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Entries for July 2018 (Archives)

 

Barack Obama’s 2018 Summer Reading List

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2018

President Obama is heading to Africa this week for the first time since he left office. In preparation, he shared a recommended summer reading list that’s heavy on African authors. Here’s the full list:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A true classic of world literature, this novel paints a picture of traditional society wrestling with the arrival of foreign influence, from Christian missionaries to British colonialism. A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
A chronicle of the events leading up to Kenya’s independence, and a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationships.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Mandela’s life was one of the epic stories of the 20th century. This definitive memoir traces the arc of his life from a small village, to his years as a revolutionary, to his long imprisonment, and ultimately his ascension to unifying President, leader, and global icon. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history — and then go out and change it.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the U.S. and the UK, raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.

The Return by Hisham Matar
A beautifully-written memoir that skillfully balances a graceful guide through Libya’s recent history with the author’s dogged quest to find his father who disappeared in Gaddafi’s prisons.

The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes
It’s true, Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people for eight years in the White House.

One of the books on my summer reading list is The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu, recommended to me by a reader a few months ago.

Each of us has a deep need to forgive and to be forgiven. After much reflection on the process of forgiveness, Tutu has seen that there are four important steps to healing: Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; Telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and renewing or releasing the relationship. Forgiveness is hard work. Sometimes it even feels like an impossible task. But it is only through walking this fourfold path that Tutu says we can free ourselves of the endless and unyielding cycle of pain and retribution.

Making Amazon Alexa respond to sign language using AI

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2018

Using a JavaScript machine learning package called TensorFlow.js, Abhishek Singh built a program that learned how to translate sign language into verbal speech that an Amazon Alexa can understand. “If voice is the future of computing,” he signs, “what about those who cannot [hear and speak]?”

See also how AirPods + the new Live Listen feature “could revolutionize what it means to be hard of hearing”.

How Trajan became the go-to typeface for movie posters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2018

In the early 90s, a digital typeface designed in the 80s — but based on the letterforms used in a Roman column completed in 113 AD — became the go-to typeface for movie poster designers. (Reminder: everything is a remix.) It was used on posters for movies like The Bodyguard, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Children of Men, and Quiz Show. This Vox video details the rise of the Trajan typeface in movie poster design and why its not used that often by big movies anymore.

The original Mac OS Control Panel done in cross-stitch

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2018

Mac OS Control Panel Cross Stitch

iOS programmer Glenda Adams made a cross-stitch embroidery of the original Control Panel for the Macintosh. Lots of parallels between designing cross-stitch patterns and pixel drawings & fonts. For instance, check out designer Susan Kare’s drawings for some of the original Mac OS icons and compare them to cross-stitch patterns. (P.S. Check out that date…)

See also this Lego Macintosh.

Manually pixelated food

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2018

Yuni Yoshida

Yuni Yoshida

Art director Yuni Yoshida has created these pixelated food photos by manually cutting up the foods in question into little cubes. Love these.

See also censored fruit.

Winners of National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year competition for 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2018

Nat Geo Travel 2018

Nat Geo Travel 2018

Nat Geo Travel 2018

National Geographic recently announced the winners of the Travel Photographer of the Year contest for 2018. You can look at the winners here and the people’s choice awards here.

You can also download the winning images as wallpaper for your computer, phone, or tablet.

A movie adaptation of Sapiens is coming

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2018

Ridley Scott and Asif Kapadia are working on a film adaptation of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator, Alien) is producing while Kapadia (the excellent documentaries Amy & Senna) will direct. Harari, you’ll recall, is a Prophet and states in Sapiens that the Agricultural Revolution is “history’s biggest fraud”.

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2018

Obama Shade Souza

Pete Souza spent 8 years photographing President Obama as the official White House photographer. Souza compiled some of the best of those photos (including the ones with kids) into a book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait. Since Trump took office in January 2017, Souza has used his Instagram account to post photos of Obama in response to Trump’s actions — for instance, when Trump initiated the travel ban against Muslim nations, Souza posted a photo of Obama meeting with a refugee girl.

Souza has collected all of that shade into another book of Presidential photos: Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.

Shade is a portrait in Presidential contrasts, telling the tale of the Obama and Trump administrations through a series of visual juxtapositions. Here, more than one hundred of Souza’s unforgettable images of President Obama deliver new power and meaning when framed by the tweets, news headlines, and quotes that defined the first 500 days of the Trump White House.

The book comes out in October, but you can preorder it now from Amazon.

The story of the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2018

In the late 1920s & early 1930s, African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston interviewed an Alabama man named Cudjo Lewis about his life. Lewis was the last survivor of the last slave ship to arrive in America in 1860, decades after the international slave trade had been made illegal in the US. Hurston attempted to publish Lewis’ story as a book, but her extensive use of Lewis’ “unique vernacular” kept publishers away. Last month, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was finally published.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past-memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Cudjo Lewis

Vulture has an excerpt of the book.

De King of Dahomey, you know, he got very rich ketchin slaves. He keep his army all de time making raids to grabee people to sell. One traitor from Takkoi (Cudjo’s village), he a very bad man and he go straight in de Dahomey and say to de king, “I show you how to takee Takkoi.” He tellee dem de secret of de gates. (The town had eight gates, intended to provide various escape routes in the event of an attack.)

Derefore, dey come make war, but we doan know dey come fight us. Dey march all night long and we in de bed sleep. It bout daybreak when de people of Dahomey breakee de Great Gate. I not woke yet. I hear de yell from de soldiers while dey choppee de gate. Derefore I jump out de bed and lookee. I see de great many soldiers wid French gun in de hand and de big knife. Dey got de women soldiers too and dey run wid de big knife and dey ketch people and saw de neck wid de knife den dey twist de head so it come off de neck. Oh Lor’, Lor’! I see de people gittee kill so fast!

There’s an audiobook version as well…I bet it’s amazing to listen to.

The meaning of the ending of 2001 according to Stanley Kubrick

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2018

Few directors allowed their movies to speak for themselves more than Stanley Kubrick. Still, when it came to 2001: A Space Odyssey and its mysterious ending, he did attempt to let viewers know what his intention was. In a 1969 interview with Joseph Gelmis, he quickly summed up the entire plot in 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.

But recently, an audio clip from a never-released Japanese documentary recorded in 1980 surfaced in which the director shares his view of the ending of the film in more detail.

I’ve tried to avoid doing this ever since the picture came out. When you just say the ideas they sound foolish, whereas if they’re dramatized one feels it, but I’ll try.

The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room. And he has no sense of time. It just seems to happen as it does in the film.

They choose this room, which is a very inaccurate replica of French architecture (deliberately so, inaccurate) because one was suggesting that they had some idea of something that he might think was pretty, but wasn’t quite sure. Just as we’re not quite sure what do in zoos with animals to try to give them what we think is their natural environment.

Anyway, when they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being and sent back to Earth, transformed and made into some sort of superman. We have to only guess what happens when he goes back. It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology, and that is what we were trying to suggest.

So that’s the plot stated plainly, but luckily it takes nothing away from any of the metaphorical meanings that people have ascribed to the film over the past 50 years.

Hallucinatory rollercoaster

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2018

Using a 360° GoPro camera, Jeb Corliss films his ride on a roller coaster and, with some help from image stabilization in the editing phase, turns the footage into a trippy Wonka-esque thrill ride.

Give it a sec to get going and watch the whole thing…the really mind-bending stuff starts happening after about 20 seconds. (via digg)

Luminescent fruit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2018

Wojtkiewicz Fruit

Wojtkiewicz Fruit

At first, I thought these images by Dennis Wojtkiewicz were photographs of backlit fruit slices, but they’re actually super-realistic paintings four or five feet across. Ok, “super-realistic” is probably not the right description. Under scrutiny, the images are too perfect. Wojtkiewicz refers to his technique as a “heightened approach to realism”, a conscious journey into the uncanny valley.

This nonsense of earning a living

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2018

From a 1970 issue of New York magazine, Buckminster Fuller on the massive economic lever of technology:

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

That was written almost 50 years ago…the capability of technology to generate wealth has increased greatly since then.

Trump’s unprecedented relationship with Fox News

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 09, 2018

Brian Stelter is known for media scoops, but sometimes, he can bring the insight too. On CNN and in his nightly newsletter, he briefly outlines what I think anyone has to agree is an unusual symbiosis of the Presidency and a single news outlet, Fox News. (Trump hiring Fox News’s Bill Shine to run his communications shop is just one symptom of the bigger entanglement.)

— No president has ever endorsed a network to this degree before: Promoting it, telling people when and where to tune in, while trashing all of its rivals…

— And no network has ever propped up a president quite like this before…

— The back-scratching benefits both sides. Trump benefits from the friendly segments and softball Q’s. Fox benefits from Trump’s preferential treatment and constant promos…

— The beating heart of this relationship is Sean Hannity, who reportedly golfed with Trump on Sunday. Hannity is an adviser, a booster, an attack dog, a friend. No TV host has ever had this kind of alliance with a US president…

— And no president has never treated a TV channel like it’s an intelligence agency the way Trump treats Fox…

My point: This is new. And weird. And we shouldn’t get used to it. There’s been almost a merger between a culture war TV station and a culture war president. In the essay, I asked, rhetorically, “What would Trump do without Fox?”

Is this the weirdest thing about the Trump presidency, or the most dangerous? Probably not. But it’s one of the legs that props up all the other legs. And it’s definitely weird, and I’d argue, dangerous.

How the safety bicycle changed the world

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 09, 2018

early-ad-rover-safety-wikimedia-commons.jpg

This excerpt from Margaret Guroff’s history The Mechanical Horse focuses on the democratization of the bicycle at the end of the nineteenth century, as new designs made bikes more appealing to businessmen, children, and especially women.

In the 1890s, bikes got lighter as well as more comfortable. The average weight of a bicycle dropped by more than half during the decades first five years, falling from 50 pounds to 23. And since new gearings were able to mimic wheels larger than those of the largest Ordinary, speed records fell too. In 1894, while riding a pneumatic-tired safety around a track in Buffalo, New York, the racer John S. Johnson went a mile in just over one minute and thirty-five seconds, a rate of nearly thirty-eight miles an hour. He beat the previous mile record for a safety by fourteen seconds, and the record for an Ordinary by nearly a minute — and the record for a running horse by one-tenth of a second.

The Ordinary — which had by then acquired the derisive nickname of penny-farthing, after the old British penny and much smaller farthing (quarter-penny) coins — became obsolete. High-wheelers that had sold for $150 to $300 just a year or two earlier were going for as little as $10.

The first safeties, meanwhile, cost an average of $150 during a time when the average worker earned something like $12 a week. At such prices, the new bikes targeted the same upscale demographic as the tricycle. But a strong market for safeties among well-to-do women goosed production, and competition among manufacturers reduced prices, making the bikes affordable to more would-be riders and further fueling demand. In 1895, Americas 300 bicycle companies produced 500,000 safeties at an average price of $75, according to one encyclopedias yearbook. Even manufacturers were surprised at the demand among women, who thrilled to the new machines exhilarating ride. As one female journalist wrote, “If a pitying Providence should suddenly fit light, strong wings to the back of a toiling tortoise, that patient cumberer of the ground could hardly feel a more astonishing sense of exhilaration than a woman experiences when first she becomes a mistress of her wheel.”

Nabokov’s dreams

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 09, 2018

Nabokov.jpg

Lately, I’ve been getting more and more interested in dreams, as experiences and as psychological phenomena. I don’t have a fancy theory of dreams as yet beyond “brain garbage,” but brain garbage is still a pretty interesting idea.

A British writer named JW Dunne, writing in the 1920s, did have a fancy theory of dreams — he thought they were a way to access a different kind of consciousness of time, giving clues to precognition and all sorts of other metaphysical leaps. And Dunne’s philosophies appealed to many writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, who kept records of his dreams on neat stacks of index cards. (Nabokov loved index cards.)

Though he kept up his index-card routine for eighty nights, [Nabokov] drifted from Dunne’s method. Rather than flagging his dreams for their precognitive potential, he began to find patterns among them, breaking them into categories: nostalgic or erotic, shaped by current events or professional anxieties. Apart from a dry spell he referred to as “dream constipation,” Nabokov was a prodigious dreamer, his mind a wellspring of trenchant, tender, and perturbing images that he recounts with verve. An old Cambridge classmate “gloomily consumes a thick red steak, holding it rather daintily, the nails of his long fingers glisten[ing] with cherry-red varnish.” A cryptic caller “wonders how I knew she was Russian. I answer dream-logically that only Russian women speak so loud on the phone.” There are capers: in one, Nabokov and his son, Dmitri, “are trying to track down a repulsive plump little boy who has killed another child—perhaps his sister.” And there are intimations of mortality: “A tremendous very black larch paradoxically posing as a Christmas tree completely stripped of its toys, tinsel, and lights, appeared in its abstract starkness as the emblem of permanent dissolution.”

Nabokov’s dream thinking found its apex in the novel Ada, where he writes, “What are dreams? A random sequence of scenes, trivial or tragic, viatic or static, fantastic or familiar, featuring more or less plausible events patched up with grotesque details, and recasting dead people in new settings.” Dreams are “tricks of an agent of Chronos… Some law of logic should fix the number of coincidences, in a given domain, after which they cease to be coincidences, and form, instead, the living organism of a new truth.”

When you’ve died and gone to book heaven

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 09, 2018

Strahov-Monastery-Alamy.jpg

No, you’re burned out and just want to look at pretty pictures of books artfully arranged in architecture! Luckily, Condé Nast Traveler has an article featuring “17 Places Book Lovers Need to Visit,” which fits the bill. Just check out the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading in Rio de Janeiro.

Royal-Portuguese-Reading-Room-GettyImages-530795685.jpg

Or China’s Zhongshuge Yangzhou, which uses curved bookshelves and mirrors to create amazing optical illusions. (Dezeen has more pics of this place.)

Yangzhou-Zhongshuge-H611BF.jpg

Moscow’s Cafe Pushkin is also bookishly gorgeous. Oh, just check out the whole thing. Some of the places are less visually exciting, others you’ve heard of a million times, but it’s a nice little piece. Then when you’re done, check out Rachel Leow’s “Bookporn” archives over at a historian’s craft for more of the good stuff.

cafe-pushkin-cr-courtesy.jpg

How to make tea

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 06, 2018

Tea Plantation - 2.jpg

Last fall, The Big Picture did a series of photographs of tea workers in China. According to the accompanying short article, “The Chinese tea industry employs around 80 million people as farmers, pickers and sales people. Tea pickers tend to be seasonal workers who migrate from all parts of the country during harvest time. The pickers work from early morning until evening for an average wage of around 120 RMB (around 16 euros) a day.”

Tea Plantation - 1.jpg

Tea Plantation - 3.jpg

Tea Plantation - 4.jpg

Google’s keyword voids

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 06, 2018

This was a new term for me:

keyword void, or search void, n.: a situation where searching for answers about a keyword returns an absence of authoritative, reliable results, in favor of “content produced by a niche group with a particular agenda.”

An article by Renee DiResta at Wired uses the example of Vitamin K shots, a common treatment given to newborn babies at hospitals, but whose top search results are dominated by anti-vaccination groups.

There’s an asymmetry of passion at work. Which is to say, there’s very little counter-content to surface because it simply doesn’t occur to regular people (or, in this case, actual medical experts) that there’s a need to produce counter-content. Instead, engaging blogs by real moms with adorable children living authentic natural lives rise to the top, stating that doctors are bought by pharma, or simply misinformed, and that the shot is risky and unnecessary. The persuasive writing sounds reasonable, worthy of a second look. And since so much of the information on the first few pages of search results repeats these claims, the message looks like it represents a widely-held point of view. But it doesn’t. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s potentially deadly.

I wondered what other examples of keyword voids might be out there, so I searched for it. Unsurprisingly — in retrosepect — you don’t get a lot of relevant results. It’s mostly programming talk, when you literally want a function to return no results.

Writing as bureaucracy vs. writing as magic

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 06, 2018

Chinese oracle bone script.jpg

Michael Erard pokes away at the “administrative hypothesis,” the idea that ancient writing had its origin in accounting bureaucracies and existed primarily as a function of state power. There’s just as much evidence, he argues, that states and proto-states co-opted already-existing symbols used by pre-state farmers to keep tallies and mark time, and more provocatively, by priests who used writing as a script for prophecy, narrative, and magic spells.

Over and over, what we see is that writing is more like gunpowder than like a nuclear bomb. In each of the four sites of the independent invention of writing, there’s either no evidence one way or the other, or there’s evidence that a proto-writing pre-dated the administrative needs of the state. Even in Mesopotamia, a phonetic cuneiform script was used for a few hundred years for accounting before writing was used for overtly political purposes. As far as the reductive argument that accountants invented writing in Mesopotamia, it’s true that writing came from counting, but temple priests get the credit more than accountants do. ‘Priests invented writing’ is a reduction I can live with - it posits writing as a tool for contacting the supernatural realm, recording the movement of spirits, inspecting the inscrutable wishes of divinities.

It’s a complex argument, because it has at least two parts:

1) writing wasn’t invented by states (even writing for accounting purposes);
2) writing has been invented for reasons other than an accounting function.

So most of Erard’s examples are arguing against one part of the most robust version of the adminstrative hypothesis, rather than refuting it outright. This is hardly a knockout blow, but it makes for some notable asterisks. (I wish there were more here about China.)

Did blogs ruin the web? Or did the web ruin blogs?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 05, 2018

Here are three essays that make very different arguments but are worth reading, and (I think) worth reading together.

1. “How the Blog Broke the Web,” by Amy Hoy. Hoy’s essay is alternately nostalgic for the early days of blogs and smartly critical of the choices that were made then and how they affected the later development of the web.

Suddenly people weren’t creating homepages or even web pages, but they were writing web content in form fields and text areas inside a web page.

Suddenly, instead of building their own system, they were working inside one.

A system someone else built.

In particular, Hoy argues, the push towards chronological organization and frequent chronological updates privileged blogs over other kinds of early web production, and drove out sites that had a weirder, more perpendicular relationship to time.

2. Dave Winer, “What Became of the Blogosphere? Winer is focused on a narrower problem, but he gives it wide implications.

What changed is we lost the center. I know something about this because I created and operated weblogs.com. It worked at first, but then the blogosphere grew and grew, and weblogs.com didn’t or couldn’t scale to meet it. Eventually I sold it because it was such a personal burden for me.

The blogosphere is made of people, but the people treated the center like a corporation, and it wasn’t. If we ever want to reboot the center, there has to be a cooperative spirit, and a limit to its scope to avoid the scaling problems. You can’t put a big corp at the center of something so independent, or it ceases to be independent…

There used to be a communication network among bloggers, but that’s gone now.

3. Navneet Alang, “Ding Dong, The Feed Is Dead.” Alang is interested in how the disappearing story is coming to displace the chronological archive.

Even if a tweet didn’t ruin your life, you still have an archive of embarrassment that Facebook has diligently saved for you: ill-advised jokes, too-earnest expressions of emotion, and photos in which we simply look terrible. While movements like #deletefacebook were ostensibly about protecting your data from corporations, perhaps they also reflected a desire for another kind of privacy: a way to just erase all that unflattering history.

What happens next is probably not the overthrow of Facebook or Twitter especially now that those platforms are making a lot of noise about how they want to change. The need for an online presence, even if it’s just LinkedIn, is a big historical shift, not just a fad. But instead of a handful of big, public platforms, I wonder if we can expect a proliferation of smaller, more private platforms to find their place. Not only are they safer and friendlier, but they also foster a loyalty and intimacy that the big networks simply can’t….

These smaller, temporary spaces produce a similar effect to traditional social media—a space to vent and laugh and carebut without the downsides of a public forum.

There are some things that reverse chronology is good for, and some things where it isn’t. There are some cases where a greater visibility and intercommunication is exactly what you want, and some where you want the exact opposite. But we’re also riding the wave of dozens if not hundreds of subtly shaping decisions that are not ours, and maybe were never ours. We can only change them if we understand them first.

That’s a tall order for anyone, even if you weren’t here for the entire history of how everything unfolded in the first place.

Rethinking “The Great Migration”

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 05, 2018

Union Terminal Colored Waiting Room.jpg

At CityLab, Brentin Mock makes a compelling case for rethinking the causes and consequences of black Americans’ 20th century relocation from the rural South to the industrialized north.

“The Great Migration” makes it sound like a bunch of people just packed up their bags headed for better jobs and homes—no different than the recent trend of Amazon-ian and Apple-American tech nerds moving in droves from Silicon Valley to greener, more affordable pastures in the former Rust Belt. In reality, the stakes for African Americans in the 20th century were much grimmer and urgent—they were moving to save their lives, as Bryan Stevenson, the racial justice advocate behind the lynching memorial and museum, regularly emphasizes. It probably should be called The Great Massive Forced Exodus.

When you look even closer, the idea of a single migration gets even messier, since black Americans weren’t free from lynching and other forms of violence, legal or extralegal, even after they reached the north. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among other books, tells this story very well.)

Race riots, redlining, white flight, followed by gentrification and police harassment continue to have the same effect of alternately pushing and constraining the black population around the country. So what you have is a kind of continual, whirling diaspora, shaped by similar forces, but taking on different forms, that continues to and through the present.

Batman’s Wedding

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 05, 2018

Batman (2016-) 050-024.jpg

Wonder Woman aside, DC’s recent movies haven’t been very good, but their recent comics have been extraordinary. In particular, writer Tom King has two contemporary masterpieces running side by side, the accessible-but-oh-so-intelligent Batman and the experimental/psychological war-and-family comic Mister Miracle.

Batman has been building beautifully towards Batman’s wedding to Catwoman, culminating in this week’s 50th issue. The ending was spoiled three days early in an article in the New York Times’ Vows column — Abraham Riesman has an interview at Vulture with the author, who regrets the spoilage — but the comic holds up beautifully, even if you know how it ends.

It’s filled with gorgeous artwork from artists who’ve played a key part in Batman and Catwoman’s history together, and each page acts as a kind of counterpoint to the one opposite it. (Writers and other important figures from the Batman mythos get their head nods elsewhere, as names of buildings, streets, and rooms in Wayne Manor.) And it has its share of moving moments, like this quiet embrace between Bruce Wayne and Alfred.
Batman (2016-) 050-028.jpg
The real thrill is probably in the run-up, which you can read in trade paperbacks now. My favorite issue might be number 36, where Superman and Batman separately explain to Lois Lane and Catwoman, respectively, what they admire about each other. I mean, this is just superhero nerd gold.

Batman (2016-) 036-018.jpg

This is all to say: despite some blockbuster fatigue, I think we’re still quite far from exhausting superheroes as a concept. Every time I think we’re there, someone comes up with rich, thoughtful, emotionally moving stories that bring me right back again.

Partners in prewar Greenwich Village

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 05, 2018

1940_ED_Greenwich_Village_overlay.jpg

My friend, the historian Dan Bouk, has a fascinating find in the 1940 U.S. census. Over 200,000 people are listed as “partners” on census accountings of households, despite the fact that the census instructions make no particular allowance for “partners” as a category.

What’s more, partners show up disproportionately in neighborhoods where we know gay people settled: Greenwich Village, parts of the Upper East Side, and so forth.

All we can say for sure about Brand and Grant—and the other 11 partnerships that Davis recorded—is that they shared a sink. It seems likely that at least some of these households did live together as lesbian or gay couples. But it could also be that we find so many partnerships in this gay neighborhood, because the presence of queer folk indicated or amplified social and cultural spaces in which people could live openly in odd (that is, unusual), but non-sexual arrangements. The census didn’t ask about sexual identity or sexual behavior, and so we cannot know from the census alone.

As for those other partnerships, five partners were women living with another woman, the pairs always within a few years in age. They included a pair of doctors, two travel agents (who may have been business partners, if nothing else), an editor and a secretary, and a secretary and a stenographer who both worked for the YMCA(!). Two of the partners were male-male, including a police detective who lived with a patrolman.

As Bouk writes of his own (romantic) partner, “I thought we were being very modern, that this was a new sort of relationship.” But partners seem to have been around and declared for a very long time.

Maps of love

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 03, 2018

Land of Matrimony - 1772.jpg
The Land of Matrimony, 1772

The Public Domain Review has an interesting collection of allegorical maps of love, courtship, and marriage, in multiple languages and styles, from the 17th to the 19th century. I’m partial to this very early map, La Carte de tendre; “conceived by Madeleine de Scudéry for inclusion in her novel Clélie (1654-61) and engraved by François Chauveau.”

La Carte de Tendre - 1654.jpg

Here one can travel, by following the river of Inclination, from the town of Nouvelle Amitié (New Friendship) in the south to the town of Tendre (Love) in the north — that is if one can avoid the various pitfalls and obstacles which line the route, including the strangely inviting Lac D’Indiference (Lake of Indifference).

Maps were the memes of their time.

The reaction time problem

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 03, 2018

reaction time over time.jpg

Francis Galton, a Victorian eugenicist and statistician, was obsessed with measuring reaction time as a proxy for general intelligence. In 1885, 1890, and 1892, he collected “data on the sensory, psychomotor, and physical attributes of 1,639 females and 4,849 males.” Eventually, though, reaction time gave way to other questionable measurements of generalized intelligence like IQ tests and scholastic aptitude scores, so most of us don’t keep track of our reaction times, if we’ve ever had it measured.

Here’s the thing, though — everyone who’s tried to repeat Galton’s experiments in the 20th and 21st century, across populations, varying the equipment used and the measurement process taken, etc., has never been able to get reaction times as fast as what Galton measured. IQ scores have generally risen over time; reaction times have slowed down. It’s a matter of milliseconds, but the effect is large: about 10 percent. It is quite possible that young adults in 19th century Great Britain were just plain faster than us.

Tom Stafford, writing at Mind Hacks, has some helpful caveats:

What are we to make of this? Normally we wouldn’t put much weight on a single study, even one with 3000 participants, but there aren’t many alternatives. It isn’t as if we can have access to young adults born in the 19th century to check if the result replicates. It’s a shame there aren’t more intervening studies, so we could test the reasonable prediction that participants in the 1930s should be about halfway between the Victorian and modern participants.

And, even if we believe this datum, what does it mean? A genuine decline in cognitive capacity? Excess cognitive load on other functions? Motivational changes? Changes in how experiments are run or approached by participants? I’m not giving up on the kids just yet.

Clunky touchscreens are easier to use than slick ones

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 03, 2018

Clunky Touchscreen.png

I really enjoyed Amber Case’s essay “The Hidden Cost of Touchscreens.” It’s a quick but surprisingly thorough look at where touchscreen interfaces are inappropriate or just plain go wrong.

For instance, touchscreens in cars are problematic for anything that’s going to be used during driving, because well, touchscreens require looking at a thing. For muscle memory and mission-critical tasks, physical buttons are better.

But I also appreciated her nuanced, experience-driven take on ways to improve touchscreen design, where too often clean aesthetics have pushed out strict usability.

Touchscreen design could benefit from some basic design principles. Color-based interfaces take less time to parse when they are glanced at. Image-based interfaces take longer for the brain to process, and the lack of contrast can be confusing, because each item must be distinguished from adjacent items. When so many images look alike, service workers must rely on position and muscle memory for speedy use.

When I worked in food service and in the mailroom, the uglier touchscreens were always easier to work with. They were color coded with bright, contrasting colors, making the boundaries between numbers or items very obvious. I found that the colors reduced mistakes. I’d usually tap the right items after barely even glancing at the interface. After a while, I’d only check the screen for mistakes at the end of the process, before submitting an order or printing a receipt.

I think touchscreens in general are more usable now than they used to be, simply because of learning effects: more of us are used to dealing with touch interfaces in lots of different contexts, and we translate that familiarity wherever we go. At a certain point, though, we bump up against some hard limits of the human brain, eyes, and hands. Trying to fight against those hardly ever turns out well.

Rosa Parks’s Arrest Warrant

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 03, 2018

A courthouse intern on a housecleaning project named Maya McKenzie turned up a slew of rarely-seen original documents of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They include Rosa Parks’s arrest warrant and court records, as well as a bond posted for Martin Luther King Jr. on charges of conspiracy, and more.

“A lot of times in our schools, when we teach about the movement, it’s all centered around one person, one figure, but what this does is open up that world to give the back story, to let them know that there were so many people that were involved,” said Quinton T. Ross Jr., the president of Alabama State, a historically black university, where a professor once used a mimeograph machine to run off thousands of fliers announcing the boycott.

montgomery-documents-4-superJumbo.jpg

What’s odd is that the records appeared to have already been gathered together, but not for any clear reason. They had never been made public.

Goodbye, LeBron; Love, the Midwest

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 02, 2018

LeBron - Kid.jpg

I don’t live in Cleveland or Akron. I live, and grew up, just north of Detroit, in an inner-ring suburb known for Thai and Vietnamese restaurants and multiple expressways.

I didn’t live in the midwest for LeBron’s first run with the Cavs. I lived in Philadelphia, a city that was sports-crazy in its own aggro east-coast way, but didn’t live and die with its sports teams in the same all-enveloping way. Any city with an Ivy League campus has pockets of people who don’t notice sports at all.

When LeBron moved to Miami, I moved to New York. It made sense for both of us; a better job on a bigger stage, hopefully a better life. But soon enough, we were both headed back to the Midwest; we were both headed back home.

For a hot minute, I thought we were both headed to Philadelphia again. But some dreams are too good to be true.

The Midwest is sports-crazy; the midwest is sports-starved. Free agents don’t want to play here. Owners don’t want to spend money. Championships cluster on the coasts.

When teams like the Warriors win, it’s compounded good news for a team moving to take advantage of San Francisco’s riches. When the Cubs or Packers or Cavs win, we talk about century-long curses lifted, quaint tales of tiny markets that could, and the uplift of entire regions.

Of the twenty best basketball players who ever played, nine of them have played for the Los Angeles Lakers. (Yes, I’m counting Karl Malone.) Only two ever played for Cleveland. (One of them was washed-up Shaq.)

Three of the best five — LeBron, Jordan, and Kareem — played in the Midwest. Two of them left for LA.

It was special to have LeBron James in the Midwest. In the age of player empowerment he ushered in, to play for a man he hated, at a time when blue states have flipped to red, when billionaire oligarchs are buying up whole cities, and the national discourse tries to erase everything in the region but its white reactionaries, LeBron was the best of us. He stood up, somehow taller and more regal than the sea of tall, regal men, unafraid to tell the truth. Through Ferguson, through Tamir Rice, through Trump and Trumpism, he stood up and told the truth. I won’t forget it.

He also dragged four outmatched teams to four straight Finals through sheer talent, intelligence, and force of will. I won’t forget that either.

I’m not happy he’s going to the Lakers. (As a Pistons and Sixers fan, we have history. However, I am cool with him getting out of the Eastern Conference.) But I’m happy in the hope that he will get to be happy.

Update: Strongly recommend today’s The Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst, which digs into the tick-tock and the fallout of LeBron going to the Lakers, including some midwestern angst over what it means as a midwesterner to have so many of the good players bound to the coastal metropoles.

Goodbye to The Straight Dope

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 02, 2018

The Straight Dope — which some readers might know only as an online message board with impressive Google Juice — is closing up the weekly print column that got the whole mess started.

Why the change, and why now? With the planned sale of the Chicago Reader, the folks at Sun-Times Media, which will continue to own the Straight Dope, are re-thinking the once-a-week deep dive (sorta) on a single topic (usually) in question-and-answer format. It’s possible a successor to the Straight Dope will emerge, possibly with daily online content. But no decision has been made, and my role, if any, has not been determined. In the meantime, I’m thinking about publishing another Straight Dope book - it’s been nigh on 20 years since the last one.

However that works out, the Straight Dope legacy will remain intact. The Straight Dope archive - some 3,400 columns, most written by me, the balance by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, my online auxiliary - will remain accessible at www.straightdope.com. The Straight Dope homepage will continue to be updated with recycled classics. The Straight Dope Message Board (SDMB), the online community that has grown up around the column, will remain open for business.

The Straight Dope was and remains really important to me. It was an alt-weekly question-and-answer column about anything and everything. Pre-internet, I gobbled up the collected columns in paperback. My grandmother gave me my first copy, which I don’t know if she would have done if she’d known the semi-lewd contents inside. She just knew that like her, I liked to read and liked to know things. In college, I used to say that half the things I knew were things I’d read in The Straight Dope. After college, I moved to Chicago, and read it in the Reader regularly, where it now seemed tweedy and straight-laced. When I was talking to Jason about developing Ask Dr. Time, TSD was my first reference. I’m going to miss it.

Hidden treasures of Amsterdam’s river

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 02, 2018

Amsterdam Objects.png

Between 2003 and 2012, civil engineers in Amsterdam excavated a brand-new North-South metro line along the banks of the river Amstel. A website (thankfully available in Dutch and English) documents what they found.

Rivers in cities are unlikely archaeological sites. It is not often that a riverbed, let alone one in the middle of a city, is pumped dry and can be systematically examined. The excavations in the Amstel yielded a deluge of finds, some 700,000 in all: a vast array of objects, some broken, some whole, all jumbled together. Damrak and Rokin proved to be extremely rich sites on account of the waste that had been dumped in the river for centuries and the objects accidentally lost in the water. The enormous quantity, great variety and everyday nature of these material remains make them rare sources of urban history. The richly assorted collection covers a vast stretch of time, from long before the emergence of the city right up to the present day. The objects paint a multi-facetted [sic] picture of daily life in the city of Amsterdam. Every find is a frozen moment in time, connecting the past and the present. The picture they paint of their era is extremely detailed and yet entirely random due to the chance of objects or remains sinking down into the riverbed and being retrieved from there. This is what makes this archaeological collection so fascinating, so poetically breathtaking and abstract at one and the same time.

If you don’t love browsing through lost IDs, credit cards, and everyday coins, a section called “Object Stories” highlights the more noteworthy finds: batteries from the 19th century, stoneware jugs and tankards from the 16th century, pieces of samurai swords, and more.

National Geographic’s Maps Archive

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 02, 2018

Map of the Heavens.jpg

National Geographic is making digital copies of its century-plus archive of maps available to the public… with a twist. Immediate access to the full archive is subscriber-only. The rest of us get a new map a day, on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

So you might get this gorgeous 1961 panorama of London, with individual hand-painted buildings…

1961 London Panorama.jpg

… or you might get this 1894 sketch of Antarctica.

Antarctica.jpg

Which is not uninteresting, but it’s interesting for different reasons.

As a longtime advocate of digging in the crates, I have to applaud Nat Geo making creative use of its own archives. Even if the greedy part of me wants all the goodies at once.

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