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The whole world is The Onion now

posted by Tim Carmody   May 25, 2018

(A version of this story is an excerpt from this week’s Noticing newsletter. You can read more about Noticing here.)

In a rare interview, Italian author Elena Ferrante observes that between corruption, poverty, violence, fear, and the deterioration of democracy, “today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask.” The world of Ferrante’s novels is the world in which we’ve all been living; the rest of us are just catching up to what Neapolitans have known all along.

It seems you could make a similar case for The Onion in the time of Trump: the world was already absurd and buffoonish, and now it’s taken off its mask. It does make telling jokes a touch more tricky. Editor-in-chief Chad Nackers explains the site’s approach, admitting that the writers’ job would probably be easier if Hillary Clinton had been elected.

What strikes me is how much he attributes to the site’s changes over the years isn’t to the administration, but to the atmosphere, which has changed since the days of Bill Clinton (and not just because of who’s been elected since).

When I started, there weren’t really too many humor sites. There definitely weren’t any humor news sites. A lot of times, nobody else was going to get their comment out as fast as we were going to get it out, by virtue of us having a website. Now it almost seems like on Twitter there are people who are professional comedians who are online all day. A story breaks and they’re making jokes about it.

Andy Baio recently posted a link that shows you your Twitter timeline as it would have looked ten years ago if you followed all the same people that you do today. For me, at least, it’s amazing how different the tone is — even in the middle of an historic election, in the early stages of an enormous economic meltdown, there’s a lot less politics, a lot less sniping, and a lot more diaristic writing. It’s not necessarily better; it’s just very different. And all of those things were happening then — it’s just that Twitter wasn’t understood as the venue where every stance was to be articulated, every statement was to be critiqued, and every line was to be drawn. There were fewer people around, it was a lot more homogenous, and far fewer people were paying attention.

I wonder often how future historians will think about this time (you know, with the usual grisly caveat that people survive to do history in the future): how much of today’s ugliness, violence, and corruption they will think of as an aberration of one man, or one family, one political party, one social media network, one television network, etc.

Or will they see it as an interlocking, self-contradictory system, all of which had a history, and all of whose parts shaped and enabled what happened — hopefully, good and bad things. I mean, even the people who’ve argued that the coup has already happened can’t agree on whether it began with the election, with Congress, or some time long before.

Maybe the future historians will be better at disentangling these things than we are. Or maybe we’re just all hopelessly tangled.

“Poor people are seen as out of place and in need of supervision.” How child welfare connects to the prison system

We’re all enamored by wünderkinds, but obsessives with deep subject knowledge and experience accomplish a lot more

There are very few American artists in the twentieth century that are as exciting to me as Rammellzee.

A thoughtful well-researched piece on how George Takei's alleged sexual assault of a man likely didn't occur

GDPR day has arrived. Have you updated your personal terms of service? "You have friends' email addresses and Wi-Fi logins. You're still connected to the Dropbox account for the company you used to work for."

"I firmly believe you can be a critic while being kind and open-hearted." Half my Twitter feed is self-serving jokes masquerading as criticism, and I'm not a fan.

StumbleUpon is shutting down after 16 years and migrating accounts to something called Mix

An introduction to the life & work of Marie Curie, whose papers are still so radioactive you need to don protective gear to read them

Actors from The Avengers pictured on set with their stunt doubles

Austin Kleon offers three thoughts from his 10 years of experience as a published author

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

In defense of boredom

posted by Tim Carmody   May 25, 2018

Monica Heisey was recently stuck on an airplane without much to do. Luckily, she made an essay out of it. “Being Bored Is Fun and Good, Sorry” is (surprisingly?) crackling with energy and insight.

In 2018, it is easy and common to be tired, depressed, burnt out, dulled, vibrating with mundane panic, desperate for the sweet release of death, etc. But to be peacefully understimulated with no relief in sight is almost impossible. The average person’s life is full of little tasks to complete, group chats to respond “haha, yeah” to, emails to circle back on, and people you went to high school with to determinedly ignore on the bus. The entire world is one giant beeping alert to things we should do or can do or will do in the future, things we are doing at that moment but could be doing faster. It’s more or less impossible to be bored. Bored means there are not thousands of to-do’s to accomplish. Bored means it doesn’t matter that there’s not. Bored means you are free. In a time of endless, empty stimuli, it is a thrill to be understimulated.

That said, I feel like there’s something of a bait-and-switch here. There’s boredom, which for me is defined by the frustration at having nothing appealing to do, and then there’s a lack of busyness or stimulation, which offers the possibility of a zen-like moment that transcends that frustration. We might call them both boredom, but they’re really not the same thing. But this is splitting hairs. The point is, opportunities for boredom can also be opportunities to be something better than busy, if you approach them the right way.

Mosaicism, or DNA differences from cell to cell (not just person to person)

posted by Tim Carmody   May 25, 2018

Science writer Carl Zimmer has a new book on genetics and heredity called She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. The New York Times published an excerpt this week focusing on mosaicism — an unexpected but surprisingly common condition where different cells in the same organism display different DNA (sometimes strikingly, fatally different).

Dr. Walsh and his colleagues have discovered intricate mosaics in the brains of healthy people. In one study, they plucked neurons from the brain of a 17-year-old boy who had died in a car accident. They sequenced the DNA in each neuron and compared it to the DNA in cells from the boy’s liver, heart and lungs.

Every neuron, the researchers found, had hundreds of mutations not found in the other organs. But many of the mutations were shared only by some of the other neurons.

It occurred to Dr. Walsh that he could use the mutations to reconstruct the cell lineages — to learn how they had originated. The researchers used the patterns to draw a sort of genealogy, linking each neuron first to its close cousins and then its more distant relatives.

When they had finished, the scientists found that the cells belonged to five main lineages. The cells in each lineage all inherited the same distinctive mosaic signature.

Even stranger, the scientists found cells in the boy’s heart with the same signature of mutations found in some brain neurons. Other lineages included cells from other organs.

Based on these results, the researchers pieced together a biography of the boy’s brain.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea that each of us are many people, an assembly of mismatched parts, manifesting themselves in different times and contexts. It’s striking to see that reflected, albeit in a refracted way, in our array of possible genomes.

The history of escape

posted by Tim Carmody   May 25, 2018

On the heels of Texas’s lieutenant governor blaming school shootings on “too many entrances and too many exits” in buildings, 99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman linked to this episode on the architectural history of egress, or orderly escape from a building in the case of a fire or some other emergency.

In the 19th century, most fire escapes were simple ropes:

One engineer actually thought that, instead of dispatching the ropes from indoors, archers could shoot the ropes up to the higher floors.

Another patent proposed individual parachute hats, with accompanying rubber shoes to break the fall.

There were also fire escape slides, which were marketed to schools as both emergency devices and playground equipment.

fireescapeslide.jpg

Even the iconic metal fire escapes attached to tenement buildings are a pretty poor form of egress; they’re not accessible, and since people generally don’t use them to enter or exit a building in normal circumstances, they don’t know how to locate or use them in a fire. Which is how we get to stairs behind a fire door, with clear, lit-up exits, as the main means of egress for tall buildings today. And nonresidential buildings like schools, hospitals, and commercial buildings have the strictest ratings and the most effective means of escape — which is a big part of why so few people die in fires in these buildings.

Who would have thought a little regulation and a modern, scientific approach could save so many lives?

Intricate circuit board model sculpted from plasticine clay

posted by Jason Kottke   May 25, 2018

Modified Man

Modified Man

When commissioned to create some artwork for a London music duo, Tim Easley spent 80 hours making this model circuit board out of plasticine clay.

The idea behind the cover was how the modified men of the future may make artwork out of ancient circuit boards, not quite understanding what they were for because of their crude appearance. For this I created a design with representations of computer chips and wires.

He then photographed the results for an album cover and other printed matter. (via colossal)

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

The official “Cheaters Edition” of Monopoly

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

Monopoly Cheaters

Hasbro has come out with an official “Cheaters Edition” of Monopoly (available at Amazon) where popular game cheats like stealing money from the bank, busting out of jail early, and taking a hotel from another player have been added to the gameplay. Fast Company has more on how the game came to be.

“We’ve had this data for years. 50% of all Monopoly players cheat,” says Randy Klimpert, Hasbro’s senior director of design and games development. This fact of life was always something of a running joke within the walls of Hasbro. It became the giggly fodder of proposed ad campaigns. Employees got a kick out of listening to the messages left on its holiday helpline, established in 2016, to help families settle disputes in their games and address accusations of creative cheating. “We were literally sitting around thinking, ‘what would really corrupt Monopoly?’ And someone said, ‘what if we cheated?’”

“Our senior marketer… you could see him mulling it,” Klimpert continues. “Monopoly… cheaters… Cheater Edition!” Hasbro instantly had the hook for a new game. But how do you make a game for cheaters that’s still sensical and fun?

Global warming blankets

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

Using simple graphic representations of annual temperatures (like this one posted by climate scientist Ed Hawkins), people are knitting and crocheting blankets that show just how warm the Earth has gotten over the past few decades. See Katie Stumpf’s blanket, for example.

Global Warming Blankets

According to climate scientist (and crocheter) Ellie Highwood, these blankets are a subset of “temperature blankets” made to represent, for example, daily temperatures over the course of a year in a particular location. The blanket she crocheted used NOAA data of global mean temperature anomalies for a 101-year period ending 2016.

I then devised a colour scale using 15 different colours each representing a 0.1 °C data bin. So everything between 0 and 0.099 was in one colour for example. Making a code for these colours, the time series can be rewritten as in the table below. It is up to the creator to then choose the colours to match this scale, and indeed which years to include. I was making a baby sized blanket so chose the last 100 years, 1916-2016.

If you read her post, she provides instructions for making your own global warming blanket.

P.S. You might think that with the Earth’s atmosphere getting warmer on average, these blankets would ironically be less necessary that they would have been 50 years ago. But climate change is also responsible for more extreme winter weather events — think global weirding in addition to global warming. So keep those blankets handy!

The arrested development of the Arrested Development cast

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

Sopan Deb recently sat down with some of the cast of Arrested Development (Jeffrey Tambor, Tony Hale, Jason Bateman, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Will Arnett, and David Cross) for an interview about the show’s upcoming new season. Deb asked the group about the allegations against Tambor related to his work on Transparent, and Walter (who plays Lucille Bluth on the show) begins to cry as the men in the room, particularly Bateman, offer explanations for Tambor’s on-set verbal abuse of her.

BATEMAN: Again, not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, “difficult.” And when you’re in a privileged position to hire people, or have an influence in who does get hired, you make phone calls. And you say, “Hey, so I’ve heard X about person Y, tell me about that.” And what you learn is context. And you learn about character and you learn about work habits, work ethics, and you start to understand. Because it’s a very amorphous process, this sort of [expletive] that we do, you know, making up fake life. It’s a weird thing, and it is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes.

SHAWKAT: But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.

WALTER [THROUGH TEARS]: Let me just say one thing that I just realized in this conversation. I have to let go of being angry at him. He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go. [Turns to Tambor.] And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again.

TAMBOR: Absolutely.

WALTER: But it’s hard because honestly — Jason says this happens all the time. In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now. I just let it go right here, for The New York Times.

Walter stated that Tambor apologized, but none of the men in the room said anything as simple as “that was inappropriate” or “that shouldn’t have happened to you”, even as they circle the wagons for Tambor. Although Bateman later apologized on Twitter for mansplaining, it seems like they haven’t really been listening to their colleagues and peers over the past several months about what it might be like being a women on the set of one of these shows.

A graceful underwater dance by freediver Julie Gautier

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2018

Ama is a short film that was written, directed, and performed by freediver Julie Gautier.

Ama is a silent film. It tells a story everyone can interpret in their own way, based on their own experience. There is no imposition, only suggestions.

I wanted to share my biggest pain in this life with this film. For this is not too crude, I covered it with grace. To make it not too heavy, I plunged it into the water.

I dedicate this film to all the women of the world.

This is really beautiful. Watch it all the way through…the end is not to be missed. (via swissmiss)

Bill Gates’ reading recommendations for Summer 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2018

As he does every year, voracious reader Bill Gates has recommended five books worth reading this summer. Gates’ recommendations often have a Wizard bent and the video he produced for the list probably had a greater budget than the amount I’ve spent on running kottke.org over the past 5 years:

The book I’m most curious about is Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian. I’ve long wanted to check out his Big History course (due to another Gates rec) and this seems like a good way to do that.

David created my favorite course of all time, Big History. It tells the story of the universe from the big bang to today’s complex societies, weaving together insights and evidence from various disciplines into a single narrative. If you haven’t taken Big History yet, Origin Story is a great introduction. If you have, it’s a great refresher. Either way, the book will leave you with a greater appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe.

Here are his four other recommendations:

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

The Songs of the Years, 1925-2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2018

Back at the end of 2010, Ben Greenman created a playlist for the New Yorker’s holiday party that featured one song from each year of the magazine’s existence ordered chronologically.

At the party, the mix worked like a charm. Jazz and blues greeted the early arrivals, and as the party picked up, the mood became romantic (thanks to the big-band and vocal recordings of the late thirties and forties), energetic (thanks to early rock and roll like Fats Domino and Jackie Brenston in the early fifties), funky (James Brown in 1973, Stevie Wonder in 1974), and kitschy (the eighties), after which it erupted into a bright riot of contemporary pop and hip-hop (Rihanna! Kanye! M.I.A.! Lil Jon!).

After Greenman’s list was published, others created playlists from it on Rdio, YouTube, and Spotify. I listened to this playlist a lot on Rdio back then; it was the perfect way to time travel through the 20th and early 21st centuries in just a few hours.

I was reminded of the list yesterday after Laura Olin asked about favorite Spotify playlists and discovered that Tom Whitwell’s playlist was still around. He’d created it back in the early days of streaming music services, when Spotify was available only in Europe, so some of the songs had gone missing and others, like those by Michael Jackson & The Beatles, who didn’t allow their music on streaming services then. With Whitwell’s kind permission, I went in and tidied up the list, finding the proper song for every year but 1993 (“Return of the Crazy One,” by Digital Underground, which is available on YouTube…on the playlist it’s represented by “Doowutchyalike”).

Not content to have the list trapped in amber for eternity, I emailed Greenman to see if he had any thoughts on music from the intervening years. Although he’s no longer a staffer at the New Yorker, he generously sent me his selections for 2011-2018.1

2011: “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
2012: “Call Me Maybe”by Carly Rae Jepsen
2013: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk
2014: “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run the Jewels
2015: “WTF” by Missy Elliott
2016: “Hotline Bling” by Drake
2017: “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
2018: “This is America” by Childish Gambino

You can listen to the full playlist embedded above or here on Spotify. Greenman shared some thoughts on updating the list:

The original list was occasioned by a party: the magazine’s 85th anniversary. Almost a decade has passed, and many things have changed. It feels like a less celebratory time, darker and less hopeful in some ways. But pop music persists. In extending the list from 2010 to the present, I tried to think about how those short bursts of sound still give us moments of joy, and how certain bursts attach themselves to certain moments in history.

I love this playlist and am so glad it’s back and updated. Big thanks to Ben and Tom for making this happen.

P.S. If you duplicate this playlist on Apple Music, Tidal, etc., send me a link. Or even better, if you’re inspired to create your own Songs of the Years playlist, send along those links too. I would love to hear alternate musical journeys through that era — e.g. playlists featuring only black artists or only women would be amazing.

Update: John Stokvis recreated the playlist on Apple Music. Apple had the correct Digital Underground song, but not De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I”, so Stokvis subbed in “She Drives Me Crazy” from The Fine Young Cannibals. Here’s the Google Play playlist, courtesy of @neuroboy…looks like Google has every song.

A bit off-topic but still within rhyming distance, Aaron Coleman made a playlist of songs with years in the title from 1952-2031. He acknowledges that some of the songs are “terrible”.

  1. I convinced him to put Drake in there, so if you’re not feeling “Hotline Bling” for 2016, you can blame me. (My rationale: Drake was it for those few years, so you have to have him on there somewhere. Besides, it’s tough to pick just one song from “Lemonade” and it’s not on Spotify anyway.)

    Also, May is a bit early to choose a song for 2018, but “This is America” might hold up. If it doesn’t, maybe Greenman can revisit at the end of the year.

Muppet outtakes are hilarious

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

This is a blooper reel from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a 1977 TV special produced by The Jim Henson Company. Take after take, they’re trying to roll a tiny drum out of a doorway in a very specific way and the Muppet characters get increasingly frustrated and amusing as it goes along. If the voice of the Ma character sounds familiar, that’s Frank Oz, who is also the voice of Yoda, Grover, and Bert from Sesame Street.

MTA Country, a game about the NYC subway

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

MTA Country

Everyday Arcade, which is responsible for The GOP Arcade (sample game titles include The Voter Suppression Trail and Thoughts & Prayers: The Game!), has designed a new game called MTA Country. Based on the SNES title Donkey Kong Country, the goal of MTA Country is to guide Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, and celebrity straphanger Gregg Turkin past hazards like track fires and stalled trains to their destination. That ending though… Hmm…