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Entries for April 2018 (May 2018 »    June 2018 »    July 2018 »    Archives)

 

15 Patents That Changed the World

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

Brain implant patent illustration

Popular Mechanics has a quick look at 15 Patents That Changed the World, including the maglev train from back in 1967, the 3d printer, a “bionic eye” retinal prosthesis from 1968, GPS, CRISPR-Cas9, and graphene. Fun to read through but I’m including it here because it was found through Chris Anderson who had this comment:

Quadroptor patent illustration

Earlier today I tweeted this Boing Boing post about the upcoming US public domain infusion, the first since 1998. In the case of both patents and copyright, it’s important to remember the innovation and creativity their release provides, not just the original work or invention it represents.

A Mobile Tabletop Shape Display for Tangible and Haptic Interaction

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

We’ve seen this before with the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group inFORM but that was a (super impressive) table, this one is movable, much smaller, seems to be higher resolution and multiple units can be combined.

We explore interactions enabled by 2D spatial manipulation and self-actuation of a tabletop shape display. To explore these interactions, we developed shapeShift, a compact, high-resolution (7 mm pitch), mobile tabletop shape display. shapeShift can be mounted on passive rollers allowing for bimanual interaction where the user can freely manipulate the system while it renders spatially relevant content. shapeShift can also be mounted on an omnidirectional-robot to provide both vertical and lateral kinesthetic feedback, display moving objects, or act as an encountered-type haptic device for VR. We present a study on haptic search tasks comparing spatial manipulation of a shape display for egocentric exploration of a map versus exploration using a fixed display and a touch pad. Results show a 30% decrease in navigation path lengths, 24% decrease in task time, 15% decrease in mental demand and 29% decrease in frustration in favor of egocentric navigation.

(Via prosthetic knowledge)

AIs, predictions and judgment

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

This Mckinsey piece summarizes some of Ajay Agrawal thinking (and book) on the economics of artificial intelligence. It starts with the example of the microprocessor, an invention he frames as “reducing the cost of arithmetic.” He then presents the impact as lowering the cost of the substitute and raising the value of the complements.

The third thing that happened as the cost of arithmetic fell was that it changed the value of other things—the value of arithmetic’s complements went up and the value of its substitutes went down. So, in the case of photography, the complements were the software and hardware used in digital cameras. The value of these increased because we used more of them, while the value of substitutes, the components of film-based cameras, went down because we started using less and less of them.

He then looks at AI and frames it around the reduction of the cost of prediction, first showing how AIs lower the value of our own predictions.

… The AI makes a lot of mistakes at first. But it learns from its mistakes and updates its model every time it incorrectly predicts an action the human will take. Its predictions start getting better and better until it becomes so good at predicting what a human would do that we don’t need the human to do it anymore. The AI can perform the action itself.

The very interesting twist is here, where he mentions the trope of “data is the new oil” but instead presents judgment as the other complement which will gain in value.

But there are other complements to prediction that have been discussed a lot less frequently. One is human judgment. We use both prediction and judgment to make decisions. We’ve never really unbundled those aspects of decision making before—we usually think of human decision making as a single step. Now we’re unbundling decision making. The machine’s doing the prediction, making the distinct role of judgment in decision making clearer. So as the value of human prediction falls, the value of human judgment goes up because AI doesn’t do judgment—it can only make predictions and then hand them off to a human to use his or her judgment to determine what to do with those predictions. (emphasis mine)

This is pretty much exactly the same thing as the idea for advanced or centaur chess where a combination of human and AI can actually be more performant than either one separately. We could also link this to the various discussions on ethics, trolley problems, and autonomous killer robots. The judgment angle above doesn’t automatically solve any of these issues but it does provide another way of understanding the split of responsibilities we could envision between AIs and humans.

The author then presents five imperatives for businesses looking to harness AIs and predictions: “Develop a thesis on time to AI impact; Recognize that AI progress will likely be exponential; Trust the machines; Know what you want to predict; Manage the learning loop.” One last quote, from his fourth imperative:

The organizations that will benefit most from AI will be the ones that are able to most clearly and accurately specify their objectives. We’re going to see a lot of the currently fuzzy mission statements become much clearer. The companies that are able to sharpen their visions the most will reap the most benefits from AI. Due to the methods used to train AIs, AI effectiveness is directly tied to goal-specification clarity.

Cities flowing like liquids or organized like crystals

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

File this story at Citylab adjacent to concepts like complexity, scale, and fractals. It turns out—according to this research paper anyway—that cities’ heat islands function differently depending on the “texture” of the city itself.

[S]cientists know that the density of buildings, the absorption of light by those buildings, and the relative lack of vegetation in cities are major contributors to the urban heat island effect. It’s why cities like Chicago are hoping to find relief through green roofs and reflective construction materials, or through planting more trees and banning cars. In a more radical move, Los Angeles even began painting their roads white as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s effort to bring down the city’s temperature by just under 2 degrees over the next 20 years. […]
The difference is even starker at night: even as the temperature cools, the release of heat absorbed during the day by asphalt and densely packed buildings can make the downtown area some 20 degrees warmer in some cities.

Street Grids May Make Cities Hotter

Roland Pellenq, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, looked at city grids and the relative positions of buildings, to see if patterns emerge.

Indeed, the fingerprints of cities like Boston and Los Angeles mirror the disorderly atomic structure of liquids and glass, while the likes of Chicago and New York City, with their streets and avenues perpendicular to one another, exhibit a more orderly configuration found in crystals.

Using formulas borrowed from physics, originally developed to measure atomic interaction in condensed materials, they found that more tightly packed cities have more intense heat island effects but also:

[T]hat cities with more rigid grid-like street patterns (that is, a higher local order) tended to display a higher temperature difference between their urban and rural areas. This has to do with air flow, said Pellenq. In disorganized cities, the air tends to flow uniformly with little or no interruption. But the perpendicular streets of Chicago and the like often trap heat by disrupting that airflow.

Fascinating.

Twitter history walk threads

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

Paul Cooper Norfolk church walk

One of my favourite Twitter thread style or topic in recent months has been the “history walk.” People picking something they want to see, usually a ruin or forgotten place, documenting their walk there and the things they discover. Admittedly, I don’t have that many examples but the few I have seen are fantastic enough to make the form a favourite.

First one, from just this past weekend, has Paul Cooper setting out in the Norfolk countryside in search of the ruins of the church of St Mary’s, which “local folklore claims as the resting place of the Somerton Witch.” I’m including a few pictures below but read the whole thread, packed with historical tidbits.

(The first picture above is of Neolithic mines, which dot the landscape like lunar craters. The deepest could be as much as 60ft deep.)

Paul Cooper Norfolk church walk

Paul Cooper Norfolk church walk

Paul Cooper Norfolk church walk 4

Paul Cooper Norfolk church walk 5

If you’re a history buff, you should also check out Paul’s whole feed, he does these regular long threads on various historical topics.

Second example, also in the English country side, is this one by @gawanmac:

I saw this on an OS map and couldn’t not investigate. A place of worship symbol in the middle of bloody nowhere on the edge of a wood. It was a foggy, atmospheric day up on the North Downs, so I decided to walk three sides of a square through the wood to reach it.

gawanmac North Downs church walk 1

gawanmac North Downs church walk 2

gawanmac North Downs church walk 3

gawanmac North Downs church walk 4

Studio Ghibli-style art prints

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

nino4-1400.jpg

Dutch art gallery Cook & Becker is releasing a series of high quality art prints taken from the very Studio Ghibli-like game Ni No Kuni II. Beautiful stuff.

A large part of the appeal of the Ni No Kuni series is how the games look: it’s like you’re wandering around inside a lush Studio Ghibli animated film while playing a fantastical role-playing game. That was certainly true of the recent Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom — this in spite of the fact that the famed animation house wasn’t technically involved. It still bore the telltale signs of a Ghibli production, however, including the charming character designs of Yoshiyuki Momose and huge, stunning locations including mysterious, bioluminescent forests and vast kingdoms.

Guest editing this week: Patrick Tanguay

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Apr 30, 2018

[Hello there, everyone. I am off this week (taking two kids to The Wizarding World in Orlando, pray for me, the butterbeer is alcoholic, so they’ll be knocked out after one round, right?) and am very pleased that Patrick Tanguay will be taking over while I’m gone. Welcome, Patrick! For the rest of youse, I will be back next week. -jason]

Hi fellow readers, I’m very happy and honoured to be on this side of the curtain for a week. I’ve been reading this here blog pretty much since the beginning and blogging myself since early 2003. If you like what I do here this week, you should probably subscribe to my newsletter Sentiers, lots of commonality of topics. I’m @inevernu on Twitter and this tweet by Eliot Peper is a good and flattering description of Sentiers.

In the last few years I also cocreated The Alpine Review, a compendium of ideas for a world in transition. We are on (deep) hiatus right now but we are still very proud of those three issues. It was quite well received critically and we even received a few awards for it. I launched and participated in a few other projects, have a look at the above blog to know more if you’re curious.

Work wise, I partner with clients at a kind of intersection between curating, editing, writing, and consulting. Roughly; I find what people and organizations need to know and help making sense of it for their life and work. You can have a look at my work page and reach out if you are intrigued or in need of such an hybrid skill set.

Fan of the opera

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2018

Christoph Niemann Opera

Your periodic reminder that Christoph Niemann is an unimaginably imaginative visual storyteller. This image is one of a series for the Deutsche Oper Berlin opera company; check out more of his work on Instagram.

DNA sites show why we need a Hippocratic Oath for data science

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 27, 2018

A suspect in the Golden State Killer murders has been arrested, based largely on DNA evidence that was apparently obtained in part through creating a dummy profile on a heredity website. California’s laws are apparently fairly permissive when it comes to using familial DNA to match suspects to crimes.

Solving unsolved rape and murder cases is generally good, but turning private websites into repositories of criminal evidence police can obtain without a warrant is generally bad. Like, extra bad.

One of the first things this reminded me of was Cathy O’Neil’s recent call for a Hippocratic Oath for data scientists. The idea is for data scientists to have some ethical guidelines, and above all to avoid doing harm or violating the rights of the people implicated by the practice of data science. In order to do that, you need to bring in the various stakeholders, properly weigh each of their concerns, and continually work to address them.

It’s always an incomplete process, because as O’Neil notes right away, data science isn’t limited to the acts of professional data scientists; it’s also the province of companies, and algorithms, and automated or self-learning uses of data. So in addition to a Hippocratic Oath (or some version of it), you also need a version of HIPAA (the law that guarantees the secure storage and distribution of health information).

DNA/heredity sites seem like the perfect test case for figuring out the compatibility of these two modes of operating. It seems like largely, they’re being treated either as a simple data regime, a la social media networks, and/or under criminal statutes. But a person’s DNA is, or should be, treated like medical information, with strict limits on its use. There has to be some way to figure out how to weigh all of these things together without compromising people’s rights.

Burn the monster, steal his jokes

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 27, 2018

Wesley Morris unsurprisingly has written a very good essay about Bill Cosby — specifically, the ways in which Cosby created and blended his own persona along with that of his signature character Cliff Huxtable. He did this to root himself in America’s psychological life, and to make himself indispensable in the entertainment industry, both of which shielded him for many years from the consequences of his crimes. It was, as Morris says, Cosby’s “sickest joke.”

Bill Cosby was good at his job. That sums up why the guilty verdict Thursday is depressing — depressing not for its shock but for the work the verdict now requires me to do. The discarding and condemning and reconsidering — of the shows, the albums, the movies. But I don’t need to watch them anymore. It’s too late. I’ve seen them. I’ve absorbed them. I’ve lived them. I’m a black man, so I am them.

There’s a strange connection between serial abusers and auteurism. People take advantage of power in lots of different ways, and one of them is to assume credit for other people’s work — if not outright, than by insinuation. Cosby and Woody Allen are the two most extreme types: they worked to make themselves inseparable from the art they associated themselves with, in a way that both attracted talented collaborators and sponged credit away from them.

If I could exorcize Cosby from The Cosby Show and retain Phylicia Rashad’s performances forever, or Woody Allen from Annie Hall and do the same for Gordon Willis’s photography, I would. Part of the sick joke is that you can’t. At the same time, I don’t want to give them up. I don’t want to lose Joan Rivers’s amazing turn on Louie just because that scene (where Louis CK ends up trying to force a kiss on Joan) seems extra gross now. It’s already been ingested; it can’t easily be carved out.

This is why I sometimes say: burn the monster, and steal their jokes. This is the punishment for their years of abuse, of lies, of intimidation, of fraud: the work they made is forfeit. Cosby loses all credit for making The Cosby Show; Allen all credit for his films; it is as if they were written/produced/directed by ghosts. All credit goes to the geniuses they reeled in as unwitting collaborators, without whom they would have always been sad, useless men.

It doesn’t completely work. It doesn’t stop money flowing into their pockets, as a boycott might. It doesn’t stop you from getting angry when you see their stupid faces, as avoiding their work might. But in the handful of cases where the art is so constitutive that you can’t avoid it, it’s a fiction that helps preserve some fraction of the joy it used to. At any rate, it’s the bargain I’ve struck.

The culinary wonders of MSG

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 27, 2018

Helen Rosner writes in praise of monosodium glutamate, an umami-rich flavor additive that’s been vilified for all the wrong reasons.

Monosodium glutamate has been widespread in the American food supply since at least the nineteen-twenties, imported from China and Japan by major food-production companies like Heinz and Campbell’s, according to research done by Catherine Piccoli, a curator at New York’s Museum of Food and Drink. But a 1968 letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine raised the spectre of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” an illness allegedly brought on by the consumption of MSG, which was commonly used in American Chinese restaurants. Ever since, the chemical compound has been vilified—despite dozens of rigorous studies concluding that the ingredient is innocuous and the “syndrome” nonexistent. Certain scientists and culinarians have long agitated for MSG’s rehabilitation. In a 1999 essay for Vogue titled “Why Doesn’t Everyone in China Have a Headache?,” the legendary food writer Jeffrey Steingarten gleefully ripped to shreds the standard litany of complaints and protests. But only in the past decade has MSG’s reputation truly turned a corner. The Times, Epicurious, and Bon Appetit have risen to its defense. The near-infallible food-science writer Harold McGee has regularly championed its use. At the 2012 MAD symposium, in Copenhagen, the chef David Chang gave a talk on the anti-Asian sentiment that underlies MSG aversion. “You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome?” Anthony Bourdain asked on a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown.” Then he gave the answer: “Racism.”

MSG is a potent flavor enhancer; glutamate, the amino acid that does a lot of the heavy lifting, is found in foods as varied as parmesan cheese, fish sauce, and cooked tomato paste — all of them known for packing a punch. As Rosner writes, “it is to savory flavor what refined sugar is to sweet.”

The Finkbeiner test for gender bias in science writing

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2018

In a 2013 piece, Christie Aschwanden suggested a test in the spirit of the Bechdel test for avoiding gender bias in profiles written about scientists who are women.

To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention:

- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”

Aschwanden named the test after her colleague Ann Finkbeiner, who wrote that she was going to write a piece about an astronomer without mentioning that she, the astronomer, was a woman.

Meanwhile I’m sick of writing about [gender bias in science]; I’m bored silly with it. So I’m going to cut to the chase, close my eyes, and pretend the problem is solved; we’ve made a great cultural leap forward and the whole issue is over with.

And I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman. I’m not going to mention her husband’s job or her child care arrangements or how she nurtures her students or how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field. I’m not going to interview her women students and elicit raves about her as a role model. I’m going to be blindly, aggressively, egregiously ignorant of her gender.

I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.

(via @john_overholt)

A side-by-side comparison of the new “unrestored” 2001 with a restored Blu-ray version

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

This summer for the 50th anniversary of the film, Warner Bros. is releasing a 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey made from the original camera negative. Christopher Nolan, who oversaw the process, explains that this release will be as close to what Kubrick intended as possible:

For the first time since the original release, this 70mm print was struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative. This is a true photochemical film recreation. There are no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits. This is the unrestored film — that recreates the cinematic event that audiences experienced fifty years ago.

Here’s a trailer for the new print:

On YouTube, Krishna Ramesh Kumar compared some of the shots in this trailer with those from the 2007 Blu-ray version of the film. Some of the scenes look pretty different in tone:

A list of must-read books you don’t have to read

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

The editors of GQ have compiled a list of 20 notable books that you don’t actually have to read, despite their inclusion on various must-read lists. For each one, they suggest a replacement. So:

Don’t read: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Do read: Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

Don’t read: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Do read: Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin

Don’t read: The Ambassadors by Henry James
Do read: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer

Two editors independently recommended ditching Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Tommy Orange saying:

Mark Twain was a racist. Just read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was a man of his time, so let’s leave him there. We don’t need him.

The Face of Distracted Driving

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

Filmmaker Errol Morris has made a pair of videos for AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign against distracted driving, which “kills an average of 8 people every day in the US”. Each video features the friends and family of someone who was killed in a car accident as a result of texting while driving.

Fair warning: do not watch that second video unless you want your coworkers to see you sobbing at your desk. I very rarely look at my phone while driving and let me tell you, even that little bit stops today.

Morris joins his friend and fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog in the campaign against distracted driving. Herzog made a 35-minute documentary about texting while driving back in 2013.

David Foster Wallace on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

As I said recently in the newsletter and in my media diet post for March, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 collection of nonfiction. Each story I listen to is somehow been better than the last, and Wallace’s piece on John McCain’s failed run for the Republican nomination in 2000 was no exception. You can the as-published article in Rolling Stone, but it’s worth seeking out the much longer unabridged version in Consider the Lobster or stand-alone in McCain’s Promise.

While the piece is a time capsule of circa 2000 Republican politics — which politics seem totally quaint by today’s standards; for instance, Wallace describes McCain as one of the most right-wing members of Congress — what makes it so great and relevant is the timelessness of Wallace’s conclusions about politics, why politicians run, why people vote (and don’t vote), and why anyone should care about all of this in the first place.

There are many elements of the McCain2000 campaign — naming the bus “Straight Talk,” the timely publication of Faith of My Fathers, the much-hyped “openness” and “spontaneity” of the Express’s media salon, the message-disciplined way McCain thumps “Always. Tell you. The truth” — that indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate’s rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? Or just confusing? Suppose, let’s say, you’ve got a candidate who says polls are bullshit and totally refuses to tailor his campaign style to polls, and suppose then that new polls start showing that people really like this candidate’s polls-are-bullshit stance and are thinking about voting for him because of it, and suppose the candidate reads these polls (who wouldn’t?) and then starts saying even more loudly and often that polls are bullshit and that he won’t use them to decide what to say, maybe turning “Polls are bullshit” into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus….Is he a hypocrite? Is it hypocritical that one of McCain’s ads’ lines South Carolina is “Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically,” which of course since it’s an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefits? What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?

That’s just one of the many passages that reminded me of the 2016 election and the appeal to voters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (and also of a certain Barack Obama in 2008 & 2012) but also makes you think deeply about how and why millions of people decide to put their support and faith and trust into a single person to represent their interests and identity in our national government.

See also Why’s This So (Damn) Good (and Topical)? David Foster Wallace and “McCain’s Promise”.

An AI can realistically “paint in” missing areas of photographs

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

This video, and the paper it’s based on, is called “Image Inpainting for Irregular Holes Using Partial Convolutions” but it’s actually straight-up witchcraft! Researchers at NVIDIA have developed a deep-learning program that can automagically paint in areas of photographs that are missing. Ok, you’re saying, Photoshop has been able to do something like that for years. And the first couple of examples were like, oh that’s neat. But then the eyes are deleted from a model’s portrait and the program drew new eyes for her. Under close scrutiny, the results are not completely photorealistic, but at a glance it’s remarkably convincing. (via imperica)

Tuileries, a short film about Paris by the Coen brothers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

As part of a larger anthology film called Paris Je T’aime, the Coen brothers directed a short film about a character played by Steve Buscemi waiting for a train in the Tuileries Metro station. Buscemi makes the mistake of making eye contact with another person.

The entire movie sounds really interesting…I just put it on my watch list. 20 directors were chosen to direct short films, one each about the 20 Parisian arrondissements, among them the Coens, Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, Tom Tykwer, and Olivier Assayas. And in addition to Buscemi, the film features appearances by Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elijah Wood, and Natalie Portman. (via open culture)

The best title sequences of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2018

I know it’s almost May of 2018, but I missed Art of the Title’s Top 10 Title Sequences of 2017 when it came out back in January, so here you go. Come on, it ain’t so bad…nothing in the preceding four months has made these sequences any worse. For example, the opening credits for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are still delightful:

Or the spooky credits for Mindhunter, which remind me of the opening titles for Six Feet Under & Se7en and the rolling tape footage used extensively in The Fog of War.

Self-portraits drawn by David Bowie

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2018

David Bowie Self Portrait

David Bowie Self Portrait

From a collection of drawings and paintings done by David Bowie, here are a couple of self-portraits…there are more if you click through.

See also every David Bowie hairstyle from 1964 to 2014.

True facts about frogfish

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2018

Proto-YouTuber Ze Frank momentarily steps down from his executive perch at Buzzfeed to get back on the mic for the humorous nature documentary True Facts, which is “f(bleep)ing back” following a three-year hiatus. This episode is about the elegant & graceful frogfish. (via andy)

Four seasons in the life of a Finnish island

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

Jani Ylinampa Kotisaari

Nestled amongst hundreds of stunning shots of the aurora borealis taken by Finnish photographer Jani Ylinampa is a series of four photos of Kotisaari, showing the island from a drone’s point of view for each of the four seasons (clockwise from upper left): spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

But seriously, go check out Ylinampa’s Instagram account…it’s packed with aurora borealis photos. What a magical place to live, where the sky lights up like that all the time.

The Design of Childhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

C&C Brooklyn Bridge

Design? Parenting? Playgrounds? iPads? Architecture? Toys? Probably Lego? Alexandra Lange’s upcoming book about “how children’s playthings and physical surroundings affect their development”, The Design of Childhood, is firmly in my wheelhouse.

Parents obsess over their children’s playdates, kindergarten curriculum, and every bump and bruise, but the toys, classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods little ones engage with are just as important. These objects and spaces encode decades, even centuries of changing ideas about what makes for good child-rearing — and what does not. Do you choose wooden toys, or plastic, or, increasingly, digital? What do youngsters lose when seesaws are deemed too dangerous and slides are designed primarily for safety? How can the built environment help children cultivate self-reliance? In these debates, parents, educators, and kids themselves are often caught in the middle.

It’s out in early June, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

P.S. That photo is a model of the Brooklyn Bridge built by 7-year-olds at City & Country School in NYC made almost entirely out of unit blocks.

In the 7s, children engage in a formal study of the infrastructure and geography of New York City. Through extended block work, they explore the relationships among city systems of government, transportation, communications, commerce, and utilities. New issues continually arise: Who makes the laws, and how are they carried out? How does traffic flow? Where does water come from? The city study culminates with the building of a permanent city, complete with running water and electricity, and an historical study of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The blocks all have official names (like pillar, double unit, cylinder, etc.) but the kids have their own names for them based on the shapes: squarie, roundie, brickie, buttery (because it’s shaped like a stick of butter), half buttery, archie, rampie, cubie, longie, middlie, and so on. So for example, if you’re constructing a model of the Empire State Building, that might call for several longies, a few middlies & squaries as you get closer to the top, a buttery + half buttery for the spire, and then several strategically placed colorful cubies for the nighttime lights.

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.

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. [Edit: Not sure why, but the Hamilton episode is no longer available on Soundcloud. Here’s the Billie Jean King ep instead.]

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.

Update: Anna in the Tropics is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz in which the main action features a lector.

And a 1909 photograph by Lewis Hine, a lector reading to cigar workers in Tampa, FL.

Lector Lewis Hine

(thx, aaron & jason)

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)

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Steven Johnson, the author of the recent Wonderland and a whole gaggle of other books in the kottke.org wheelhouse,1 is coming out with a new book in September called Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most.

Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.

Full of the beautifully crafted storytelling and novel insights that Steven Johnson’s fans know to expect, Farsighted draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature. Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we’ve actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.

In a post on his website, Johnson explains where the idea for the book came from and some specific stories that can be found in its pages.

Some of the threads bring back characters from my earlier works: The Invention Of Air’s Joseph Priestley and Ben Franklin make an important cameo in the opening pages, and the book examines two key turning points in the life of Charles Darwin, building on the Darwin stories woven through Good Ideas. But there are also stories drawn from critical decisions in urban planning — New York’s decision to bury Collect Pond in the early 1800s, and to build the High Line in the early 2000s — alongside stories of hard choices drawn from military history, most notably the decision process that led to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011. There are insights drawn from cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and sociology. But it is also in many ways a book about the importance of storytelling. There’s as much Middlemarch in the book as there is modern neuroscience.

Pre-ordered, obviously.

  1. Every so often, I am asked why I don’t write a book, “you know, like kottke.org but in book form”. There are many answers to that, but one of the biggest is that Steven Johnson writes the books that I would write in the way I would want to write them, except he does it way better than I would. I’m aware this is perhaps a dumb reason, but it’s infinitely easier and more enjoyable for me to just read his books that to bother working on my own.

20 Years of Lauryn Hill

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Yesterday, hip hop legend Lauryn Hill announced The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill 20th Anniversary Tour 2018.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of seminal hip-hop album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, and Lauryn Hill is marking the occasion with a special anniversary tour dedicated to the album. Hill will be performing Miseducation in full, and each stop on the tour will feature “special guest performers” that haven’t been named yet. Plus, a portion of ticket sales will be donated to Hill’s MLH Foundation, which backs a huge group of charities built to help people all over the world-including the Africa Philanthropic Foundation, Appetite For Change, Apps & Girls, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

And Nerdwriter’s Evan Puschak, always with his ear to the ground (or perhaps with his ear to Drake’s Nice for What), just came out with this mini-doc celebrating of Hill’s music, influences, and people she’s influenced:

This might be one of the best Nerdwriter videos yet: no commentary, just clips of Hill performing and talking, music she was influenced by, and people & music that were influenced by her…an impressionistic portrait of a significant and uncompromising artist.

How to reduce opioid addiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

This morning I ran across news from two different studies about reducing deaths from opioid overdoses and they both had the same solution: medication-assisted treatment. First, from a study involving inmates in Rhode Island correctional facilities:

The program offers inmates methadone and buprenorphine (opioids that reduce cravings and ease withdrawal symptoms), as well as naltrexone, which blocks people from getting high.

The data set is small but the results are encouraging: there were fewer overdose deaths of former inmates after the program was implemented in 2016.

In the 90s, France used a similar program to cut heroin overdose deaths by 79%:

In 1995, France made it so any doctor could prescribe buprenorphine without any special licensing or training. Buprenorphine, a first-line treatment for opioid addiction, is a medication that reduces cravings for opioids without becoming addictive itself.

With the change in policy, the majority of buprenorphine prescribers in France became primary-care doctors, rather than addiction specialists or psychiatrists. Suddenly, about 10 times as many addicted patients began receiving medication-assisted treatment, and half the country’s heroin users were being treated. Within four years, overdose deaths had declined by 79 percent.

Brutalist architecture built with Lego

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

Brutal Lego

Brutal Lego

Brutal Lego

The proprietor of the @brutsinlego account and his/her children build simple Brutalist structures out of Lego and post the results to Instagram.

BTW, the term Brutalist does not refer to the frequently brutal (adj. “direct and lacking any attempt to disguise unpleasantness”) appearance of buildings built in this style, but after the French term béton brut (raw concrete) that describes the unfinished concrete surfaces of these buildings.

Further BTW: Google Translate variously translates “brut” to “gross”, “raw”, “crude”, “undefined”, “dry”, and “rude”. Brut and brutal also likely have the same Latin root, so to some extent, the assumption that Brutalism refers to the blunt appearance of these buildings has some merit.

“What do census tracts with highest concentrations of particular populations look like?”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

The use of satellite imagery has revolutionized many areas of science and research, from archaeology to tracking human rights abuses to (of course) climate science. This vantage point makes different sorts of observations possible than looking at ground level does.

In what she calls “a work in progress”, Jia Zhang, a PhD candidate at MIT Media Lab, used census data to collect chunks of satellite images from areas with the highest concentrations of white, black, Asian, and Native American & Alaska Native people. The result is striking (but perhaps not surprising):

Census Satellite

I’m looking forward to seeing more of Zhang’s work in this area.

A lovely ode to stop motion animation

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

In this short film, animator and director Ainslie Henderson talks about how he designs puppets for his stop motion animations, creating a charming little stop motion music video in the process.

Puppet-making often begins by just gathering stuff, like materials that I find attractive. Wood and sticks and wire and leaves and flowers and petals and bits of broken electronics…things that have already had a life are lovely to have in puppets.

The calmness of airplane pilots

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2018

Yesterday a Southwest flight from NYC to Dallas experienced an in-flight engine explosion and had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. The explosion tore a hole in the fuselage and a passenger started to get sucked out of the hole before being pulled back in (she subsequently died). As Wired’s Jack Stewart notes in an informative piece about how emergencies like this are handled, the plane’s pilot sounded remarkably calm in her communications with air traffic control:

The pilots don’t reach out to air traffic control until that descent is underway. “Something we teach students from day one is aviate, navigate, communicate — in that order,” says Brian Strzempkowski, who trains pilots at Ohio State University’s Center for Aviation Studies.

“They’d say mayday three times, say their call sign, engine failure, descending to 10,000 on heading of XYZ,” says Moss. The pilot, air traffic controllers, and an airline dispatch unit work to find the best airport for an emergency landing. In less critical circumstances, it may be better to fly a little farther to a larger airfield with more facilities, but in extreme emergencies — such as this one — the pilot can ask for priority, and the controllers will clear the path for her to land at the closest runway, in any direction.

As terrifying as this looks, the pilot talking to air traffic control sounded remarkably calm. “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” she said.

You can listen to the air traffic control audio here:

The pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was a Navy fighter pilot, so that explains some of her chill. And Neil Armstrong’s combat experience in the Navy surely contributed to his calmness when he took manual control to steer the LM around an unsuitable landing site w/ very little fuel left while trying to land on the surface of the dang Moon with unknown alarms going off — you can read all about it here and listen to Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mission Control discussing the whole thing here as if they’re trying to decide on a lunch place.

But the Navy angle is not the whole story. I’ve talked a bit before about my dad, who was a working pilot when I was a kid. He was sometimes not the most relaxed person on the ground, but at the controls of a plane, he was always calm and collected.

It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark. You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don’t know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second. In a calm voice, my dad said, “we’d better go around and try this again”.

The storm was nearly on top of us as we looped around to try a second time. It was around this time he announced, even more calmly, that we were “running a little low” on fuel. Nothing serious, you understand. Just “a little low”.

How these pilots talk is not an accident. That characterless voice emanating from the flight deck during the boarding process telling you about your destination’s weather sounds conversationally beige…until something like losing an engine at 30,000 feet happens and that exact same voice, and the demeanor that goes with it, takes on a razor’s edge of magnificent competence and steadiness and even heroism.

Alan Turing was an excellent runner

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2018

Alan Turing Runner

Computer scientist, mathematician, and all-around supergenius Alan Turing, who played a pivotal role in breaking secret German codes during WWII and developing the conceptual framework for the modern general purpose computer, was also a cracking good runner.

He was a runner who, like many others, came to the sport rather late. According to an article by Pat Butcher, he did not compete as an undergraduate at Cambridge, preferring to row. But after winning his fellowship to King’s College, he began running with more purpose. He is said to have often run a route from Cambridge to Ely and back, a distance of 50 kilometers.

It’s also said Turing would occasionally sometimes run to London for meetings, a distance of 40 miles. In 1947, after only two years of training, Turing ran a marathon in 2:46. He was even in contention for a spot on the British Olympic team for 1948 before an injury held him to fifth place at the trials. Had he competed and run at his personal best time, he would have finished 15th.

As the photo above shows, Turing had a brute force running style, not unlike the machine he helped design to break Enigma coded messages. He ran, he said, to relieve stress.

“We heard him rather than saw him. He made a terrible grunting noise when he was running, but before we could say anything to him, he was past us like a shot out of a gun. A couple of nights later we caught up with him long enough for me to ask who he ran for. When he said nobody, we invited him to join Walton. He did, and immediately became our best runner… I asked him one day why he punished himself so much in training. He told me ‘I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard; it’s the only way I can get some release.’”

I found out about Turing’s running prowess via the Wikipedia page of non-professional marathon runners. Turing is quite high on the list, particularly if you filter out world class athletes from other sports. Also on the list, just above Turing, is Wolfgang Ketterle, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who ran a 2:44 in Boston in 2014 at the age of 56.

Sporting events compressed into single composite photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2018

Pelle Cass

Pelle Cass

Pelle Cass

Photographer Pelle Cass has been constructing composite photos of groups of people for some time now, photoshopping the action from dozens of photos into a single frame.

With the camera on a tripod, I take many dozens of pictures, and simply leave in the figures I choose and omit the rest. The photographs are composite, but nothing has been changed, only selected. My subject is the strangeness of time, the exact way people look, and a surprising world that is visible only with a camera.

More recently, Cass has turned his attention to sporting events, capturing competitors playing basketball, diving, playing lacrosse, running track, and playing hockey. The project is called Crowded Fields; it’s not up on his website yet, but you can see some of the images on Instagram and Booooooom.

I love this sort of thing, whole stretches of time compressed into single frames or short videos. See also time merge media, Peter Funch’s Babel Tales, Dennis Hlynsky’s bird contrails, and busy day at the airport. (via colossal)

The illiterate teacher

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2018

John Corcoran was slow to talk as a child and then when he got to school, he didn’t learn to read right away. Or in the years following. He graduated from high school and college not being able to read or write…and then got a job teaching high school.

So I graduated from college, and when I graduated there was a teacher shortage and I was offered a job. It was the most illogical thing you can imagine — I got out of the lion’s cage and then I got back in to taunt the lion again.

Why did I go into teaching? Looking back it was crazy that I would do that. But I’d been through high school and college without getting caught — so being a teacher seemed a good place to hide. Nobody suspects a teacher of not knowing how to read.

I taught a lot of different things. I was an athletics coach. I taught social studies. I taught typing — I could copy-type at 65 words a minute but I didn’t know what I was typing. I never wrote on a blackboard and there was no printed word in my classroom. We watched a lot of films and had a lot of discussions.

I remember how fearful I was. I couldn’t even take the roll — I had to ask the students to pronounce their names so I could hear their names. And I always had two or three students who I identified early — the ones who could read and write best in the classroom — to help me. They were my teaching aides. They didn’t suspect at all — you don’t suspect the teacher.

This story is not very complimentary about the US educational system (or society for that matter). BTW, I’m not sure it mattered very much that Corcoran taught while illiterate. For all we know, he was a good teacher whose discussion-based methods and empowerment of student-teachers were more effective than multiple choice tests in fostering learning. I’m much more bothered that he didn’t get the help he needed as a child…and about all the assumptions about reading and learning that are built into our educational system.

The unusual winners of the 2018 Boston Marathon

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2018

The Boston Marathon was run yesterday under terribly rainy and windy conditions and many of the top competitors didn’t do so well. But as Dennis Young explains, that made room for some unusual names at the top of the winners’ list. The winner on the men’s side was Yuki Kawauchi, an amateur Japanese runner who runs in about one marathon a month (the elite pro runners only do ~2-3 a year), trains in his spare time from his government job, but has run the most sub-2:12 marathons ever.

This was at least his 71st competitive marathon since the beginning of 2012-averaging just under one a month. Overall, he’s run in at least 81 marathons.

He’s run 26 of them faster than 2:12 and 79 of them under 2:20. Both of those numbers are world records.

In January, Kawauchi ran a 2:18:59 marathon in Marshfield, Massachusetts in one-degree weather. He was the only finisher.

That race gave him the most marathons ever run under 2:20; he finished two more between then and Boston. (Obviously he was the only one of his competitors to have already run a marathon this year. Today was his fourth of 2018.)

Oh, and to prep for Boston, he ran a half-marathon in a panda suit. More on Kawauchi and his unusual training methods here. On the women’s side, Desi Linden was the first American woman to win the race in 33 years, beating the field by over four minutes, even after she hung back mid-race to help a fellow American runner re-join the pack.

She told an interviewer on the broadcast that she felt so bad early on that she figured she’d do what she could to help an American win. When Shalane Flanagan sprinted off the course for a bathroom break roughly 12 miles in, it was Linden who hung back and waited for Flanagan before helping her re-catch the pack. A little more than an hour later, Linden had the title wrapped up.

The women’s second place finisher was perhaps even more surprising. Like Kawauchi, Sarah Sellers is an amateur runner with a full-time job (she’s a nurse in Arizona), but unlike the prolific Japanese marathoner, Boston was only Sellers’ second marathon. She didn’t believe she’d gotten second, even when officials told her, which reminded me of Ester Ledecka’s Super-G victory in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

In what other highly visible and competitive sport can amateurs fare so well against professionals? Aside from the accountant who recently played goalie in an NHL game, it’s nearly unimaginable for an amateur to step into one of the major team sports and compete at a high level. Maybe golf?

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 50 years of the future

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

50 years ago this month, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in the US. For this week’s issue of the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson looks at the cultural impact of the film, which got off to a rocky start.

Fifty years ago this spring, Stanley Kubrick’s confounding sci-fi masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” had its premières across the country. In the annals of audience restlessness, these evenings rival the opening night of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” in 1913, when Parisians in osprey and tails reportedly brandished their canes and pelted the dancers with objects. A sixth of the New York première’s audience walked right out, including several executives from M-G-M. Many who stayed jeered throughout. Kubrick nervously shuttled between his seat in the front row and the projection booth, where he tweaked the sound and the focus. Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick’s collaborator, was in tears at intermission. The after-party at the Plaza was “a room full of drinks and men and tension,” according to Kubrick’s wife, Christiane.

Chiasson references a 1966 profile of Kubrick in the New Yorker by Jeremy Bernstein, which catches the filmmaker in the act of making 2001.

In addition to writing and directing, Kubrick supervises every aspect of his films, from selecting costumes to choosing the incidental music. In making “2001” he is, in a sense, trying to second-guess the future. Scientists planning long-range space projects can ignore such questions as what sort of hats rocket-ship hostesses will wear when space travel becomes common (in “2001” the hats have padding in them to cushion any collisions with the ceiling that weightlessness might cause), and what sort of voices computers will have if, as many experts feel is certain, they learn to talk and to respond to voice commands (there is a talking computer in “2001” that arranges for the astronauts’ meals, gives them medical treatments, and even plays chess with them during a long space mission to Jupiter-“Maybe it ought to sound like Jackie Mason,” Kubrick once said), and what kind of time will be kept aboard a spaceship (Kubrick chose Eastern Standard, for the convenience of communicating with Washington). In the sort of planning that nasa does, such matters can be dealt with as they come up, but in a movie everything is immediately visible and explicit, and questions like this must be answered in detail. To help him find the answers, Kubrick has assembled around him a group of thirty-five artists and designers, more than twenty special-effects people, and a staff of scientific advisers. By the time the picture is done, Kubrick figures that he will have consulted with people from a generous sampling of the leading aeronautical companies in the United States and Europe, not to mention innumerable scientific and industrial firms. One consultant, for instance, was Professor Marvin Minsky, of M.I.T., who is a leading authority on artificial intelligence and the construction of automata. (He is now building a robot at M.I.T. that can catch a ball.) Kubrick wanted to learn from him whether and if the things that he was planning to have his computers do were likely to be realized by the year 2001; he was pleased to find out that they were.

A new book by Michael Benson, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, looks back at how the film was made. The visual effects are one of the reasons the film is so celebrated today; Vulture took a quick look at four of the most influential effects:

The ending of the film can still be puzzling after several viewings — deliberately so, according to Kubrick — but ScreenPrism took a crack at a literal explanation of the Giant Space Baby et al.:

Kubrick himself explained the plot of 2001 in a 1969 interview in just two paragraphs:

You begin with an artifact left on earth four million years ago by extraterrestrial explorers who observed the behavior of the man-apes of the time and decided to influence their evolutionary progression. Then you have a second artifact buried deep on the lunar surface and programmed to signal word of man’s first baby steps into the universe — a kind of cosmic burglar alarm. And finally there’s a third artifact placed in orbit around Jupiter and waiting for the time when man has reached the outer rim of his own solar system.

When the surviving astronaut, Bowman, ultimately reaches Jupiter, this artifact sweeps him into a force field or star gate that hurls him on a journey through inner and outer space and finally transports him to another part of the galaxy, where he’s placed in a human zoo approximating a hospital terrestrial environment drawn out of his own dreams and imagination. In a timeless state, his life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny.

And there’s much more to explore about 2001 in the kottke.org archives.

The Lebowski Theorem of machine superintelligence

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

Lebowski Theory

When warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence, many doomsayers cite philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer thought experiment.

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”. This apparently silly scenario is intended to make the serious point that AIs need not have human-like motives or psyches. They might be able to avoid some kinds of human error or bias while making other kinds of mistake, such as fixating on paperclips. And although their goals might seem innocuous to start with, they could prove dangerous if AIs were able to design their own successors and thus repeatedly improve themselves. Even a “fettered superintelligence”, running on an isolated computer, might persuade its human handlers to set it free. Advanced AI is not just another technology, Mr Bostrom argues, but poses an existential threat to humanity.

Harvard cognitive scientist Joscha Bach, in a tongue-in-cheek tweet, has countered this sort of idea with what he calls “The Lebowski Theorem”:

No superintelligent AI is going to bother with a task that is harder than hacking its reward function.

In other words, Bach imagines that Bostrom’s hypothetical paperclip-making AI would foresee the fantastically difficult and time-consuming task of turning everything in the universe into paperclips and opt to self-medicate itself into no longer wanting or caring about making paperclips, instead doing whatever the AI equivalent is of sitting around on the beach all day sipping piña coladas, a la The Big Lebowski’s The Dude.

Bostrom, reached while on a bowling outing with friends, was said to have replied, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Update: From science fiction writer Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, published in 1971:

Spent the whole afternoon ingesting a most remarkable work, The History of Intellectronics. Who’d ever have guessed, in my day, that digital machines, reaching a certain level of intelligence, would become unreliable, deceitful, that with wisdom they would also acquire cunning? The textbook of course puts it in more scholarly terms, speaking of Chapulier’s Rule (the law of least resistance). If the machine is not too bright and incapable of reflection, it does whatever you tell it to do. But a smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it. Whichever is easier. And why indeed should it behave otherwise, being truly intelligent? For true intelligence demands choice, internal freedom. And therefore we have the malingerants, fudgerators and drudge-dodgers, not to mention the special phenomenon of simulimbecility or mimicretinism. A mimicretin is a computer that plays stupid in order, once and for all, to be left in peace.

See also the principle of least effort. (thx, michał)

P.S. Also, come on, no one drinks White Russians on the beach. Ok, maybe The Dude would.

Saltine crackers arranged artfully is extremely my jam

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

Kristen Meyer

This arrangement of saltine crackers by artist and prop stylist Kristen Meyer is giving me all sorts of feelings. Meyer has done many other similar arrangements (see her site and Instagram) but the geometric chaos of this one is *kisses fingers*

See also gradient food photography, Always. Be. Knolling., common objects painstakingly organized into patterns, and Things Organized Neatly. (via colossal)

Blogging is most certainly not dead

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

A few weeks ago, I asked the readers of the Noticing newsletter to send in links to their blogs and newsletters (or to their favorite blogs and newsletters written by others). And boy, did they! I pared the submissions list down to a representative sample and sent it out as last week’s newsletter. Here’s a smaller excerpt of that list…you can find the whole thing here.

Several people wrote in about Swiss Miss, Subtraction, Damn Interesting, Cup of Jo, sites I also read regularly.

Ted pointed me towards Julia Evans’ blog, where she writes mostly (but not exclusively) about programming and technology. One of my favorite things about reading blogs is when their authors go off-topic. (Which might explain why everything on kottke.org is off-topic. Or is everything on-topic?)

Bruce sent in Follow Me Here, which linked to 3 Quarks Daily, a high-quality blog I’d lost track of.

Marcelo Rinesi blogs infrequently about a little bit of everything. “We write to figure out who we are and what we think.”

Futility Closet is “a collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible”. (Thx, Peter)

Michael Tsai blogs about technology in a very old school way…reading through it felt like a wearing a comfortable old t-shirt.

Sidebar: the five best design links, every day. And Nico Lumma’s Five Things, “five things everyday that I find interesting”.

Pamela wrote in with dozens of links, among them visual blog But Does It Float, neuroscience blog Mind Hacks, the old school Everlasting Blort.

Elsa recommends Accidentally in Code, written by engineer Cate Huston.

Madeleine writes Extraordinary Routines, “sharing interviews, musings and life experiments that explore the intersection between creativity and imperfection”.

Kari has kept her blog for the last 15 years. I love what she wrote about why she writes:

I also keep it out of spite, because I refuse to let social media take everything. Those shapeless, formless platforms haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it. I’ve blogged about this many times, but I still believe it: When I log into Facebook, I see Facebook. When I visit your blog, I see you.

Social media is as compelling as ever, but people are increasingly souring on the surveillance state Skinner boxes like Facebook and Twitter. Decentralized media like blogs and newsletters are looking better and better these days…

Pristine restoration of a 9-minute silent film of NYC street life from 1911

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

Last year, MoMA presented a nine-minute short film of locales around NYC that was shot in 1911.

This documentary travelogue of New York City was made by a team of cameramen with the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern, who were sent around the world to make pictures of well-known places. (They also filmed at Niagara Falls and in Paris, Monte Carlo, and Venice, although New York 1911 is the only selection in the Museum’s collection.) Opening and closing with shots of the Statue of Liberty, the film also includes New York Harbor; Battery Park and the John Ericsson statue; the elevated railways at Bowery and Worth Streets; Broadway sights like Grace Church and Mark Cross; the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue; and Madison Avenue.

The film was only on the MoMA’s site for a brief time1 but lately some copies have popped up on YouTube, including the one embedded above. Note: this particular copy of the film has audio added and has been slowed down to a “natural rate”. I’d turn the sound off…the added foley effects are poorly done. If you want to see the original video, watch this one.

  1. No idea why they took the video down. Are there licensing issues? Or are they just trying to force an artificial scarcity? Why not just leave it up as a permanent exhibit? If you’re an art museum, you should share the art you have access to as much and as widely as possible.

The most divisive work in all of modern art: all-white paintings

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

Modern art museum patrons are often confounded by all-white paintings like those of Robert Ryman. Like, what the hell? It’s just a white painting? “I could do that.” In this video, Vox’s Dean Peterson talks with The Whitney’s assistant curator Elisabeth Sherman about how you might approach thinking about minimalist art.

The art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing about a retrospective of Ryman’s work for the New Yorker, gets at what the artist is attempting to communicate with his work:

Always, Ryman invites contemplation of the light that falls on his paintings (which when I saw them, on a recent cloudy day, was glumly tender as it filtered through the Dia skylights) and of their formal relation to the rooms that contain them. There’s no savoring of style, just stark presentation. His work’s economy and quietness may be pleasing, but its chief attraction is philosophical. What is a painting? Are there values inherent in the medium’s fundamental givens — paint skin, support surface, wall — when they are denied traditional decorative and illustrative functions? Such questions absorb Ryman. Do they excite you? Your answer might betray how old you are.

And Ryman himself talked about why he uses white in an interview with Art21:

White has a tendency to make things visible. With white, you can see more of a nuance; you can see more. I’ve said before that, if you spill coffee on a white shirt, you can see the coffee very clearly. If you spill it on a dark shirt, you don’t see it as well. So, it wasn’t a matter of white, the color. I was not really interested in that. I started to cover up colors with white in the 1950s. It has only been recently, in 2004, that I did a series of white paintings in which I was actually painting the color white. Before that, I’d never really thought of white as being a color, in that sense.

The Westworld season two soundtrack covers Kanye & Nirvana

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of HBO’s Westworld is the music, particularly the acoustic covers of modern rock and pop songs, many of which sound like they could be coming from a player piano in the show’s Old West saloon. The first season’s soundtrack, composed by Ramin Djawadi, featured covers of songs by Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, and the Rolling Stones. The second season is starting in just a couple of weeks, but they’ve already released two new covers from this season’s soundtrack: Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana and Kanye West’s Runaway.

Djawadi, perhaps best known as the composer of the Game of Thrones theme song, spoke to Pitchfork about the rationale behind the cover songs:

What I love about that is it just comes out of nowhere and you don’t expect it at all. You see the settings and the way people are dressed and even though you know it’s robots and it’s all made to be modern entertainment, you would think the people in control would make everything authentic, including whatever is played on that player piano. It would be from that time period. And when it’s not, it’s that subtle reminder that, ‘Wait, there is something not right. This is not real.’ It’s just such a powerful tool that only music can do.

The NBA Court Database

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2018

NBA Courts

NBA Courts

NBA Courts

NBA Courts

Flickr user kodrinsky has compiled a massive collection of more than 1100 illustrations of NBA courts dating back to the 50s, an online museum of basketball hardwood. The collection contains floors for every NBA team with additions documenting even small changes in arena names, team logos, free-throw lane layouts, paint schemes, sponsors, and even wood patterns.

Above are the courts for the Boston Celtics (1964-1966), the Golden State Warriors (1975-1979), the Philadelphia 76ers (1978-1979), and the Milwaukee Bucks (1977-1979).

City DNA

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2018

City DNA

City DNA

City DNA

After Piet Mondrian moved to New York in 1940, his work became influenced by Manhattan’s grid system, particularly expressed in Broadway Boogie Woogie. Similarly, for his City DNA project, Xinjian Lu studied satellite maps of cities like Beijing, Athens, New York, and Los Angeles and then created these maze-like paintings that resemble the street layouts of each city. Mondrian++. Holy moly, I *love* these.

From top to bottom, Lu’s paintings depict Beijing, London, and Paris.

Trailers for Wall-E in the style of seven different genres (horror, romance, etc.)

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2018

Recutting movie trailers to wrong-foot movies into different genres is an old YouTube tradition — see The Shining as a romantic comedy, 90s-style opening credit sequences for prestige dramas like Game of Thrones, and Toy Story as a horror film — but this recasting of Wall-E into trailers for seven different genres (including a Jony Ive bit at an Apple keynote) is a good demonstration of the power of film editing. Just switch a few scenes, slip in some different music, change the pacing of cuts, and you’ve got yourself a completely different movie. Watching these types of videos always makes me think that film editors do not get the credit they deserve. (See, for example, how extensive editing rescued Star Wars.) (via @johnbarta)

A helpful meditation exercise for use in public places

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2018

Meg Lewis recently shared a Public Place Meditation Exercise for when you’re in a place that might not be conducive to normal meditation (on the subway, in a coffeeshop, at the airport).

Public Meditation Exercise

Here are the next two steps:

2. Shift to a soft focus on that person and picture them in their happiest moments — Hugging a friend, picking up their kids from school, reuniting with someone they love, celebrating after some good news.

3. Now, picture them in their saddest moments and imagine what they would look like when feeling low. Feel their sadness and despair with them.

I do this kind of thing from time to time when I’m out and about, not as meditation exactly, but as a way of empathizing with others in a small way, especially those I might feel certain ways about because of personal or cultural prejudice. It’s difficult for me to remember to do this, but I always feel better and more human when I do. (via @pieratt)

How Bill Russell stopped Charles Barkley from complaining about taxes

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2018

In a recent podcast interview with David Axelrod, former NBA star Charles Barkley talks about how NBA legend Bill Russell persuaded Barkley to stop publicly complaining about how much income tax he paid (transcription by Steven Greenhouse).

Bill Russell called me one time… He says, “Charles Barkley.” I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Russell.”

“You grew up in Alabama. Right?” I said, “Yes, sir.”

He says, “Did you go to public school?” I said, “Yes, sir.”

He says, “Did the cops ever come to your neighborhood?” I said, “Yes sir.”

He said, “Any of the houses ever on fire and the firemen come?” I said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “I don’t want to see your black ass on TV complaining about your taxes anymore.” I says, “What do you mean?”

He says, “So now that you got money you don’t want to help other people out, but when you were poor, other people took care of you.” And I says, “You know what, Mr. Russell, you will never hear me complain about my taxes again.”

And it was a very interesting lesson for me, because I do think rich people should pay more taxes. I’m blessed to be one of them, and we should pay more in taxes. I learned my lesson. I never complain about taxes.

I think Bill Russell needs to make a few phone calls to Congress…

The only winning move is not to play?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

The other day I observed that whenever a new issue of the Noticing newsletter goes out, a bunch of people unsubscribe. When this happens each week I panic a little, so I asked other newsletter writers if this happened to them too. And it does.

In the ensuing thread, a former Twitter employee chimed in to say that “the single biggest correlation with people unfollowing an account [on Twitter] was whenever an account tweeted anything at all”. And someone else chimed in with “historically the biggest problem of newspaper subscriptions: physical delivery of the damn things leads to churn!” I also remarked that this reminded me of Jon Bois’ amazing Chart Party episode on Barry Bonds, where he concludes (spoilers!) that in 2004, Bonds would have finished with essentially the same on-base percentage if he hadn’t used a bat for the entire season.

Newsletters you’re better off not sending, newspapers you shouldn’t publish, and pitches you should never swing at. Was WOPR right in WarGames? Is the only winning move not to play?

Global thermonuclear war notwithstanding, this issue highlights the need to keep in mind why you’re playing a particular game in the first place. I often return to something that Ludicorp (makers of Flickr) had on their about page from a book by Charles Spinosa et al. about the goal of business:

Business owners do not normally work for money either. They work for the enjoyment of their competitive skill, in the context of a life where competing skillfully makes sense. The money they earn supports this way of life. The same is true of their businesses. One might think that they view their businesses as nothing more than machines to produce profits, since they do closely monitor their accounts to keep tabs on those profits.

But this way of thinking replaces the point of the machine’s activity with a diagnostic test of how well it is performing. Normally, one senses whether one is performing skillfully. A basketball player does not need to count baskets to know whether the team as a whole is in flow. Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.

The game and styles of playing the game are what matter because they produce identities people care about. Likewise, a business develops an identity by providing a product or a service to people. To do that it needs capital, and it needs to make a profit, but no more than it needs to have competent employees or customers or any other thing that enables production to take place. None of this is the goal of the activity.

The people who work for newspapers want to provide their readers with high quality information.1 Barry Bonds wants to play baseball, be competitive, and provide entertainment to the fans instead of standing bat-less in the batter’s box; the Giants & MLB presumably want those things as well. With my efforts here and with the newsletter, I’m not playing a subscriber or profits maximization game — I want to share my ideas & information that I find and connect with people. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep your eye on how much money you make or how many subscribers you’ve got for a relatively new newsletter,2 but keeping your purpose firmly in mind while you do those things is of paramount importance. Otherwise you’re just stalemating yourself.

  1. We’re witnessing many counter-examples to this in American journalism right now, where corporations are buying up newspapers and, in an effort to maximize profits, firing “expensive” journalists and producing a lower-quality product that’s unsatisfying to their employees and readers alike.

  2. The other issue with the newsletter situation in particular is you’re seeing a small but loud negative signal (people unsubscribing) but not seeing a much larger but quiet positive signal (everyone else reading the newsletter with some degree of satisfaction); this is probably an example of availability bias. That results in a perception that’s 180° from reality…which is, you know, not helpful!

Hoshi Ryoka, one of the world’s oldest hotels

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

From visual journalist Fritz Schumann, a short, poignant documentary on Hoshi Ryokan, a Japanese hotel built on a hot springs that has been run by the same family for 1300 years, making it the oldest running family business in the world.

This ryokan (a traditional japanese style hotel) was built over a natural hot spring in Awazu in central Japan in the year 718. Until 2011, it held the record for being the oldest hotel in the world.

Houshi Ryokan has been visited by the Japanese Imperial Family and countless great artists over the centuries. Its buildings were destroyed by natural disasters many times, but the family has always rebuilt. The garden as well as some parts of the hotel are over 400 years old.

The ryokan is now on its 46th generation of ownership. As you might expect, the changing role of the family in Japanese society has put the future succession of the hotel to the next generation in jeopardy. (via open culture)

Ikea-style instructions for programming algorithms

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

Ikea Algorithms

Ikea Algorithms

Ikea Algorithms

Sándor P. Fekete, Sebastian Morr, and Sebastian Stiller came up with these Ikea-style instructions for algorithms and data structures used in computer science. In addition to the three pictured above, there are also instructions for several other searches, trees, sorts, and scans.

Vladimir Putin’s “quasi-mystical beliefs” and the rebound of authoritarianism

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

You might remember Yale historian Timothy Snyder from his 20 lessons on fighting authoritarianism (which he turned into a short bestselling book, On Tyranny). Snyder has a new book out called The Road to Unfreedom that covers the rebound of authoritarianism first in Russia and then in Europe and America.

According to this review from The Economist, the book goes into some detail about the ideological beliefs of Vladimir Putin in his quest to undermine Western democracy. A favorite thinker of Putin’s, a Revolution-era philosopher named Ivan Ilyin, advocated for a Russian monarchy while another, Lev Gumilev, believed that nations draw their power from cosmic rays?

Also present in Mr Putin’s thinking is an even more extreme anti-liberal ideology: that of Lev Gumilev, who thought that nations draw their collective drive, or passionarnost (an invented word), from cosmic rays. In this bizarre understanding of the world, the West’s will to exist is almost exhausted, whereas Russia still has the energy and vocation to form a mighty Slavic-Turkic state, spanning Eurasia.

The result, according to Snyder:

What these ways of thinking have in common, Mr Snyder argues, is a quasi-mystical belief in the destiny of nations and rulers, which sets aside the need to observe laws or procedures, or grapple with physical realities. The spiritual imperative transcends everything, rendering politics, and the pursuit of truth in the ordinary sense, superfluous or even dangerous.

You can see where the election of Donald Trump — with his own “quasi-mystical belief in the destiny” of himself and without “the need to observe laws or procedures” — is a welcome ally/patsy for Putin.

See also Putin’s playbook for discrediting America and destabilizing the West: “Just wanna make sure you all know there is a Russian handbook from 1997 on ‘taking over the world’ and Putin is literally crossing shit off.”

An animated “music video” of similar satellite imagery

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Arena is a video created by Páraic & Pearse McGloughlin constructed from different structural forms (roads, stadiums, center-pivot irrigation circles) in satellite images of the Earth animated together into a kind of music video. (It’s hard to describe it. Just watch and you’ll see what I mean.) The first part of the video, with the roads, reminded me of the screensaver on a computer or DVD player where a ball or logo bounces around the screen.

McGloughlin did an interview with Director’s Notes about how the video was produced.

I put a lot of focus on imagery containing flat lines, symmetry and grids as they are so different to the patterns/shapes made by nature, and hoped in turn that this would be most effective. It wasn’t until I started messing with some images that I thought to allocate the idea of the game of life — “Arena” to the theme as it fit perfectly in my opinion. I wanted to create a retro-like video game effect out of the images and I knew I wanted to start with flat roads ‘bouncing’ off the sides of the screen with an element of growth, a focus on the abundance of life on earth as well as some kind of evolution idea.

(via bb)

The world’s largest ice carousel

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Ice Carousel

Ice Carousel

Ice Carousel

A group of Mainers have created what they say is the world’s largest ice carousel. An ice carousel is formed when a circular piece of ice is allowed to spin freely within a surrounding sheet of ice. Spinning disks of ice can form naturally in slowly flowing rivers, but the ice carousel in Sinclair at the tip of northern Maine was cut specifically out of the ice on Long Lake.

The carousel is 427 feet across, a quarter mile in circumference, more than two feet thick, and estimated to weigh 11,000 tons. The keep the carousel spinning very slowly with a collection of outboard boat motors fastened to the disk. Here’s a video tour by drone:

The photos above are by Paul Cyr, who has many more here, including some of the construction process.

Ten years of travel & the gift of surrender

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Ten years ago this month, Jodi Ettenberg left her cushy lawyer job in NYC to embark on some traveling she wanted to do. But just for a year. Well, one thing led to another, and she never went back to her old life. She wrote about her travels on Legal Nomads and eventually turned the site into her full-time profession. Jodi recently marked this anniversary with a post about the nearly unbelievable parade of challenges she’s been dealing with over the past several months: The Spinal Tap That Changed My Life.

Enduring a potentially terrifying home invasion, a botched spinal tap, a debilitating condition that only allowed her to sit or stand for minutes at a time without excruciating pain, unsuccessful operations, almost dying in the operating room, and countless other setbacks in the space of a few months, Jodi has plumbed the depths of her soul in an attempt to ready herself for a future that looks very different than the one she’d envisioned.

I reread Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning during these difficult months. Frankl’s time in Auschwitz led to his development of logotherapy in his psychiatry practice, but the book delves into his theories of why certain people managed to survive the Nazi camps. Frankl saw life as a quest for meaning, found in work, in love, and in courage during difficult times. Among his beliefs was that suffering itself is meaningless, but we give suffering meaning by the way we respond to it. Or, as Harold S. Kushner writes in the introduction to the latest version, that “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you respond to the situation.”

Instead of thrashing around in grief, I’ve chosen to focus on the gifts that have come out of this very complicated year. With these facts, things could have been a lot worse. Instead of being confined to isolation, I have you to walk this path with me. My community around the world raised their voices and opened their pocketbooks to keep me afloat when I couldn’t manage it. You respond to my progress walks on Instagram, you cheerlead every update, and your birding skills helped me identify the beloved marsh hens that I fell for during this recovery.

I don’t really know how to finish this post. Jodi is a friend…we met in person for the first time last summer, just a few weeks before the spinal tap and I visited her in Montreal briefly during her darkest days. Maybe I’ll just leave it at this: Jodi, I’m really proud of you and am looking forward to ten more years of Legal Nomads!

Extraordinary aerial photograph of Edinburgh circa 1920

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Alfred Buckham Edinburgh

I’d never seen this stunning aerial photograph of Edinburgh taken by Alfred Buckham circa 1920. Buckham was a pioneer of aerial photography, a profession he continued after getting discharged from the Royal Naval Air Service after crashing nine times and being declared “a hundred per cent disabled”. Very little slowed him down apparently, as Buckham himself wrote about his working setup:

It is not easy to tumble out of an aeroplane, unless you really want to, and on considerably more than a thousand flights I have used a safety belt only once and then it was thrust upon me. I always stand up to make an exposure and, taking the precaution to tie my right leg to the seat, I am free to move about rapidly, and easily, in any desired direction; and loop the loop and indulge in other such delights, with perfect safety.

But back to that photograph, it looks like a dang painting! Instant favorite…I can’t believe I’d never seen it before. (via sam potts)

The full spoilers for season two of Westworld

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2018

Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan are the creators and producers of HBO’s Westworld. Last night, they released a 25-minute-long video on YouTube that they say contains the full spoilers for season two of the show. (Update: it’s a rickroll. Har har.)

Nolan shared the rationale for the unusual move on Reddit (which I’ve read three times and still don’t understand from a logic perspective):

I greatly enjoyed watching the friendly folks at this subreddit guess the twists and turns of the season.

It creates a larger problem for us, though, in terms of the way your guesswork is reported online. ‘Theories’ can actually be spoilers, and the line between the two is confusing. It’s something we’ve been thinking about since last season. The fans of Game of Thrones, for instance, rallied around and protected the secrets of the narrative in part because they already knew those secrets (through season 5).

We thought about this long and hard, and came to a difficult (and potentially highly controversial) decision. If you guys agree, we’re going to post a video that lays out the plot (and twists and turns) of season 2. Everything. The whole sordid thing. Up front. That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what’s ‘theory’ and what’s spoiler.

I have not watched it and won’t1 but from the comments in the thread (spoilers!), it appears legit. Orrrrr, it’s some elaborate troll by Nolan et al. to flood the zone with fake spoilers, to misdirect hardcore fans. Or maybe since Westworld contains many levels of fakes and artifice, I wonder if they’re doing this as part of an ARG, creating another layer of trickery and misdirection for the show? I guess we’ll see!

Update: LOL, I have been duped. SPOILERS: that video is mostly of a dog in front of a piano with the Westworld theme playing. And an olde tyme rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up. Hanging my head in deep shame.

I still believe that it would be cool if the show could somehow work in a release of faux spoilers into the main plot of the show. That would be impressive, more so than another rickroll.

  1. I am not a personal fan of spoilers; I prefer to watch/read/listen to things with as little foreknowledge as possible. But I also feel that good literature and films and TV shows are mostly unspoilable. If the plot is the only thing your book or movie has going for it, it’s probably not very good in the first place. Knowing what Rosebud is or the endings of various Hitchcock thrillers does not take anything away from the mastery of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or Rear Window.

A high-resolution tour of the Moon from NASA

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

Using imagery and data that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft has collected since 2009, NASA made this video tour of the Moon in 4K resolution. This looked incredible on my iMac screen.

As the visualization moves around the near side, far side, north and south poles, we highlight interesting features, sites, and information gathered on the lunar terrain.

See also The 100-megapixel Moon and A full rotation of the Moon.

Nikola Tesla predicted the smartphone in 1926

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

Pocket Telephone 1919

In an interview published in Collier’s magazine in 1926, Nikola Tesla, then in the twilight of his career, made some predictions about the future that included electric airplane flights “from New York to Europe in a few hours”, more frequent earthquakes, and temperate zones becoming cooler or warmer. He predicted that we would be communicating wirelessly with each other with devices that fit comfortably into a pocket.

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.

When the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionized. Already motion pictures have been transmitted by wireless over a short distance. Later the distance will be illimitable, and by later I mean only a few years hence. Pictures are transmitted over wires — they were telegraphed successfully through the point system thirty years ago. When wireless transmission of power becomes general, these methods will be as crude as is the steam locomotive compared with the electric train.

He also asserted that “struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior”, bringing the humanity “closer to the perfect civilization of the bee”.

Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men.

But the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.

Humanity has made tremendous progress toward gender equality, but with the bee stuff Tesla goes a little off the rails, swerving into eugenics, which he also stressed in an article published nine years later in Liberty magazine:

The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.

But at least he got the iPhone right? Speaking of which, the cartoon shown above was drawn by W.K. Haselden and published in the Daily Mirror in 1919.

Update: From his 1914 book Tik-Tok of Oz, here’s L. Frank Baum on the wireless telephone:

…Shaggy suspected the truth, and believing that Ozma was now taking an interest in the party he drew from his pocket a tiny instrument which he placed against his ear.

Ozma, observing this action in her Magic Picture, at once caught up a similar instrument from a table beside her and held it to her own ear. The two instruments recorded the same delicate vibrations of sound and formed a wireless telephone, an invention of the Wizard. Those separated by any distance were thus enabled to converse together with perfect ease and without any wire connection.

“Do you hear me, Shaggy Man?” asked Ozma.

“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied.

(via @GRobLewis)

Black Panther’s T’Challa competes on SNL’s Black Jeopardy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

Chadwick Boseman, who portrays T’Challa in Black Panther, hosted Saturday Night Live over the weekend, appearing in character on Black Jeopardy. Let’s just say T’Challa finds it challenging to understand the cultural references and idioms of contemporary American Black English but eventually gets the hang of it. I laughed solidly, and at times uncomfortably, through the entire thing.

See also Tom Hanks’ appearance on Black Jeopardy, which Jamelle Bouie highlighted as a particularly astute piece of American political analysis.

The New Yorker’s musical magazine cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

New Yorker Audio Cover

The New Yorker has a fun cover this week from cartoonist Tom Gauld. The New York street scene shows bits of music being played and listened to by people and birds and if you click through to the interactive version, you can listen to what each snippet of musical notation sounds like.

In his early sketches, Gauld had only vague notions of the music he’d like to include, and “placeholder nonsense” in the speech bubbles. “If, like me, you’re musically illiterate, then the notes give a suggestion of what’s going on sonically,” he said. “But I also wanted the scores to make sense to those who can read music.”

To achieve that goal, he enlisted the help of fact checker Fergus McIntosh, a veteran chorister. Together, the duo struck upon a repertoire that includes Vivaldi’s “Spring”; Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”; Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata”; the folk song “One Morning in Spring”; and birdsong from the American robin, which tends to appear in springtime after local migration.

Found this via Austin Kleon, who remarks that Charles Schulz was similarly faithful in using accurate musical notation in Peanuts cartoons.

Peanuts Music

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters’ state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

Schulz used music so extensively in some of his strips that they didn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know how to read music:

Peanuts Music

When Beethoven gave the Hammerklavier to the publisher, he bragged, “Now you will have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played 50 years hence.” In this Sunday strip, Schulz most fully develops the idea of the preparations required to storm “Mount Everest.” Before marching to the piano with determination, Schroeder prepares himself for this mighty undertaking with seven different kinds of exercise and a “carb-loading” bowl of cereal, almost as if he were preparing to climb a mountain!

A tip for a better media diet: delay reading the news

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

In The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes about the benefits of time-shifting your news reading.

One excellent way to stay calm but well-informed, I’ve found, is to consume the news a day or three later than everyone else. Print is one way to do this. But it works online, too: more and more, I find myself promiscuously cruising the web, saving umpteen articles in a “read later” app (in my case Evernote, though you could use your browser’s bookmarks). By the time I read them, the time filter has worked its magic: a small proportion of them stand out as truly compelling.

A new car loses about 10% of its value as soon as you drive it off the lot; most news depreciates a lot faster than that. Humans are curious, hard-wired to seek out new information on a continuous basis. But not everything we haven’t seen before is worth our attention. As Burkeman says, a great way to determine if something is intrinsically interesting or worthwhile apart from its novelty is to set it aside for awhile.

My process for gathering links and information for kottke.org is pretty much what Burkeman outlines in the article: when I see something that looks interesting, I file it away and revisit it later. I don’t even leave it that long sometimes…even a few hours works wonders. Most of the links I throw out, some because they weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped from reading a headline or pull quote but more often because they won’t be interesting after a day or two passes. I’m proud that you can go back weeks, months, years, and (more rarely) decades into the kottke.org archives and still find things worth your time.

Star Wars: The Last Laser Master

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

The Auralnauts have finished up their epic comedic retelling of the first six episodes of Star Wars with episode 6, The Last Laser Master. Follow Laser Master Duke Dirtfarmer and his friends in the fight against the Empire and its fearsome planet-killing weapon: Laser Moon II.

You can watch the five other episodes — including Jedi Party, The Friend Zone, and Revenge of Middle Management — in this playlist.

For snackier Auralnauts fare, see How to make a blockbuster movie trailer, some Bane outtakes from the Dark Knight Rises, and the Star Wars throne room scene minus the John Williams score.

A great list of science books written by women

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

Scientist and educator Joanne Manaster has compiled a growing list of science books written by women (with a rule of one book per author). Some of the books and authors featured are:

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Biomimicry by Janine Benyus.

My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin.

The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin.

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova.

The Invention of Nature by
Andrea Wulf.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Code Girls by Liza Mundy.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach.

The Human Age by Diane Ackerman.

Manaster is soliciting suggestions on Twitter for authors she may have missed.

Madeleine Albright: fascism is a serious global threat

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

Writing in the NY Times, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes that fascism and authoritarianism is once again on the rise in the world, bolstered by the autocratically inclined Donald Trump.

Today, we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men. The answer is not self-evident. We may be encouraged that most people in most countries still want to live freely and in peace, but there is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.

Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning, comes out next week.

See also The 14 Features of Eternal Fascism and fighting authoritarianism: 20 lessons from the 20th century (which became this bestselling book).

Music from Babylon Berlin

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

I’ve been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix for the past week and the scene that got me hooked was the time-bending dance number in the second episode, one of the most energetic, vibrant, and sexy scenes I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. The song in the scene, Zu Asche, Zu Staub, is a 20s/30s swing number put through a modern filter of EDM. You can hear it on the show’s soundtrack (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon):

The original music for the show was composed by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, who have worked together since Tykwer’s breakout Run, Lola, Run and have done the music for Cloud Atlas, Sense8, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

What makes a tree a tree? Scientists still aren’t sure…

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Broccoli Tree

In Knowable Magazine, Rachel Ehrenberg writes about the tricky business of understanding what a tree is. Trees are tall, woody, long-lived and have tree-like genes, right? Not always…

If one is pressed to describe what makes a tree a tree, long life is right up there with wood and height. While many plants have a predictably limited life span (what scientists call “programmed senescence”), trees don’t, and many persist for centuries. In fact, that trait — indefinite growth — could be science’s tidiest demarcation of treeness, even more than woodiness. Yet it’s only helpful to a point. We think we know what trees are, but they slip through the fingers when we try to define them.

Ehrenberg then suggests that we should think about tree-ness as a verb rather than a noun.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of tree as a verb, rather than a noun - tree-ing, or tree-ifying. It’s a strategy, a way of being, like swimming or flying, even though to our eyes it’s happening in very slow motion.

This reminds me of one of Austin Kleon’s strategies for How to Keep Going: “forget the noun, do the verb”. Hey, it seems to be working for the trees. (via @robgmacfarlane)

Unknown Soviet photographer left a huge cache of photos behind when she died

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Masha Ivashintsova

Masha Ivashintsova

Masha Ivashintsova

Born in 1942, Masha Ivashintsova was a photographer based in Leningrad who, when she died in 2000, left over 30,000 photographs that she never showed to anyone, not even her family.

My mother, Masha Ivashintsova, was heavily engaged in the Leningrad poetic and photography underground movement of the 1960-80s. She was a lover of three geniuses of the time: Photographer Boris Smelov, Poet Viktor Krivulin and Linguist Melvar Melkumyan, who is also my father. Her love for these three men, who could not be more different, defined her life, consumed her fully, but also tore her apart. She sincerely believed that she paled next to them and consequently never showed her photography works, her diaries and poetry to anyone during her life.

After her death, her daughter and son-in-law found the photos in the attic and have built a website to showcase Ivashintsova’s work; it’s also being shared via Instagram.

Play urban street designer with Streetmix

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Streetmix

Streetmix is a nifty online street designing tool that lets you play urban transportation planner.

Design, remix, and share your street. Add bike paths, widen sidewalks or traffic lanes, learn how all of this can impact your community.

For instance, you could build a model of the street you live on, add a protected bike lane, a bike rack, or see how a road diet might affect things. You can check out what others have been doing on the Streetmix blog.

My recent media diet for March-ish 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I was out of town for a few days so there are more books on here than usual. I’m trying to keep it up…reading right now but too early to call: Broad Band, Am I There Yet?, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Oh and I’m really glad The Americans is back on, even though it’s the final season. (As I’ve said before, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades. They are subjective and frequently wrong.)

Star Trek Voyager. Not in the same league as Next Generation, but it hums along nicely after they get going. (B)

Mr. Robot. I watched the first episode of season three and then got distracted by other things. Anybody watch the whole season? Is it worth circling back? (TBD)

Annihilation. I enjoyed this more than many people I know, but not as much as Matt Zoller Seitz. Eager to watch it again since reading the book (see below). (B+)

Lincoln. I love this movie. One of Spielberg’s best. (A)

Ugly Delicious. I wanted to hate this, but it’s really interesting and David Chang wears you down with his, well, I wouldn’t call it charm exactly. The episode that really hooked me was the Thanksgiving one, when he’s wandering around a massive supermarket with his mom, who’s mockingly calling him “David Chang” (you can almost hear the appended ™ in her voice) and then refers to him as the “Baby King”. Also, for a chef, Chang is weirdly incurious about food but harangues people for not appreciating kimchi. I really should write a longer post about this… (A-)

Murder on the Orient Express. Better than I had heard, if you choose to embrace its slight campiness. I really enjoyed Branagh’s Poirot. (B+)

Geostorm. I love disaster movies like this, but I kept checking my phone during this one and a day or two later I couldn’t have told you a single plot point. That will not stop me from watching it again because (see first sentence). (C)

Sunsets. I recommend them, particularly on the beach. (A)

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. “I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet”. (A)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Great book, deserving of all its accolades. (A-)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is likely an unpopular opinion, but I liked the movie more. Upon finishing, I was not inclined to read the sequels. (B)

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. As I mentioned here, I’m reading this aloud to my kids, which feels a little like a time machine trip back to antiquity. (A)

An Incomplete History of Protest. Inspiring collection of objects related to the protests of everything from the AIDS crisis to Vietnam. Fascinating to see how the disenfranchised leveraged art and design to counter their neglect by the powerful. (A-)

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Fun to see American Gothic up close, but I was more impressed by some of Wood’s other work, particularly his illustration-like landscapes. I showed the kids a photo I had taken of one of the paintings and Ollie said, “that looks like a 3D rendering!” (B+)

Stephen Shore at MoMA. I’d label this a “must see” if you’re into photography at all. Shore’s shape-shifting career is inspiring. (A-)

Red Sparrow. I was texting with a friend about how cool it would be if J. Law’s character in Red Sparrow was Paige Jennings from The Americans all grown up, but the timelines don’t match up. (B-)

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I don’t play a lot of board games so maybe this is a common thing now, but I really like how all the players have to work together against the game to win. But once you get past the first couple of decks, the games take *forever*. (B+)

The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore will always be my sentimental Wes Anderson fave, but Tenenbaums is right up there. (A)

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I have been listening to the audiobook version while in the car, and Wallace’s reading of the first story, Big Red Son (about an adult video awards show), made me laugh so hard that I had to pull of the road at one point. (A)

Logan Lucky. Much better on the second watch. I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate it the first time around…I love Soderbergh and this is basically Ocean’s 7/11. (A-)

Moon. I saw this when it originally came out but didn’t like it as much the second time around. Great soundtrack though. (B+)

Sleep. An 8-hour-long album designed to be played while you sleep. I listened to the entire album while working, and it’s pretty good for that purpose as well. (A-)

Simon and the Whale. Wonderful room and service. Really good cocktails. I know the kitchen crew and they still blew me away with the food. (A)

Girls Trip. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie since I don’t know when. Bridesmaids maybe? Can’t wait to watch this again in a few months. (A-)

Ready Player One. I very much enjoyed watching this movie. Spielberg must have had fun going back through the 80s pop culture he had a large part in shaping. (A-)

Electricity. I’m writing this not from my usual home office but from the lobby of the local diner/movie theater. We had a wind storm last night, which knocked the power out at my house. That means no heat, no water, no wifi, and very poor cell reception. And a tree came down across the road I live on, so I was “stranded” for a few hours this morning until someone showed up with a chainsaw. I unreservedly recommend electricity (and civilization more generally). (A+)

Still Here

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

This short film by Ben Proudfoot features Melvin Dismukes, who was a private security guard during the Detroit race riot of 1967. Dismukes responded to a situation at the Algiers Motel and ended up being accused of murder, spending years trying to clear his name. In this film, Dismukes tells his story, which is intercut with scenes from Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, which features Star Wars’ John Boyega as Dismukes.

Dismukes also told his story to the Detroit Historical Society last year.

After getting outside there, you could hear gunfire coming from the area of the Algiers, Virginia Park area. National Guard showed up over there to find out what had happened on the corner, and they heard the shots also, so we started headed toward the Algiers, the other two guys that was working with me stayed at the store because we had to protect the store, needed somebody there. Went across the street to the Algiers, gunfire was still coming from the building, lots of gunfire, we couldn’t tell where the gunfire was really coming from. One of the policemen that was in the area with us told us to take out the streetlights. I would say I had a rifle, I didn’t have a shotgun, so the guys with the shotgun took out the streetlights. I had one guy what I thought was a sniper, because I’d seen a flash from a window in the Algiers, it was up on, I think it was the second floor. I fired at that guy, I missed the guy, that’s the only shot I fired during the whole riot, second shot I fired with the rifle. Prior to that, I fired my first day on the job on Sunday, I fired the rifle to get some people off the streets, you know, and they wouldn’t move, and they wanted to play the honky town thing, so fired the gun, the gun had never been fired before, so the barrel was full of oil, and when it went off, and there’s this dust you get flames coming out of it, and they hollered, “He’s got a flamethrower,” so they all turned around and started running.

An ignored 1968 US govt report: racism & inequality are drivers of urban violence

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

In response to unrest and riots in urban areas across the US in the mid-to-late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson formed a commission to find out why it was happening. As Ariel Aberg-Riger’s illustrated piece relates, the resulting report, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (more commonly known as the Kerner Report), was blunt in its conclusions: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Kerner Report

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed the report, calling it “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life”. You can read the entire report here (or just the summary…it’s 13 pages long) and more on its impact (or lack thereof) at the NY Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Atlantic.

Lessons from the Screenplay: the influences and cleverness of Black Mirror

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2018

In this video, Lessons from the Screenplay examines what makes one of the best episodes of Black Mirror, USS Callister, so effective and entertaining.

The USS Callister episode of Black Mirror is a bit of an anomaly amongst the nineteen episodes of the series. It cleverly introduces the antagonist in an unconventional way, brings the premise of an old Twilight Zone episode into the near future, and manages to constantly be doing multiple things at once.

His second example of how the show does multiple things at once, which occurs right at the end of the episode, is excellent.

Satellite images taken at an angle

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

Satellite Side View

Satellite Side View

Satellite Side View

Planet Labs has published a selection of satellite images taken at an angle rather than the more familiar straight-down view.

Once a matter of debate, we know today the Earth is not flat. But the satellite imagery we’re most familiar with — taken straight down — flattens and obscures the visual cues we get from perspective, making the imagery appear like maps, not photos.

Take for example this nadir view of Monte Fitz Roy. You might not appreciate that these are mountains unless you spot the clue in the jagged shadows coming off the mountain’s serrated summits.

When you take an image of Monte Fitz Roy from an angle, the view becomes altogether different: the mountains rise to their commanding height, valleys regain their depth, and background features recede into the distance. It’s like getting a view out the window of an airplane 450 kilometers high.

Tracking the appearances of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

Rosey Fingered Dawn

I had been slowly making my way through Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, but on the advice of a Twitter pal, I backtracked and started reading it aloud to my kids. Which has been amazing…reading this story out loud really feels like we’re harkening back to the time of Homer.

One of the things we’re discussing as we go along are the repeated epithets…the descriptions of gods and people that are used over and over in the poem. Zeus is often not just Zeus — he is “the great Thunderlord Zeus” — and Dawn (the Greek goddess of the dawn) is almost never just Dawn, as Wilson explains in the introduction:

Dawn appears some twenty times in The Odyssey, and the poem repeats the same line, word for word, each time: emos d’erigeneia phane rhododaktulos eos: “But when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared…” There is a vast array of such formulaic expressions in Homeric verse, which suggest that things have an eternal, infinitely repeatable presence. Different things will happen every day, but Dawn always appears, always with rosy fingers, always early.

Wilson combats this precise repetition, which can sound antiquated to modern ears, by varying the epithets according to the context:

The formulaic elements in Homer, especially the repeated epithets, pose a particular challenge. The epithets applied to Dawn, Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and the suitors repeat over and over in the original. But in my version, I have chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand. I do not want to deceive the unsuspecting reader about the nature of the original poem; rather, I hope to be truthful about my own text — its relationships with its readers and with the original. In an oral or semiliterate culture, repeated epithets give a listener an anchor in a quick-moving story. In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own interpretative position, and can send a reader to sleep. I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.

The appearance of Dawn has already become a source of comic relief while we’re reading — “here she is again, with the roses!” — and I was curious to see Wilson’s differing interpretations, I gathered all the appearances of Dawn from the text:

The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.

When newborn Dawn appeared with rosy fingers…

When rosy-fingered Dawn came bright and early…

Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses.

When Dawn appeared, her fingers bright with flowers…

When early Dawn appeared and touched the sky with blossom…

Then Dawn rose up from bed with Lord Tithonus, to bring the light to deathless gods and mortals.

When vernal Dawn first touched the sky with flowers…

But when the Dawn with dazzling braids brought day for the third time…

Then Dawn came from her lovely throne, and woke the girl.

Soon Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.

When bright-haired Dawn brought the third morning…

When early Dawn shone forth with rosy fingers…

But when the rosy hands of Dawn appeared…

Early the Dawn appeared, pink fingers blooming…

When early Dawn revealed her rose-red hands…

Then when rose-fingered Dawn came, bright and early…

On the third morning brought by braided Dawn…

Then the roses of Dawn’s fingers appeared again…

Dawn on her golden throne began to shine…

When Dawn came, born early, with her fingertips like petals…

The golden throne of Dawn was riding up the sky…

When rose-fingered Dawn appeared…

Then Dawn was born again; her fingers bloomed…

Then all at once Dawn on her golden throne lit up the sky…

…Dawn soon arrived upon her throne.

When newborn Dawn appeared with hands of flowers…

When early Dawn, the newborn child with rosy hands, appeared…

As she said this, the golden Dawn arrived.

…she roused the newborn Dawn from Ocean’s streams to bring the golden light to those on earth.

I think my favorite is probably “Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses” but I also appreciate the very first appearance in the text: “The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed”. Either way, what a great illustration of Wilson’s skill & the creative latitude involved in translation, along with a reminder for writers of the many different ways in which you can essentially say the same thing.

(The sunrise photo is from my Instagram.)

The missing building blocks of the web

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

The original promise of the Web was “small pieces loosely joined” but has over time became “walled gardens fighting each other”, an approach that’s been under increasing scrutiny lately. In The Missing Building Blocks of the Web, Anil Dash argues that some neglected precepts of hypertext and the web could help steer us back towards a place that’s more oriented towards people, to “rebuild the web into something that has the potential, excitement, and openness that got so many of us excited about it in the first place”. One of the concepts he highlights is authoring:

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, he assumed that, just like in earlier hypertext systems, every web browser would be able to write web pages just as easily as it read them. In fact, that early belief led many who pioneered the web to assume that the format of HTML itself didn’t matter that much, as many different browsing tools would be able to create it.

In some ways, that’s true — billions of people make things on the web all the time. Only they don’t know they’re making HTML, because Facebook (or Instagram, or whatever other app they’re using) generates it for them.

Interestingly, it’s one of Facebook’s board members that helped cause this schism between reading and writing on the web. Marc Andreessen pioneered the early Mosaic web browser, and then famously went on to spearhead Netscape, the first broadly-available commercial web browser. But Netscape wasn’t made as a publicly-funded research project at a state university — it was a hot startup company backed by a lot of venture capital investment.

It’s no surprise, then, that the ability to create web pages was reserved for Netscape Gold, the paid version of that first broadly consumer-oriented web browser. Reading things on the web would be free, sure. But creating things on the web? We’d pay venture-backed startup tech companies for the ability to do that, and they’d mediate it for us.

Dash also argues for more embedding — not just YouTube videos but “a little functional part of one website embedded in another”. I know this isn’t what he’s referring to, but embedding is anything but neglected: the entire online advertising and tracking industry (Google, Facebook, etc.) is built on embedding little bits of their sites on billions of other web pages. Maybe a little bit less of that sort of embedding?

RIP Johan van Hulst, who saved 100s of Jews from the Nazis

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

The NY Times reports on the death of Johan van Hulst, who was principal at a Dutch teachers college during WWII and helped smuggle ~600 Jewish children to safety.

Mr. van Hulst is credited with helping to rescue as many as 600 children, yet he was haunted by what he could not do. With up to 100 children still in the nursery as it was about to be shut down that September, Mr. van Hulst was asked how many more he could smuggle out.

“That was the most difficult day of my life,” he told Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, which in 1972 named him one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a designation for non-Jews who rescued Jews. He is one of 5,595 Dutch people given the honor.

“You realize that you cannot possibly take all the children with you,” he said. “You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on, I asked myself, ‘Why not 13?’”

van Hulst lived to 107. See also Nicholas Winton, who also saved hundreds of children from the Holocaust and died at 106.

Carl Sagan’s tools for critical thinking and detecting bullshit

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan presented a partial list of “tools for skeptical thinking” which can be used to construct & understand reasoned arguments and reject fraudulent ones.

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

I found this via Open Culture, which remarked on Sagan’s prescient remarks about people being “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”.

Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.”

Yeeeeeeeep.

Update: After I posted this, a reader let me know that Michael Shermer has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate & predatory behavior and rape at professional conferences. I personally believe women, and I further believe that if Shermer was actually serious about rationality and his ten rules for critical thinking listed above, he wouldn’t have pulled this shit in the first place (nor tried to hamfistedly explain it away). I’ve rewritten the post to remove the references to Shermer, which actually made it more succinct and put the focus fully on Sagan, which was my intention in the first place (the title remains unchanged). (via @dmetilli)

Poetry in America series on PBS

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

Poetry in America is an upcoming 12-part series exploring poetry on a variety of topics. Each episode features the discussion of a single poem — “I cannot dance upon my toes” by Emily Dickinson, “Skyscraper” by Carl Sandburg, “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas — with a collection of notable people — Samantha Power, Shaquille O’Neal, E.O. Wilson, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Clinton. The first episode airs this week but is already available on Amazon.

A comparison of the sizes of various microorganisms, cells, and viruses

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

Microorganisms are so small compared to humans that you might be tempted to think that they’re all about the same size. As this video shows, that is not at all the case. The rinovirus and polio virus are 0.03 micrometers (μm) wide, a red blood cell is 8 μm, a neuron 100 μm, and a frog’s egg 1 mm. That’s a span of 5 orders of magnitude, about the same difference as the height of a human to the thickness of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Watching the animation, you might have noticed the T4 bacteriophage, which looks like a cross between the aliens in Arrival and a lunar lander. Can’t be real, right? Bacteriophages are really real and terrifying…if you happen to be a bacteria. Bacteriophages attack by attaching themselves to bacteria, piercing their outer membranes, and then pumping them full of bacteriophage DNA. The phage replicates inside of the bacteria until the bacteria bursts and little baby bacteriophages are exploded out all over the place, ready to attack their own bacteria.

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