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The Odyssey of Reading “The Odyssey”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2018

In this clip from the TV show Articulate (which airs on PBS), host Jim Cotter talks with Emily Wilson and Daniel Mendelsohn about The Odyssey, different versions of the self, translations, and more.

Emily Wilson: What is it to be in a family? What is it to be a person over time? For me, that’s one of the most fascinating questions just in general, but then The Odyssey speaks to that question of, am I the same person that I was 20 years ago? Am I the same person in America that I was in the UK? Is Ulysses the same person when he’s on the battlefield, verses when he’s with his son, verses when he’s with his wife? What is it to be the same or to be different? How do we treat people who are different from us? It’s a poem that’s about diaspora, immigration, emigration, travel, belonging, being at different places geographically and also being at different places spiritually and psychologically.

The kids and I have been reading Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey over the past several months together. I wasn’t quite sure if they’d like it or if they’d get bored, but they’ve been engaged the whole time and now that we’re nearing the end, everyone is eager to see how the story plays out and a little sad that it’s ending.

We probably won’t be reading Mendelsohn’s book next, but I might have to add An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic to my reading stack:

When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate Odyssey seminar his son teaches at Bard College, the two find themselves on an adventure as profoundly emotional as it is intellectual. For Jay, a retired research scientist who sees the world through a mathematician’s unforgiving eyes, this return to the classroom is his “one last chance” to learn the great literature he’d neglected in his youth — and, even more, a final opportunity to more fully understand his son, a writer and classicist. But through the sometimes uncomfortable months that the two men explore Homer’s great work together — first in the classroom, where Jay persistently challenges his son’s interpretations, and then during a surprise-filled Mediterranean journey retracing Odysseus’s famous voyages — it becomes clear that Daniel has much to learn, too: Jay’s responses to both the text and the travels gradually uncover long-buried secrets that allow the son to understand his difficult father at last.

Trailer for The Price of Everything, an HBO documentary about the contemporary art world

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Database, Will Feature Works by 600+ Overlooked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Centuries

From Eater, the list of America's 38 Essential Restaurants

Another piece of the Antikythera mechanism (aka the world's oldest computing machine (2200 years old)) might have been found

Michelle Obama's memoir is out today

NASA has uploaded 100s of test flight videos to YouTube (SR-71, lunar lander, Space Shuttle)

The Mental Health League sells merch for mental health-related teams like the ADHBees and the Bipolar Bears and donates 20% of profits to related charities

Mudlarker Ted Sandling documents the objects he finds washed up on the banks of the Thames on his Instagram account

Aardman, the animation studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, is giving a 75% stake of the company to its employees

It's Time for a Progressive Reading of the Constitution

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Monsoon V

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2018

Mike Olbinski is back with another of his jawdropping storm chasing videos. I find clouds endlessly fascinating — it seems like there’s always something new to consider while watching these kinds of videos. This time around, I noticed how the clouds in several instances actually “opened up” when it started to rain, like a hatch that finally succumbed to the pressure of all that water pushing down on it. (Check out 1:38 for a particularly clear instance.)

An Infinite Icosahedral Puzzle of the Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2018

Earth Puzzle

Nervous System designed this puzzle of Earth so that it can be put together in a variety of different ways.

This puzzle is based on an icosahedral map projection and has the topology of a sphere. This means it has no edges, no North and South, and no fixed shape. Try to get the landmasses together or see how the oceans are connected. Make your own maps of the earth!

The Girl with the Grande Iced Latte

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2018

Rodrigo Pinheiro 01

Rodrigo Pinheiro 02

Rodrigo Pinheiro 03

I seemingly cannot get enough of contemporizing old paintings and works of art. Here, from Rodrigo Pinheiro, are some familiar young people hanging out with modern beverages.

See also Girl with a Pearl Earring and Point-and-Shoot Camera and Art History Comes to Life.

A Song Map of the United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

Song Map

Song Map

Design studio Dorothy has produced a poster of a map of the United States where all the place names are song titles.

Some of our favourite song choices are the ones which require you to think a little harder about connections, such as Space Oddity (David Bowie) which signposts Cape Canaveral, After the Gold Rush (Neil Young) which references Sutter’s Mill, and Homecoming (Kanye West) which is placed near the rapper’s home town of Chicago.

The map is accompanied by a Spotify playlist of most of the songs used…over 61 hours of music in total.

How Fascism Works

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

Yale philosopher Jason Stanley recently published a book called How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Sean Illing interviewed him for Vox about what fascism is and isn’t and whether Trump is practicing fascist politics (spoiler alert: yes). I found this bit about how America is particularly susceptible to fascism interesting (italics mine…that is an amazingly succinct paragraph about American culture):

Well, the Ku Klux Klan deeply affected Adolf Hitler. He explicitly praised the 1924 Immigration Act, which severely limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the US, as a useful model.

The 1920s and the 1930s was a very fascist time in the United States. You’ve got very patriarchal family values and a politics of resentment aimed at black Americans and other groups as internal threats, and this gets exported to Europe.

So we have a long history of genocide against native peoples and anti-black racism and anti-immigration hysteria, and at the same time there’s a strain of American exceptionalism, which manifests as a kind of mythological history and encourages Americans to think of their own country as a unique force for good.

This doesn’t make America a fascist country, but all of these ingredients are easily channeled into a fascist politics.

This has been on my mind lately; here’s what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on a trip to Berlin:

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

See also Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism.

Jazz Deconstructed: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

A new episode of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series is always cause for celebration. In this one, Caswell examines the title track off John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album and what makes it so challenging to play & rewarding to listen to.

John Coltrane, one of jazz history’s most revered saxophonists, released “Giant Steps” in 1959. It’s known across the jazz world as one of the most challenging compositions to improvise over for two reasons - it’s fast and it’s in three keys. Braxton Cook and Adam Neely give me a crash course in music theory to help me understand this notoriously difficult song, and I’m bringing you along for the ride. Even if you don’t understand a lick of music theory, you’ll likely walk away with an appreciation for this musical puzzle.

This is me actually walking away with that new appreciation.

How AI Agents Cheat

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

This spreadsheet lists a number of ways in which AI agents “cheat” in order to accomplish tasks or get higher scores instead of doing what their human programmers actually want them to. A few examples from the list:

Neural nets evolved to classify edible and poisonous mushrooms took advantage of the data being presented in alternating order, and didn’t actually learn any features of the input images.

In an artificial life simulation where survival required energy but giving birth had no energy cost, one species evolved a sedentary lifestyle that consisted mostly of mating in order to produce new children which could be eaten (or used as mates to produce more edible children).

Agent kills itself at the end of level 1 to avoid losing in level 2.

AI trained to classify skin lesions as potentially cancerous learns that lesions photographed next to a ruler are more likely to be malignant.

That second item is a doozy! Philosopher Nick Bostrom has warned of the dangers of superintelligent agents that exploit human error in programming them, describing a possible future where an innocent paperclip-making machine destroys the universe.

The “paperclip maximiser” is a thought experiment proposed by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University. Imagine an artificial intelligence, he says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”.

But some of this is The Lebowski Theorem of machine superintelligence in action. These agents didn’t necessarily hack their reward functions but they did take a far easiest path to their goals, e.g. the Tetris playing bot that “paused the game indefinitely to avoid losing”.

“Our Planet”, a Nature Documentary Series from David Attenborough & Netflix

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

It looks like Netflix has sifted through their data and determined subscribers cannot get enough of the Planet Earth and Blue Planet nature series, so they’re making their own. With David Attenborough. The teaser trailer for Our Planet borrows heavily from Planet Earth (fonts & music are similar) but is light on the details, aside from the launch date: April 5, 2019.

A Vote for Every Citizen

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 09, 2018

Perhaps the most heartening election results this week was Florida’s 60 percent-plus approval of Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to people convicted of a felony statewide. It re-extends the franchise to over a million people, reversing a policy that’s had brutal effects nationwide, but maybe nowhere more than Florida, one of the most populous states with one of the strictest disenfranchisement policies.

There’s an irony here, as it’s likely that if those citizens had had the right to vote in 2018, Florida’s still-contested elections for governor and senator would likely have been clean wins for Democrats. This means that over a fifth of Republican voters in this election also voted to overturn a policy that almost singlehandedly kept Republicans in power. All the other voter suppression policies deserve a little credit too, but this is the big one. And obviously, the Gillum and Nelson campaigns and other organizers deserve a lot of credit for getting Democrats, Independents, and some Republicans to cross over and vote on this issue. But what do we make of those crossover voters? What do we make of a state where the governor is sending police to keep votes from being counted after 60 percent of its citizens affirmed the principle that every citizen’s vote should be counted?

There’s probably a fraction of idealists, who know full well they’re hurting their own party’s chances, but voted yes anyway. I suspect, however, that there’s an even larger fraction who didn’t grasp the partisan implications of a yes vote — who don’t know (and were never meant to know) that their party’s control of the state rested almost completely on voter disenfranchisement, in all its forms. It’s invisible to them. It was designed to be invisible, and huge chunks of the press has played along, covering disenfranchisement sporadically if at all. They voted yes because they were never meant to know how much it mattered.

I also think of Michigan, my home state, where voter registration, early voting, and anti-gerrymandering measures passed with larger margins than either the Democratic governor or Senator received. These Republican voters, too, either didn’t know or didn’t care that their power in the state stems almost completely from gerrymandering and restrictions on the ability to vote. It suggests that even in the purplest states, where fighting between the parties is the fiercest and often the most arcane, there’s much more support for widespread voting rights among the electorate than there is in the parties who’ve sought to use restrictions on voting as a weapon.

What if, as Alex Pareene tweeted, Democrats and voting rights advocates pushed nationwide for “a plainly worded Constitutional amendment guaranteeing every citizen a right to vote”? No carve-outs, no exceptions, no states playing tricks. (Do you keep the restriction to the age of majority, i.e., 18+? Maybe, maybe not; I don’t know actually!)

Imagine how transformative that would be. Imagine how craven every politician who opposed this amendment would be. A vote for every citizen. And as Alex writes, it’s a short step from this idea to genuine proportionate representation, a true popular vote for the Presidency, full voting rights for Puerto Rico and all the other territories. With one stroke, you sweep so much of the anti-democratic vestiges of the Constitution away, and make the United States something closer to a true democracy.

I think it’s one of the most exciting ideas I’ve ever heard. I think it’s something we’re ready for. I think it’s something we badly need. What else is there to say?

Why Doctors Hate Their Computers

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 09, 2018

Nobody writes about health care practice from the inside out like Atul Gawande, here focusing on an increasingly important part of clinical work: information technology.

A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software. In the examination room, physicians devoted half of their patient time facing the screen to do electronic tasks. And these tasks were spilling over after hours. The University of Wisconsin found that the average workday for its family physicians had grown to eleven and a half hours. The result has been epidemic levels of burnout among clinicians. Forty per cent screen positive for depression, and seven per cent report suicidal thinking—almost double the rate of the general working population.

Something’s gone terribly wrong. Doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society; computerization has simplified tasks in many industries. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers.

It’s not just the workload, but also what Gawande calls “the Revenge of the Ancillaries” — designing software for collaboration between different health care professionals, from surgeons to administrators, all of whom have competing stakes and preferences in how a product is used and designed, what information it offers and what it demands. And most medical software doesn’t handle these competing demands very well.

The Art Institute of Chicago Has Put 50,000 High-Res Images from Their Collection Online

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2018

Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute Chicago

Art Institute Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago recently unveiled a new website design. As part of their first design upgrade in 6 years, they have placed more than 52,000 high-resolution images from their collection online, available to all comers without restriction.

Students, educators, and just regular art lovers might be interested to learn that we’ve released thousands of images in the public domain on the new website in an open-access format (52,438 to be exact, and growing regularly). Made available under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, these images can be downloaded for free on the artwork pages.

We’ve also enhanced the image viewing capabilities on object pages, which means that you can see much greater detail on objects than before. Check out the paint strokes in Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, the charcoal details on Charles White’s Harvest Talk, or the synaesthetic richness of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Blue and Green Music.

I’ve included a few notable works from their collection above: The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (which you can zoom and pretend you’re Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, Mao by Andy Warhol, and Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The resolution on the images is high enough to check out the brushstrokes on the paintings. Here’s some detail on the van Gogh:

Art Institute Chicago

I love seeing more museums doing this.

America’s Last Chance at a Gospel Archive

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 09, 2018

Gospel Music.jpg

This is a fascinating Longread from Oxford American, on Baylor University’s Robert Darden’s efforts to create a comprehensive archive (physical and digital) of American gospel music:

In 2001, when Darden set out to write the first comprehensive history of black gospel music, from its African origins into the twenty-first century, he came across citations to many fundamental songs—early recordings by the Staple Singers; “There Is Not a Friend Like Jesus” by the Roberta Martin Singers; “Peace in the Valley” by the Southern Sons— but found that the recordings were long gone, never to be heard again. So he sought what could be salvaged. In Chicago, he climbed to the top floor of a tenement building, where he listened in awe as a woman sang lines to old freedom songs. In Memphis, he swayed and clapped in the pews of Al Green’s church. But when he finished People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music in 2004, having painstakingly laid out the history of the genre, he almost couldn’t bear that many of its core components were lost to us.

After Darden finished the book, he got in touch with some of his old contacts from Billboard, gospel scholars and collectors like Bob Marovich, Opal Nations, and Ray Funk. He wanted to determine how much of black gospel music from its golden age was lost or unavailable. They estimated seventy-five percent.

Ask them why, and the answer gets complicated. “Part of it is racism,” Darden says. “Part of it is economic.” Part of it has to do with the consolidation in the music industry (some record companies hold the copyrights to these songs, but, lacking financial incentive, don’t make them available in any form). And the last part, as he sees it, is the religious aspect of this music. Marovich put it to me this way: “When I was growing up, there was always, in our neighborhood, a couple of guys in white shirts and black ties that wanted to talk to you about Jesus. And you wanted to run the opposite direction from those guys… . Gospel is a little frightening to the unknowledgeable.”

In February of 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting the loss of these treasures from gospel’s golden age: “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,” he writes. “It would be a sin.” The apparent imbalance of that remark stuck with me. By any honest standard, we sin regularly. A cultural disaster seems like a much more grievous affair. But I also had the feeling that he was onto something—that the loss of this music was a moral failing born out of a history of oppression and neglect. He explained to me that when he wrote that, he had in mind Jim Wallis’s (at the time controversial) claim that racism was America’s original sin.

One of the songs referenced in the article as the archival project’s unofficial anthem is “Old Ship of Zion,” recorded by The Mighty Wonders. I found it on YouTube:

There’s a beauty to these recordings that belies their historical importance. John Lewis has said that “without music the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” Some antebellum spirituals are said to have held instructions for slaves to escape. You can also find the roots of almost every major American popular music in the various strands of gospel, from country to hip-hop. It would be very American to lose these strands, but it’s the better kind of American to bring our collective resources and technology to bear to save and recirculate these records for the public good.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2018

For the past few years, whenever a mass shooting occurs in the US that gets wide press coverage, the satirical news site The Onion runs an article with this headline written by Jason Roeder: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”. The reason they only do it when a shooting gets big coverage is that there have been 307 mass shootings so far this year and if they covered every one, about half of The Onion’s content would be this same article.

Each of these articles consists of an identical paragraph save for the dateline, the number of people killed by the shooter, the photo, and a couple of details from the shooting. From the piece on the Las Vegas shooting:

In the hours following a violent rampage in Las Vegas in which a lone attacker killed more than 50 individuals and seriously injured 400 others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Monday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Iowa resident Kyle Rimmels, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep these individuals from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what they really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

From the headline on down, the piece is designed to skewer the tragic truth of contemporary America: we consider ourselves a civilized country but also accept without any real action that 10 or more people are going be executed in public every once in awhile while gathering to dance, to worship, to learn. Each successive posting of the article underscores that point with a clever cruelty: it happened here again and nowhere else.

In chronological order, here is every mass shooting article The Onion has posted, representing a total of 177 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 5/27/14. Isla Vista, CA. 6 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 6/17/15. Charleston, SC. 9 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 10/1/15. Roseburg, OR. 9 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 12/3/15. San Bernardino, CA. 14 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 10/2/17. Las Vegas, NV. 58 people killed (851 injured).

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 11/5/17. Sutherland Springs, TX. 26 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 2/14/18. Parkland, FL. 17 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 5/18/18. Sante Fe, NM. 10 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 9/13/18. Bakersfield, CA. 5 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 10/28/18. Pittsburg, PA. 11 people killed.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 11/8/18. Thousand Oaks, CA. 12 people killed.

In between the San Bernardino and Las Vegas shootings, they missed the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL on 6/12/16 in which 49 people were killed as well as shootings in Dallas, TX, Lincoln County, MS, Plano, TX, and a second shooting in Orlando, FL in which 6 or more people were killed in each case.

I’ll keep this list updated, but I’m eagerly looking forward to a time when I never have to see a new version of this article ever again.