing occurs at tremendous scale and where everyone seems to want to be noticed, even if only for cutting down a beloved tree. […] And the truth is, if we horde and hide what we love, we can still lose it. Only then, we’re alone in the loss.

“Oh my god!” People’s reactions to looking at the Moon through a telescope.

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh took a telescope around the streets of LA and invited people to look at the Moon through it. Watching people’s reactions to seeing such a closeup view of the Moon with their own eyes, perhaps for the first time, is really amazing.

Whoa, that looks like that’s right down the street, man!

I often wonder what the effect is of most Americans not being able to see the night sky on a regular basis. As Sriram Murali says:

The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings — more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be.

A recap and photos of National School Walkout Day

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2018

National Walkout Day

I didn’t get to follow National School Walkout Day as closely as I wanted to yesterday, but I just wanted to say on the morning after that I am very much in support of these kids, very proud of them, and deeply ashamed that ours is a country that has to regularly lean so hard on some of our most vulnerable members of society to get people and politicians to react to gross social injustice.

Buzzfeed has a great roundup of action from around the country, including 16-year-old Justin Blackman, who was the only one to walk out at his school…and ended up with millions of people supporting his efforts online. The Atlantic’s In Focus has gathered 35 photos of the walkout from around the nation.

Ohio teenager’s raw photographs of his high school friends

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

Colin Combs

Colin Combs

The New Yorker is featuring a selection of photos taken by high school senior Colin Combs, mostly of him and his friends in Dayton, Ohio, “sometimes called the heroin capital of the United States”.

Minimalism is the necessary ethos of both his concept and his process. His equipment consists of expired film and cheap or disposable cameras, which Combs receives from patrons, including Wolfgang Grossmann, a school security guard, and Amy Powell, his photography teacher. Powell, who sent The New Yorker a selection of Combs’s images last December — the magazine later had dozens of rolls developed — has indulged her student’s autodidacticism, a trait that some educators might mistake for disobedience. “Sometimes he won’t do the assignments for class,” she said recently, laughing. “But he is always so hungry, prolific, constantly shooting. I’ve never had a student produce as much.”

The piece compares Combs’ work with that of Nan Goldin; parallels with the work of Larry Clark (NSFW), Ryan McGinley (NSFW), and Harmony Korine are also present. I went to see the Stephen Shore show at MoMA the other day (very recommended) and Combs’ photos making their way to the New Yorker reminded me of a 14-year-old Shore asking Edward Steichen, then MoMA’s curator of photography, to review his portfolio. Steichen purchased three photos from him.

You can follow Combs’ work on Instagram or read more about his work in the local Dayton paper.

Gorgeous 8K video of the aurora borealis dancing in the skies during a lunar eclipse

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

8K resolution. Time lapse. 360º view. Aurora borealis. Lunar eclipse. I’m not really sure how you could pack much more into this video. Probably best experienced with some sort of VR rig, but for those of us without access to such a thing, watching it several times on a large screen while dragging the view around is a more than adequate substitute. If seeing the aurora borealis in person wasn’t already on your bucket list, it is now. Dang. (via the kid should see this)


posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

Kottke Twenty

kottke.org is 20 years old today. Holy shit! On March 14, 1998, I launched a new episode of 0sil8 called “Notes”. 0sil8 was a previous website of mine, started in 1995 or 1996. The site’s format was episodic: every month or two the design and content was completely different. With Notes, I wanted to have somewhere to write regularly for my friends, modeled after the online diaries that were growing in popularity at the time. Weblogs were a thing, one of the many types of regularly updated personal sites that were in existence then; they wouldn’t take off and begin to consume all media for another year or two. In December 1998, I registered kottke.org (kottke.com was taken and I wasn’t a network so .org it was) and sometime later moved Notes over, where it’s been ever since. And now it’s one of the oldest regularly updated sites on the web.

I’ve been reading back through the early archives (which I wouldn’t recommend), and it feels like excavating down through layers of sediment, tracing the growth & evolution of the web, a media format, and most of all, a person. On March 14, 1998, I was 24 years old and dumb as a brick. Oh sure, I’d had lots of book learning and was quick with ideas, but I knew shockingly little about actual real life.1 I was a cynical and cocky know-it-all. Some of my older posts are genuinely cringeworthy to read now: poorly written, cluelessly privileged, and even mean spirited. I’m ashamed to have written some of them.

But had I not written all those posts, good and bad, I wouldn’t be who I am today, which, hopefully, is a somewhat wiser person vectoring towards a better version of himself. What the site has become in its best moments — a slightly highfalutin description from the about page: “[kottke.org] covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity” — has given me a chance to “try on” hundreds of thousands of ideas, put myself into the shoes of all kinds of different thinkers & creators, meet some wonderful people (some of whom I’m lucky enough to call my friends), and engage with some of the best readers on the web (that’s you!), who regularly challenge me on and improve my understanding of countless topics and viewpoints.

I had a personal realization recently: kottke.org isn’t so much a thing I’m making but a process I’m going through. A journey. A journey towards knowledge, discovery, empathy, connection, and a better way of seeing the world. Along the way, I’ve found myself and all of you. I feel so so so lucky to have had this opportunity. When kottke.org turned 10, my post marking the anniversary ended with “I’ll see you in 2018”. In my recollection, that line was somewhat serious but also partially somewhere between a joke and a dare. Like, “how has this thing lasted 10 years, why not go for 20?” So…why not go for 30? 40? I’ll see you for sure in 2028 and perhaps even in 2038. Thank you so very much for being here with me, I surely don’t deserve such fine company.

P.S. And if you’ll indulge me for a moment in a brief shameless sale pitch, if you have found something valuable here over the past 20 years, please consider supporting the site with a membership. Member support has put the site on a stable financial path into the future and has personally re-energized my involvement and commitment to the site. Thanks!

  1. This is still arguably the case.