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The carrot is not important. Chasing it is.

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

I finally picked up Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal the other day. This is how it begins (emphasis mine):

The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.

It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.

It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.

They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.

The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.

When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.

My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.

The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on — chasing a very, very small carrot.

The restaurant was Shopsin’s, no longer in Greenwich Village, and after a start like that, I read the next 80 pages without stopping. Really wish I’d heeded much advice to pick this up sooner.

See also “I’ve never had a goal”.

23 previously unavailable Prince albums are now available on streaming services

What happens to cities when temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 F)? It’s starting to happen, all over the world

All life on earth in one chart, sorted by weight. (Guess what: we’re mostly plants.)

The trailer for Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since 2013’s Gravity, the black-and-white Roma, set in 1970s Mexico City https://t.co/Pxeldj53ei

Five smart points about the genre of self-help books from Austin Kleon. "1. It's good (and healthy) to be skeptical of self-help."

If you want to keep up with all the European leagues & tournaments on American TV, it's gonna cost you a lot of money

From the directors of Avengers: Infinity War, an explanation of the roles and backstories of all the heroes in the film

Men in central Paris can now pee into sidewalk urinals that look like mailboxes. How about more public bathrooms for everyone everywhere?

Remembering Aretha Franklin in photos

Madonna is 60 years old. The NY Times considers her ever-shifting cultural legacy.

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Detroit’s own Queen: Aretha Franklin at history’s crossroads

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Detroit Free Press - Aretha Franklin.jpg

There are many very fine obituaries and appreciations of Aretha Franklin, who passed away this week at 76. I have two favorites.

The first is a whip-crack of an essay by the New York Times’s Wesley Morris that, better than most, taps into Franklin’s own musical energies.

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres….

The song owned the summer of 1967. It arrived amid what must have seemed like never-ending turmoil — race riots, political assassinations, the Vietnam draft. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to serve in the war. So amid all this upheaval comes a singer from Detroit who’d been around most of the decade doing solid gospel R&B work. But there was something about this black woman’s asserting herself that seemed like a call to national arms. It wasn’t a polite song. It was hard. It was deliberate. It was sure.

The second essay, for NPR by dream hampton, “Black People Will Be Free’: How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit,” is more slowly wound, and less about the music than the time and place that produced Franklin and in which she flourished. It bleeds like a wound, a wound the size of a city, where the Industrial Revolution met the Great Migration and became the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s impossible to talk about Aretha without talking about her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Franklin began preaching and soul singing as a teenager. Just after World War II, he, like so many black Southerners who were fleeing racial terror and looking for work, found himself in Detroit. Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, called him a “preacher’s preacher.” And when Franklin died from gunshot wounds after being robbed in his home in 1979, Mayor Young said his “leadership of the historic freedom march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by his side in June of 1963 — and involving some 125,000 people — provided the prototype for Dr. King’s successful march in Washington later that summer.”

It is important to understand the tradition of black liberation theology, a term coined by James H. Cone, that sought to use scripture to center black self-determination. In Detroit, pastors like C.L. Franklin and Albert Cleage of the Shrine of the Black Madonna used black liberation theology to help a growing black city to imagine itself powerful. They used their churches to launch the campaign of Detroit’s black political class, including Coleman Young. At the same time, Rev. Franklin’s church remained a touch point for even more radical organizing. He opened New Bethel to black auto workers who were waging a class struggle within a racist United Automobile Workers union. He gave shelter to Black Panthers who were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against them. Later leaders of the fractured Black Power movement like the late Jackson, Miss. mayor (and Detroit native) Chokwe Lumumba gathered at New Bethel to form the Republic of New Afrika.

A new sound rooted in older sounds; a new politics rooted in older politics; a new, triumphant individualism rooted in the liberation of entire communities. In all these things, Aretha stood at the crossroads of history. Maybe no one else could have done it.

Battery death is the new horror film staple

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Daniel_Kaluuya_And_Microsoft_Lumia_Phone___Get_Out_2017_3.jpg

I’ve been enjoying The Verge’s series of posts about batteries, not least because it’s not just about so-called “hard” tech, but also how changing technologies change our culture, our social interactions, our range of possibilities. A good example is Tasha Robinson’s essay on how the dead or dying mobile phone battery has become a staple of contemporary horror films — not so much a cliché (although it sometimes veers into that) but a new condition of the genre.

[In the past,] it was possible for a horror movie to isolate its victims by taking them slightly outside the warm glow of civilization. Classics like 1960’s Psycho, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or 1980’s The Shining dropped the protagonists at remote houses. With no access to landlines, the characters in those movies were so removed from help or contact with the outside world, they might as well have been stranded on the Moon. Even as of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it was plausible that a group of tech-savvy young people would venture into the woods without cellphones or a GPS tracker, and have no way to alert anyone else when their situation took a bad turn. But with upward of 75 percent of Americans owning smartphones, and upward of 95 percent owning cellphones of some kind, modern horror films have to work harder to keep their characters from summoning the police the second a maniac starts waving a chainsaw in their direction.

These days, a dead phone doesn’t just cut users off from emergency services; it also cuts them off from the conversation, the daily flow of online life that so many of us use as our primary form of contact with the outside world. In that sense, the need to kill a victim’s battery before killing the actual victim is becoming less of a predictable cliché, and more of a way of building the stakes and establishing sympathies. Horror movie audiences may find it hard to believe in Cloverfield’s group of friends fleeing a Godzilla-sized monster through the streets of New York, but they can certainly believe in a guy coming away from a party with a drained phone battery and obsessing over the need to make one last phone call before the night’s over.

Robinson talks about how this trope taps into real-world anxieties about being unable to communicate or connect with other people, whiling away necessary power with frivolous uses, and technology letting us down in key moments, but she also gestures towards something else; a peculiar sort of wish-fulfillment. She imagines a high-tech horror film in which unplugging becomes a form of escape. But we’re already longing for a retreat from our devices, notifications, internet drama, and everything that comes with it. Isn’t part of the uncanny quality of the battery death trope that it’s giving us what we want, just in a distorted form?

Solving the spaghetti problem

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

If you’ve ever tried to snap dried pasta in half, you know that it’s hard to get just two even pieces; what you usually get instead is macaroni shrapnel everywhere. It turns out this is due to fundamental physical forces of the universe when applied to a straight rod. The initial break creates a snap-back effect that creates additional fractures.

crack-control-1.gif

Apparently, this used to drive Richard Feynman nuts. Here’s an excerpt from No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, where computer scientist Danny Hills describes Feynman’s obsession:

Once we were making spaghetti, which was our favorite thing to eat together. Nobody else seemed to like it. Anyway, if you get a spaghetti stick and you break it, it turns out that instead of breaking it in half, it will almost always break into three pieces. Why is this true — why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories. We thought up experiments, like breaking it underwater because we thought that might dampen the sound, the vibrations. Well, we ended up at the end of a couple of hours with broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory about why spaghetti breaks in three. A lot of fun, but I could have blackmailed him with some of his spaghetti theories, which turned out to be dead wrong!

It turns out that controlling the vibrations does have something to do with controlling the breakage, although putting the rod underwater won’t help. Two young physicists, Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil, found that the key to breaking spaghetti rods into two pieces is to give them a good twist:

If a 10-inch-long spaghetti stick is first twisted by about 270 degrees and then bent, it will snap in two, mainly due to two effects. The snap-back, in which the stick will spring back in the opposite direction from which it was bent, is weakened in the presence of twist. And, the twist-back, where the stick will essentially unwind to its original straightened configuration, releases energy from the rod, preventing additional fractures.

“Once it breaks, you still have a snap-back because the rod wants to be straight,” Dunkel explains. “But it also doesn’t want to be twisted.”

Just as the snap-back will create a bending wave, in which the stick will wobble back and forth, the unwinding generates a “twist wave,” where the stick essentially corkscrews back and forth until it comes to rest. The twist wave travels faster than the bending wave, dissipating energy so that additional critical stress accumulations, which might cause subsequent fractures, do not occur.

“That’s why you never get this second break when you twist hard enough,” Dunkel says.

crack-control-2.gif

It’s not exactly practical to twist spaghetti 270 degrees before you break it in half, just to end up with a shorter noodle. And linguini, fettucine, etc., have a different physics altogether, because they deviate more strongly from the cylindrical rod shape of spaghetti. But it’s cool to have one of these everyday physics problems apparently solved through a relatively simple trick.

Between Sound and Silence, how technology is transforming the lives of those with hearing loss

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2018

Irene Taylor Brodsky directed this short film in which about a dozen deaf people talk simply about their hearing loss and the technology (like cochlear implants) that is transforming how they interact with others. This was wonderful…I learned a lot from listening to these stories.

I was also struck by how difficult it actually is to lump “people who X” into a single category, despite the human desire to tidy people and things into groups. Even among the relatively few people featured in this short film, there were many different approaches and attitudes about deafness. Watching it, you think, jeez, what do all these people really have in common? Probably less than you might have assumed initially. (via @JossFong)

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.

Clair de Lune in the moonlight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

NASA recently published this visualization of sunrises and sunsets on the Moon set to the strains of Claude Debussy’s most famous work, Clair de Lune.

The visuals were composed like a nature documentary, with clean cuts and a mostly stationary virtual camera. The viewer follows the Sun throughout a lunar day, seeing sunrises and then sunsets over prominent features on the Moon. The sprawling ray system surrounding Copernicus crater, for example, is revealed beneath receding shadows at sunrise and later slips back into darkness as night encroaches.

A lovely way to spend five minutes. (thx, gina)

Enhance!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

Enhance

Nicole He has built a voice-controlled game called Enhance in which you speak commands to zoom & enhance images to look for secret codes, just like a detective on a CSI TV show. I bet if you try this in your open plan office, your coworkers will look at you like you’re nuts for a sec but will soon gather around, shouting their own commands at the computer. After all, everyone wants to enhance:

Auctioneer chanting, “the poetry of capitalism”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Auction Competition 2018

For the New Yorker, photographer David Williams visited the 2018 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in Bloomington, Wisconsin. Amanda Petrusich wrote about the competition and his photos here.

This year’s champion, Jared Miller, of Leon, Iowa, took home a customized 2018 Chevrolet Silverado truck to drive for his yearlong reign; he also won six thousand dollars, a world-champion belt buckle, a world-champion ring, a money clip, and a bespoke leather briefcase. In interviews, Miller, like many successful auctioneers, appears personable and polite. When he begins his chant, his mouth only opens so much — when you’re talking as fast as he is, the tongue does most of the work — but what comes out sounds something like a undulating yodel, or a less guttural take on the Inuit tradition of throat singing. Once you tune in to its particular rhythms — and it can take a few minutes to acclimate to the crests and swells — the prices become discernible: “One dollar bid, now two, now two, would you give me two?”

You can listen to Miller’s winning chant on Facebook.

I hadn’t realized Werner Herzog made a 45-minute documentary about auctioneers at the same competition in 1976 called How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, although the audio isn’t synced that well:

According to the article, Herzog called auctioneering “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism”. This poetry can be difficult to follow, so this auctioneer explained what he and his fellow chanters are saying up on the stand.

Rap music also has a claim on being “the poetry of capitalism” and Graham Heavenrich had the genius idea of layering auctioneer chants over beats; you can listen in on Instagram or with this compilation:

Ok and just for kicks, when I was searching for the auctioneer beats thing on YouTube, I ran across this young woman rapping the entirety of Rap God by Eminem (the part starting at 4:26 = fire). Sign her up for the 2019 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship!

The Origami Simulator

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Origami Simulator

This origami simulator built by Amanda Ghassaei is really cool. The simulator lets you explore how different origami patterns are constructed by moving & rotating them around on the screen and folding & unfolding them. You can even import and export your own patterns. (via kelli anderson)

A comprehensive guide to yellow stripey things

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Yellow Stripey Things

Bumblebee, honey bee, yellow jacket, paper wasp…what’s the difference? I don’t know if this comprehensive guide to Yellow Stripey Things is entirely truthful or not — a bumblebee is “actually a flying panda” and a yellow jacket “is just an asshole” — but it is pretty entertaining. Has anyone fact-checked this thing?

Ok fine, I’ll do it!1

Carpenter bees are mostly harmless:

Male carpenter bees are quite aggressive, often hovering in front of people who are around the nests. The males are quite harmless, however, since they lack stingers. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but seldom will unless they are handled or molested.

Honey bees don’t always sting just once:

A honey bee that is away from the hive foraging for nectar or pollen will rarely sting, except when stepped on or roughly handled. Honey bees will actively seek out and sting when they perceive the hive to be threatened, often being alerted to this by the release of attack pheromones (below).

Although it is widely believed that a worker honey bee can sting only once, this is a partial misconception: although the stinger is in fact barbed so that it lodges in the victim’s skin, tearing loose from the bee’s abdomen and leading to its death in minutes, this only happens if the skin of the victim is sufficiently thick, such as a mammal’s.

Bumblebees:

Queen and worker bumblebees can sting. Unlike in honeybees, a bumblebee’s sting lacks barbs, so the bee can sting repeatedly without injuring itself; by the same token, the sting is not left in the wound. Bumblebee species are not normally aggressive, but may sting in defence of their nest, or if harmed.

And yes, you can actually pet a bumblebee:

Hoverflies don’t sting. But paper wasps do and their sting can be deadly:

Unlike yellowjackets and hornets, which can be very aggressive, polistine paper wasps will generally only attack if they themselves or their nest are threatened. Since their territoriality can lead to attacks on people, and because their stings are quite painful and can produce a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction in some individuals, nests in human-inhabited areas may present an unacceptable hazard

I couldn’t find a good all-in-one source about yellow jackets, but by all accounts, they are aggressive and easily agitated.

The cicada killer wasp look fierce but are generally only dangerous to cicadas:

Solitary wasps (such as the eastern cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests; unlike most social wasps and bees, they do not attempt to sting unless handled roughly.

Mud daubers don’t sting people that often and prey on spiders:

Black and yellow mud daubers primarily prey on relatively small, colorful spiders, such as crab spiders (and related groups), orb weavers and some jumping spiders. They usually find them in and around vegetation. Blue mud daubers are the main predator of the black and brown widow spiders.

All in all, this checks out. </snopes>

Bonus stinging insect fact: There’s a sting pain index that entomologist Justin Schmidt first came up with in the 80s. Schmidt has been stung by almost everything with a stinger and rated the stings on a scale of 1 to 4 (least to most painful). He has also described the stings of individual insects more colorfully:

Western honey bee (level 2) — “Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye then with sulfuric acid.”

Giant paper wasp (level 3) — “There are gods, and they do throw thunderbolts. Poseidon has rammed his trident into your breast.”

  1. I saw this great quote from Lily Tomlin today: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.” No idea if she actually said that. I’ll let you track that one down…I’m busy with the bees.

Highlighting photo cliches on Instagram

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Insta Repeat collects photos of people (particularly so-called “influencers”) taking similar photos on Instagram — peeking out of an open tent flap, perched on top of an offroad vehicle, on the end of a dock — and displays them together.

Insta Repeat

Insta Repeat

Insta Repeat

Insta Repeat

See also this supercut of cliched Instagram travel photos.

Taking a photo of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or jumping in the middle of the road in Utah are really good ideas — that’s why lots of people do it — but each successive photo of the same thing doesn’t tell us anything new about those places, experiences, or people.

For influencers, a cliched photo is easy money, a tried and true way of capturing what others already know is the essence of a place or an experience. For most of the rest of us, we aren’t looking to say anything new about someone or somewhere. We just want to capture our experience to show our friends and well-wishers on Instagram. If I saw my tent flap hanging open to a beautiful mountain vista, of course I would take the hell out of that photo.

Poker pros replay their most memorable hands

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

The New Yorker asked three professional poker players to give blow-by-blow accounts of their most memorable hands. Aside from the rules, I know almost nothing about poker and have played Texas Hold’em for about one total hour in my life — guess how I did! — so I actually learned a lot from this video. And the third player’s explanation of his hand and his thought process was fascinating.

See also Scrabble pros recount their best and worst plays.

How would English sound if it were phonetically consistent?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

English is a marvelously and maddeningly inconsistent language. The words “rough”, “though”, “thought”, and “through” all contain “ough” but pronounced in a different way.

In this video, Aaron Alon gradually normalizes the vowel sounds in his speech down to one sound per letter. The end result sounds a little like Werner Herzog doing an impression of someone from Wales doing an impression of an Italian who doesn’t speak English that well. Which makes sense because that’s pretty much how the language came together in the first place!