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The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

From CGP Grey, an animated version of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant.

Seeing that defeating the tyrant was impossible, humans had no choice but to obey its commands and pay the grisly tribute. The fatalities selected were always elders. Although senior people were as vigorous and healthy as the young, and sometimes wiser, the thinking was that they had at least already enjoyed a few decades of life. The wealthy might gain a brief reprieve by bribing the press gangs that came to fetch them; but, by constitutional law, nobody, not even the king himself, could put off their turn indefinitely.

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.

For many centuries this desperate state of affairs continued. Nobody kept count any longer of the cumulative death toll, nor of the number of tears shed by the bereft. Expectations had gradually adjusted and the dragon-tyrant had become a fact of life. In view of the evident futility of resistance, attempts to kill the dragon had ceased. Instead, efforts now focused on placating it. While the dragon would occasionally raid the cities, it was found that the punctual delivery to the mountain of its quota of life reduced the frequency of these incursions.

Bostrom explains the moral of the story, which has to do with fighting aging:

The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.

The argument is not in favor of life-span extension per se. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of life would be pointless. The argument is in favor of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. By slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human life span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.

I watched the video before reading Bostrom’s moral and thought it might have been about half a dozen other things (guns, climate change, agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, racism) before realizing it was more literal than that. Humanity has lots of dragons sitting on mountaintops, devouring people, waiting for a change in the world’s perspective or technology or culture to meet its doom.

Frank Chimero's Modest Guide to Productivity: "If work is stymied, ask: are you eating clean? Getting enough sleep? ... Start with your body, not your work methods."

Using the shadows of the Moon to date a pair of Ansel Adams photographs of Denali

"Saltine fury", a term that describes "white people complaining online about black success". See also "mayo packets".

Amazing: a one-second video taken by the Rosetta probe on the surface of a comet

It appears that there's an effective ebola vaccine now (for at least one strain)

WTF? Bill Clinton & James Patterson co-wrote an upcoming thriller novel called "The President Is Missing"?!

Photos of Amish Spring Break

The Real Cost of Cheap Shirts. In the five years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, not a lot has changed for the better.

Alexandra Lange profiled legendary designer Susan Kare for the New Yorker. Kare was recently awarded an AIGA medal, one of the most prestigious honors in design.

In Japan, "people who are short on relatives can hire a husband, a mother, a grandson". Really interesting piece by @bananakarenina

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

Philip Glass: “I expected to have a day job for the rest of my life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

I enjoyed reading Lolade Fadulu’s interview with Philip Glass about the composer’s early life and how he made a living in NYC before being able to fully support himself with his music (which didn’t happen until he was in his early 40s). As a boy, his mother made sure he got a musical education and his job at his father’s record store exposed him to the idea that people paid money for art:

To this day, among my earliest memories was someone would give my father $5 and he’d hand them a record. So the exchange of money for art, I thought that was normal. I thought that’s what everybody did. I never thought there was anything wrong about making money.

As an adult, Glass worked odd jobs (plumber, mover, cab driver) to have the independence to work on his music:

I had an ensemble at the time. I would go out and play for three weeks. We would come back from the tour, and we usually had lost money so I had to make money immediately. I put an ad in the paper. My cousin and I ran the company, and I moved furniture for about three or four or five weeks. Then I went on tour again. Again, we lost money.

That went on for years. I thought it was going to go on for the rest of my life, actually. It never occurred to me that I would be able to make a living, really, from writing music. That happened kind of by accident.

I was interested in jobs that were part-time, where I had a lot of independence, where I could work when I wanted to. I wasn’t interested in working in an office where everything would be very regimented.

As his musical career took off, Glass continued to take his other work seriously. From a 2001 profile of Glass in The Guardian:

Throughout this period, Glass supported himself as a New York cabbie and as a plumber, occupations that often led to unusual encounters. “I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo,” he says. “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

But after Einstein on the Beach dazzled critics at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass’s days in the driver’s seat of a cab were limited:

The day after the performance, Glass was back driving his taxi: “I vividly remember the moment, shortly after the Met adventure,” he says, “when a well-dressed woman got into my cab. After noting the name of the driver, she leaned forward and said: ‘Young man, do you realise you have the same name as a very famous composer’.”

Glass is my favorite composer, but as much as I love his music, I might appreciate the way he has approached his work and career almost as much.

TFW when your outfit perfectly matches land, sea, and sky

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

August Ostberg

I know many photographers have taken similar photos, but August Östberg’s Lover in Disguise is a particularly good instance of fashion camouflage.

See also people who dress like their surroundings and Dressed to Match.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls in audio format

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

Audiobooks for both of the bestselling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books will be out in June: book one, book two. The bedtime fairy tale style of these stories are perfect for the audiobook format.

Rebel Girls Podcast

My daughter and I took a car trip recently and to pass the time, we listened to the first few episodes of the relatively new Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls podcast. Great podcast. Each episode is 15-20 minutes long and features the biographical story of a kickass woman told in the style of a bedtime story…the stories are expanded versions of the ones found in the books. Here’s the first episode about computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led the team that wrote the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program:

The narrators include women like Diana Nyad, Our Lady J, Poorna Jagannathan, and S. Mitra Kalita, all of whom are deserving of episodes in their own right.

We listened to all five available episodes back-to-back and Minna let out a big “awwww” when I told her there weren’t any more. She’s 8, loves the books,1 and I think she’s already somewhat aware that many of the stories in movies, TV, and books are not for her (and are thus not as interesting). The situation has gotten better in recent years, but many contemporary stories are still written from the perspective of boys for boys. So when something like Rebel Girls (or Wonder Woman or Lego Elves series) comes along, she’s really excited for stories and characters she can identify with. Representation matters. I have to believe that this generation of girls having access to these kinds of stories is making a difference. Both my kids have heard many more stories about (and made by!) high-achieving women than my sister and I ever did at home or in school. Minna knows, in a way that most little girls from 20-30 years ago didn’t, that she can be a computer programmer, a world leader, an astronaut, the best entertainer in the world, a physicist, or even book publishers…anything she wants really. And just as importantly, she knows how difficult it was for those women to achieve those things, the extra effort they went through to excel in “a man’s world” (the podcast episodes about Billie Jean King, Margaret Hamilton, and Virginia Hall all make specific mention of this). I love this series…I hope they make 100 more of these books and 10 seasons of the podcast.

P.S. Craig Mod recently interviewed Rebel Girls co-creator Elena Favilli for his On Margins podcast. Worth a listen if you want to learn how the series came about.

  1. The other day, when Express Yourself was playing on the speakers in the living room, Minna said, “Daddy, did you know that when Madonna moved to NYC by herself, she only had $35 in her pocket? She said it was the bravest thing she’s ever done.” When I asked her where she’d heard that, she replied, “Rebel Girls.”

Three Identical Strangers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

Two men attending the same college in the early 80s kept getting mistaken for each other and when they met, they realized that they were actually twins. And then they met a third doppelganger, who turned out to the third triplet, all separated from each other at birth. Three Identical Strangers, a feature-length documentary that premiered at Sundance, tells the story of the three men: how they met, what happened after they were born, and “an extraordinary and disturbing secret that goes beyond their own lives”.

How to harvest nearly infinite energy from a spinning black hole

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

Well, this is a thing I didn’t know about black holes before watching this video. Because some black holes spin, it’s possible to harvest massive amounts of energy from them, even when all other energy sources in the far far future are gone. This process was first proposed by Roger Penrose in a 1971 paper.

The Penrose process (also called Penrose mechanism) is a process theorised by Roger Penrose wherein energy can be extracted from a rotating black hole. That extraction is made possible because the rotational energy of the black hole is located not inside the event horizon of the black hole, but on the outside of it in a region of the Kerr spacetime called the ergosphere, a region in which a particle is necessarily propelled in locomotive concurrence with the rotating spacetime. All objects in the ergosphere become dragged by a rotating spacetime. In the process, a lump of matter enters into the ergosphere of the black hole, and once it enters the ergosphere, it is forcibly split into two parts. For example, the matter might be made of two parts that separate by firing an explosive or rocket which pushes its halves apart. The momentum of the two pieces of matter when they separate can be arranged so that one piece escapes from the black hole (it “escapes to infinity”), whilst the other falls past the event horizon into the black hole. With careful arrangement, the escaping piece of matter can be made to have greater mass-energy than the original piece of matter, and the infalling piece has negative mass-energy.

This same effect can also be used in conjunction with a massive mirror to superradiate electromagnetic energy: you shoot light into a spinning black hole surrounded by mirrors, the light is repeatedly sped up by the ergosphere as it bounces off the mirror, and then you harvest the super-energetic light. After the significant startup costs, it’s basically an infinite source of free energy.

The last living human link to the 19th century is gone

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2018

For the past few years, because of my interest in The Great Span of human history, I’ve been tracking the last remaining people who were alive in the 1800s and the 19th century. As of 2015, only two women born in the 1800s and two others born in 1900 (the last year of the 19th century) were still alive. In the next two years, three of those women passed away, including Jamaican Violet Brown, the last living subject of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the British Empire starting in 1837.

Yesterday Nabi Tajima, the last known survivor of the 19th century, died in Japan at age 117.

Tajima was born in a village on Kikaijima on August 4, 1900. She had 9 children and more than 160 descendants, including great-great-great-grandchildren, according to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), which verified her date of birth.

At the time of her death, Tajima was 117 years and 280 days old, making her the third oldest person in recorded human history. She said that her secret to longevity was eating delicious things and sleeping well, but she also enjoyed hand-dancing to the sound of the shamisen.

Tajima was born at a time when Emperor Meiji ruled Japan as the nation rose from an isolationist feudal state to become a world power. William McKinley served as president of the United States and Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom. The world’s population was just 1.6 billion.

Tajima was already 45 years old when World War II ended…amazing. According to the Gerontology Research Group’s World Supercentenarian Rankings List, the oldest living person is Chiyo Miyako of Japan, who will hopefully turn 117 in a week and a half.

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.)

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)