homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

Entries for August 2018 (Archives)

 

Detroit’s own Queen: Aretha Franklin at history’s crossroads

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Detroit Free Press - Aretha Franklin.jpg

There are many very fine obituaries and appreciations of Aretha Franklin, who passed away this week at 76. I have two favorites.

The first is a whip-crack of an essay by the New York Times’s Wesley Morris that, better than most, taps into Franklin’s own musical energies.

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres….

The song owned the summer of 1967. It arrived amid what must have seemed like never-ending turmoil — race riots, political assassinations, the Vietnam draft. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to serve in the war. So amid all this upheaval comes a singer from Detroit who’d been around most of the decade doing solid gospel R&B work. But there was something about this black woman’s asserting herself that seemed like a call to national arms. It wasn’t a polite song. It was hard. It was deliberate. It was sure.

The second essay, for NPR by dream hampton, “Black People Will Be Free’: How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit,” is more slowly wound, and less about the music than the time and place that produced Franklin and in which she flourished. It bleeds like a wound, a wound the size of a city, where the Industrial Revolution met the Great Migration and became the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s impossible to talk about Aretha without talking about her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Franklin began preaching and soul singing as a teenager. Just after World War II, he, like so many black Southerners who were fleeing racial terror and looking for work, found himself in Detroit. Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, called him a “preacher’s preacher.” And when Franklin died from gunshot wounds after being robbed in his home in 1979, Mayor Young said his “leadership of the historic freedom march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by his side in June of 1963 — and involving some 125,000 people — provided the prototype for Dr. King’s successful march in Washington later that summer.”

It is important to understand the tradition of black liberation theology, a term coined by James H. Cone, that sought to use scripture to center black self-determination. In Detroit, pastors like C.L. Franklin and Albert Cleage of the Shrine of the Black Madonna used black liberation theology to help a growing black city to imagine itself powerful. They used their churches to launch the campaign of Detroit’s black political class, including Coleman Young. At the same time, Rev. Franklin’s church remained a touch point for even more radical organizing. He opened New Bethel to black auto workers who were waging a class struggle within a racist United Automobile Workers union. He gave shelter to Black Panthers who were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against them. Later leaders of the fractured Black Power movement like the late Jackson, Miss. mayor (and Detroit native) Chokwe Lumumba gathered at New Bethel to form the Republic of New Afrika.

A new sound rooted in older sounds; a new politics rooted in older politics; a new, triumphant individualism rooted in the liberation of entire communities. In all these things, Aretha stood at the crossroads of history. Maybe no one else could have done it.

Battery death is the new horror film staple

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Daniel_Kaluuya_And_Microsoft_Lumia_Phone___Get_Out_2017_3.jpg

I’ve been enjoying The Verge’s series of posts about batteries, not least because it’s not just about so-called “hard” tech, but also how changing technologies change our culture, our social interactions, our range of possibilities. A good example is Tasha Robinson’s essay on how the dead or dying mobile phone battery has become a staple of contemporary horror films — not so much a cliché (although it sometimes veers into that) but a new condition of the genre.

[In the past,] it was possible for a horror movie to isolate its victims by taking them slightly outside the warm glow of civilization. Classics like 1960’s Psycho, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or 1980’s The Shining dropped the protagonists at remote houses. With no access to landlines, the characters in those movies were so removed from help or contact with the outside world, they might as well have been stranded on the Moon. Even as of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, it was plausible that a group of tech-savvy young people would venture into the woods without cellphones or a GPS tracker, and have no way to alert anyone else when their situation took a bad turn. But with upward of 75 percent of Americans owning smartphones, and upward of 95 percent owning cellphones of some kind, modern horror films have to work harder to keep their characters from summoning the police the second a maniac starts waving a chainsaw in their direction.

These days, a dead phone doesn’t just cut users off from emergency services; it also cuts them off from the conversation, the daily flow of online life that so many of us use as our primary form of contact with the outside world. In that sense, the need to kill a victim’s battery before killing the actual victim is becoming less of a predictable cliché, and more of a way of building the stakes and establishing sympathies. Horror movie audiences may find it hard to believe in Cloverfield’s group of friends fleeing a Godzilla-sized monster through the streets of New York, but they can certainly believe in a guy coming away from a party with a drained phone battery and obsessing over the need to make one last phone call before the night’s over.

Robinson talks about how this trope taps into real-world anxieties about being unable to communicate or connect with other people, whiling away necessary power with frivolous uses, and technology letting us down in key moments, but she also gestures towards something else; a peculiar sort of wish-fulfillment. She imagines a high-tech horror film in which unplugging becomes a form of escape. But we’re already longing for a retreat from our devices, notifications, internet drama, and everything that comes with it. Isn’t part of the uncanny quality of the battery death trope that it’s giving us what we want, just in a distorted form?

Solving the spaghetti problem

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

If you’ve ever tried to snap dried pasta in half, you know that it’s hard to get just two even pieces; what you usually get instead is macaroni shrapnel everywhere. It turns out this is due to fundamental physical forces of the universe when applied to a straight rod. The initial break creates a snap-back effect that creates additional fractures.

crack-control-1.gif

Apparently, this used to drive Richard Feynman nuts. Here’s an excerpt from No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, where computer scientist Danny Hills describes Feynman’s obsession:

Once we were making spaghetti, which was our favorite thing to eat together. Nobody else seemed to like it. Anyway, if you get a spaghetti stick and you break it, it turns out that instead of breaking it in half, it will almost always break into three pieces. Why is this true — why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories. We thought up experiments, like breaking it underwater because we thought that might dampen the sound, the vibrations. Well, we ended up at the end of a couple of hours with broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory about why spaghetti breaks in three. A lot of fun, but I could have blackmailed him with some of his spaghetti theories, which turned out to be dead wrong!

It turns out that controlling the vibrations does have something to do with controlling the breakage, although putting the rod underwater won’t help. Two young physicists, Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil, found that the key to breaking spaghetti rods into two pieces is to give them a good twist:

If a 10-inch-long spaghetti stick is first twisted by about 270 degrees and then bent, it will snap in two, mainly due to two effects. The snap-back, in which the stick will spring back in the opposite direction from which it was bent, is weakened in the presence of twist. And, the twist-back, where the stick will essentially unwind to its original straightened configuration, releases energy from the rod, preventing additional fractures.

“Once it breaks, you still have a snap-back because the rod wants to be straight,” Dunkel explains. “But it also doesn’t want to be twisted.”

Just as the snap-back will create a bending wave, in which the stick will wobble back and forth, the unwinding generates a “twist wave,” where the stick essentially corkscrews back and forth until it comes to rest. The twist wave travels faster than the bending wave, dissipating energy so that additional critical stress accumulations, which might cause subsequent fractures, do not occur.

“That’s why you never get this second break when you twist hard enough,” Dunkel says.

crack-control-2.gif

It’s not exactly practical to twist spaghetti 270 degrees before you break it in half, just to end up with a shorter noodle. And linguini, fettucine, etc., have a different physics altogether, because they deviate more strongly from the cylindrical rod shape of spaghetti. But it’s cool to have one of these everyday physics problems apparently solved through a relatively simple trick.

Between Sound and Silence, how technology is transforming the lives of those with hearing loss

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2018

Irene Taylor Brodsky directed this short film in which about a dozen deaf people talk simply about their hearing loss and the technology (like cochlear implants) that is transforming how they interact with others. This was wonderful…I learned a lot from listening to these stories.

I was also struck by how difficult it actually is to lump “people who X” into a single category, despite the human desire to tidy people and things into groups. Even among the relatively few people featured in this short film, there were many different approaches and attitudes about deafness. Watching it, you think, jeez, what do all these people really have in common? Probably less than you might have assumed initially. (via @JossFong)

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.

Clair de Lune in the moonlight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

NASA recently published this visualization of sunrises and sunsets on the Moon set to the strains of Claude Debussy’s most famous work, Clair de Lune.

The visuals were composed like a nature documentary, with clean cuts and a mostly stationary virtual camera. The viewer follows the Sun throughout a lunar day, seeing sunrises and then sunsets over prominent features on the Moon. The sprawling ray system surrounding Copernicus crater, for example, is revealed beneath receding shadows at sunrise and later slips back into darkness as night encroaches.

A lovely way to spend five minutes. (thx, gina)

Enhance!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

Enhance

Nicole He has built a voice-controlled game called Enhance in which you speak commands to zoom & enhance images to look for secret codes, just like a detective on a CSI TV show. I bet if you try this in your open plan office, your coworkers will look at you like you’re nuts for a sec but will soon gather around, shouting their own commands at the computer. After all, everyone wants to enhance:

Auctioneer chanting, “the poetry of capitalism”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Auction Competition 2018

For the New Yorker, photographer David Williams visited the 2018 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in Bloomington, Wisconsin. Amanda Petrusich wrote about the competition and his photos here.

This year’s champion, Jared Miller, of Leon, Iowa, took home a customized 2018 Chevrolet Silverado truck to drive for his yearlong reign; he also won six thousand dollars, a world-champion belt buckle, a world-champion ring, a money clip, and a bespoke leather briefcase. In interviews, Miller, like many successful auctioneers, appears personable and polite. When he begins his chant, his mouth only opens so much — when you’re talking as fast as he is, the tongue does most of the work — but what comes out sounds something like a undulating yodel, or a less guttural take on the Inuit tradition of throat singing. Once you tune in to its particular rhythms — and it can take a few minutes to acclimate to the crests and swells — the prices become discernible: “One dollar bid, now two, now two, would you give me two?”

You can listen to Miller’s winning chant on Facebook.

I hadn’t realized Werner Herzog made a 45-minute documentary about auctioneers at the same competition in 1976 called How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, although the audio isn’t synced that well:

According to the article, Herzog called auctioneering “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism”. This poetry can be difficult to follow, so this auctioneer explained what he and his fellow chanters are saying up on the stand.

Rap music also has a claim on being “the poetry of capitalism” and Graham Heavenrich had the genius idea of layering auctioneer chants over beats; you can listen in on Instagram or with this compilation:

Ok and just for kicks, when I was searching for the auctioneer beats thing on YouTube, I ran across this young woman rapping the entirety of Rap God by Eminem (the part starting at 4:26 = fire). Sign her up for the 2019 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship!

The Origami Simulator

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Origami Simulator

This origami simulator built by Amanda Ghassaei is really cool. The simulator lets you explore how different origami patterns are constructed by moving & rotating them around on the screen and folding & unfolding them. You can even import and export your own patterns. (via kelli anderson)

A comprehensive guide to yellow stripey things

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Yellow Stripey Things

Bumblebee, honey bee, yellow jacket, paper wasp…what’s the difference? I don’t know if this comprehensive guide to Yellow Stripey Things is entirely truthful or not — a bumblebee is “actually a flying panda” and a yellow jacket “is just an asshole” — but it is pretty entertaining. Has anyone fact-checked this thing?

Ok fine, I’ll do it!1

Carpenter bees are mostly harmless:

Male carpenter bees are quite aggressive, often hovering in front of people who are around the nests. The males are quite harmless, however, since they lack stingers. Female carpenter bees can inflict a painful sting but seldom will unless they are handled or molested.

Honey bees don’t always sting just once:

A honey bee that is away from the hive foraging for nectar or pollen will rarely sting, except when stepped on or roughly handled. Honey bees will actively seek out and sting when they perceive the hive to be threatened, often being alerted to this by the release of attack pheromones (below).

Although it is widely believed that a worker honey bee can sting only once, this is a partial misconception: although the stinger is in fact barbed so that it lodges in the victim’s skin, tearing loose from the bee’s abdomen and leading to its death in minutes, this only happens if the skin of the victim is sufficiently thick, such as a mammal’s.

Bumblebees:

Queen and worker bumblebees can sting. Unlike in honeybees, a bumblebee’s sting lacks barbs, so the bee can sting repeatedly without injuring itself; by the same token, the sting is not left in the wound. Bumblebee species are not normally aggressive, but may sting in defence of their nest, or if harmed.

And yes, you can actually pet a bumblebee:

Hoverflies don’t sting. But paper wasps do and their sting can be deadly:

Unlike yellowjackets and hornets, which can be very aggressive, polistine paper wasps will generally only attack if they themselves or their nest are threatened. Since their territoriality can lead to attacks on people, and because their stings are quite painful and can produce a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction in some individuals, nests in human-inhabited areas may present an unacceptable hazard

I couldn’t find a good all-in-one source about yellow jackets, but by all accounts, they are aggressive and easily agitated.

The cicada killer wasp look fierce but are generally only dangerous to cicadas:

Solitary wasps (such as the eastern cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests; unlike most social wasps and bees, they do not attempt to sting unless handled roughly.

Mud daubers don’t sting people that often and prey on spiders:

Black and yellow mud daubers primarily prey on relatively small, colorful spiders, such as crab spiders (and related groups), orb weavers and some jumping spiders. They usually find them in and around vegetation. Blue mud daubers are the main predator of the black and brown widow spiders.

All in all, this checks out. </snopes>

Bonus stinging insect fact: There’s a sting pain index that entomologist Justin Schmidt first came up with in the 80s. Schmidt has been stung by almost everything with a stinger and rated the stings on a scale of 1 to 4 (least to most painful). He has also described the stings of individual insects more colorfully:

Western honey bee (level 2) — “Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye then with sulfuric acid.”

Giant paper wasp (level 3) — “There are gods, and they do throw thunderbolts. Poseidon has rammed his trident into your breast.”

  1. I saw this great quote from Lily Tomlin today: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.” No idea if she actually said that. I’ll let you track that one down…I’m busy with the bees.

Highlighting photo cliches on Instagram

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Insta Repeat collects photos of people (particularly so-called “influencers”) taking similar photos on Instagram — peeking out of an open tent flap, perched on top of an offroad vehicle, on the end of a dock — and displays them together.

Insta Repeat

Insta Repeat

Insta Repeat

Insta Repeat

See also this supercut of cliched Instagram travel photos.

Taking a photo of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or jumping in the middle of the road in Utah are really good ideas — that’s why lots of people do it — but each successive photo of the same thing doesn’t tell us anything new about those places, experiences, or people.

For influencers, a cliched photo is easy money, a tried and true way of capturing what others already know is the essence of a place or an experience. For most of the rest of us, we aren’t looking to say anything new about someone or somewhere. We just want to capture our experience to show our friends and well-wishers on Instagram. If I saw my tent flap hanging open to a beautiful mountain vista, of course I would take the hell out of that photo.

Poker pros replay their most memorable hands

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

The New Yorker asked three professional poker players to give blow-by-blow accounts of their most memorable hands. Aside from the rules, I know almost nothing about poker and have played Texas Hold’em for about one total hour in my life — guess how I did! — so I actually learned a lot from this video. And the third player’s explanation of his hand and his thought process was fascinating.

See also Scrabble pros recount their best and worst plays.

How would English sound if it were phonetically consistent?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

English is a marvelously and maddeningly inconsistent language. The words “rough”, “though”, “thought”, and “through” all contain “ough” but pronounced in a different way.

In this video, Aaron Alon gradually normalizes the vowel sounds in his speech down to one sound per letter. The end result sounds a little like Werner Herzog doing an impression of someone from Wales doing an impression of an Italian who doesn’t speak English that well. Which makes sense because that’s pretty much how the language came together in the first place!

The Bob Ross Challenge

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

As a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Micah Sherman and Mark Stetson produced a web series called The Bob Ross Challenge in which 13 comedians attempt to paint along with Bob Ross as he does his thing with the trees and little fluffy clouds. Here’s the first episode, featuring Aparna Nancherla:

I feel like she does a lot better than I would have! The episodes are each less than 2 minutes long…you can burn through the whole season in about 20 minutes. Or if you want to try the challenge yourself, you can watch every episode of The Joy of Painting on YouTube. (via open culture)

Mini Museum, a collection of micro-fragments of archaeological and historical artifacts

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

Mini Museum

Every wanted a chunk of the Moon, a bit of the Space Shuttle that’s been in orbit, an ancient fossil, or a 14th century knight’s sword? Mini Museum sells tiny fragments of rare and interesting artifacts encased in lucite, each one a tiny journey through the history of Earth.

You’ll visit the bright highlands of the Moon, witness devastating and cataclysmic events here on Earth, and examine hundreds of millions of years of evolution. You’ll turn your attention to the march of human civilization. The collection ends by turning back toward the promise of space and marveling at the wonder of life.

Their fourth edition includes items like dinosaur food from 280 million years ago, a bit of rock from the quarry used to build Stonehenge, a piece of Muhammad Ali’s speed bag, and a tiny chunk of an actual human heart. I wonder how they got permission to sell that last one… Can anyone sell a small hunk of a human body?

Vietnamese people “learn” how to make pho from American recipes

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

From Jenny Yang’s Bad Appetite series, a group of Vietnamese critique questionable recipes for phở from American recipe sites that, for instance, try to substitute daikon radish for the noodles?

Politely, to not hurt your feelings, I’ll eat it.

The title is wrong. The whole thing, the recipe is fine. You want to eat, whatever, you cook it. Not with that name. Wrong name. Rename it. This one’s “Japanese soup”.

Don’t skip the last third of this. After politely dissing the recipes, Yang’s subjects talk about the importance of food in Vietnamese culture and share stories of how they came to the United States.

See also Koreans Learn to Make Kimchi from Brad at Bon Appetit.

Typeset in the Future, a book about the typography & design of science fiction movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2018

Typeset In The Future

Inspired by the website of the same name, Dave Addey’s Typeset in the Future will look at how design and typography is used to build futuristic worlds in science fiction movies like 2001, Wall-E, Star Trek, and Blade Runner.

The book delves deep into 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, Blade Runner, Total Recall, WALL-E, and Moon, studying the design tricks and inspirations that make each film transcend mere celluloid and become a believable reality. These studies are illustrated by film stills, concept art, type specimens, and ephemera, plus original interviews with Mike Okuda (Star Trek), Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall), and Ralph Eggleston and Craig Foster (Pixar).

You can pre-order the book on Amazon.

Paying the stereotype tax in poker

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2018

Maria Konnikova is a writer for the New Yorker. Or she was until she went on sabbatical to play poker professionally. After immersing herself in the game while working on her third book, The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova discovered she was quite good at it, winning over $230,000 and a major tournament in a year.

Claudia Dreifus recently interviewed Konnikova for the New York Times and asked her about how she handles being one of the few women on the pro circuit.

When you see someone looking a certain way, you assume they play a certain way. So once I figure out how they view women, I can figure out how to play against them. They’re not seeing me as a poker player, they’re seeing me as a female poker player.

There are people who’d rather die than be bluffed by a woman. They’ll never fold to me because that’s an affront to their masculinity.

I never bluff them. I know that no matter how strong my hand, they are still going to call me because they just can’t fold to a girl.

Other people think women are incapable of bluffing. They think if I’m betting really aggressively, it means I have an incredibly strong hand. I bluff those people all the time.

There are people who think that women shouldn’t be at a poker table, and they try to bully me. So, what do I do? I let them. And I wait to be in a good position so that I can take their chips. Just like life, right?

In a 2015 NPR interview, pro player Annie Duke talked about getting her opponents to pay the stereotype tax.

VEDANTAM: She says she divided the men who had stereotypes about her into three categories.

DUKE: One was the flirting chauvinists, and that person was really viewing me in a way that was sexual.

VEDANTAM: With the guys who were like that, Annie could make nice.

DUKE: I never did go out on a date with any of them, but you know, it was kind of flirtatious at the table. And I could use that to my advantage.

VEDANTAM: And then there was the disrespecting chauvinist. Annie says these players thought women weren’t creative.

DUKE: There are strategies that you can use against them. Mainly, you can bluff those people a lot.

VEDANTAM: And then there’s a third kind of guy, perhaps the most reckless.

DUKE: The angry chauvinist.

VEDANTAM: This is a guy who would do anything to avoid being beaten by a woman. Annie says you can’t bluff an angry chauvinist. You just have to wait.

DUKE: What I say is, until they would impale themselves on your chips.

On the nature of wormholes

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2018

Are wormholes science or just science fiction? As this video by Kurzgesagt shows, they’re actually a little bit of both. Einstein and string theory both posit that these “short cuts” through spacetime could exist, but finding or building a stable wormhole, a la Star Trek, is another matter altogether.

In the description of the video, they link to a pair of papers published by Michael Morris and Kip Thorne in the late 80s: Wormholes, Time Machines, and the Weak Energy Condition and Wormholes in spacetime and their use for interstellar travel: A tool for teaching general relativity. For a high school physics class, I gave a presentation on wormholes & time travel and I’m pretty sure I used at least one of those papers as a reference. The presentation also included a clip of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The teacher gave me a B+ — he felt the presentation was excellent (*guitar riff*) but that I had, in spite of the movie clip, “lost most of the other students” and should have chosen a more suitable topic.

There’s Waldo, an AI trained to find Waldo

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2018

Add finding Waldo to the long list of things that machines can do better than humans. Creative agency Redpepper built a program that uses Google’s drag-and-drop machine learning service to find the eponymous character in the Where’s Waldo? series of books. After the AI finds a promising Waldo candidate, a robotic arm points to it on the page.

While only a prototype, the fastest There’s Waldo has pointed out a match has been 4.45 seconds which is better than most 5 year olds.

I know Skynet references are a little passé these days, but the plot of Terminator 2 is basically an intelligent machine playing Where’s Waldo I Want to Kill Him. We’re getting there!

The return of The Fantastic Four

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

FF1 - Origin.png

All superhero origin stories are preposterous. For that reason, as much as in spite of it, they are repeated again and again, to make them myths, something truer than mere credibility can allow.

The Fantastic Four’s origin story has been repeated more times than maybe any superhero’s but Batman’s. And it remains totally preposterous. The smartest man in the universe takes his best friend, girlfriend, and girlfriend’s teenage brother in a rocket he’s built, but forgot to shield against cosmic rays? And the rays give each of them different kinds of monster powers? It’s beautifully absurd.

But the 1961 Fantastic Four #1 remains one of the most important comics ever, primarily for injecting (get this) realism into superhero comics. Not because the characters looked like real people, but because they acted like real people transformed into monsters might act. They bickered, they got depressed, they ran into money problems; they tried to figure out their place in the world, which increasingly included things more preposterous than them. And that formula — a real family, in a real New York City, peeled open to reveal all the cosmic wonder underneath and just out of reach, changed storytelling forever.

This is all to say, there’s a brand-new Fantastic Four #1. (It’s at least the sixth “number one” issue released under that title.) The FF have been on hiatus in the comics for a few years; I wrote about why in this essay in The Verge from around that time. Now, since Disney/Marvel will soon own the Fantastic Four’s film rights again, we can probably expect yet another reboot in the movies as well. (Maybe even in the teaser after the end of the second half of Infinity War? I’m just spitballing.)

Like a lot of fans, I’m wary but excited. When the FF is really good — the 102-issue long original run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the early reboot by writer/artist John Byrne, the expansionist canvas of writer Jonathan Hickman — it really is the world’s greatest comic magazine. It makes comics bigger than any movie, big in the way only a two-dimensional artform can be. When the FF is not so good, it feels like all of its nostalgic Cold War-era ideas have passed by their sell date, a shabby stew of worn-out plots and bad guys too hammy for cartoons.

In comics and the movies, it’s all execution-dependent. Still, bringing back the Fantastic Four gives both the Marvel Comics Universe (which, some exceptions aside, has not been at its best for a while) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is rapidly running out of characters and stories to turn to) someplace new to go. It’s just a bit of historical irony that the future turns out to be where it all got started in the first place.

The mysteries of the supply chain

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

I’m a sucker for good attempts to think about the supply chain and global logistics networks — or rather, thinking through the impossibility of thinking about these networks, because of the systemic sublime. In “See No Evil,” Miriam Posner has a doozy of an essay that does just that. In particular, she picks up and runs with modularity: the feature that makes individual commodities, shipping containers, software components, and suppliers interchangeable and to no small extent invisible to each other.

How do you manage the complexity of a system that procures goods from a huge variety of locations? You make it modular: when you black-box each component, you don’t need to know anything about it except that it meets your specifications. Information about provenance, labor conditions, and environmental impact is unwieldy when the goal of your system is simply to procure and assemble goods quickly. “You could imagine a different way of doing things, so that you do know all of that,” said Russell, “so that your gaze is more immersive and continuous. But what that does is inhibit scale.” And scale, of course, is key to a globalized economy.

On the one hand, this all seems very logical and straightforward: to manage complexity, we’ve learned to break objects and processes into interchangeable parts. But the consequences of this decision are wide-ranging and profound.

It helps explain, for one thing, why it’s so hard to “see” down the branches of a supply network. It also helps explain why transnational labor organizing has been so difficult: to fit market demands, workshops have learned to make themselves interchangeable. It sometimes seems as though there’s a psychological way in which we’ve absorbed the lessons of modularity—although the world is more connected than ever, we seem to have trouble imagining and articulating how we’re linked to the other denizens of global manufacturing networks.

Modularity, one of Posner’s sources says, has become a “characteristic of modernity.” And because each box is invisible to the next, even technologies like RFID tags, blockchain ledgers, and machine learning just become new black boxes, or “one more technology to counterfeit,” as another source puts it. There’s no putting Humpty Dumpty together again.

Music and depression

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Consuming media when you’re depressed is a delicate business. Too much emotion, too much novelty, too much engagement can be overwhelming. You want familiarity, but you don’t want to spiral into rumination on your own past. You want reassurance, you want escape, you want meaning and meaninglessness. You want something that can square the circle of proximity and distance when your own thoughts feel all too unfamiliar, yet too close.

For me, it’s doo-wop, and/or old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But writer Blair Thornburgh loves sea shanties, and she makes a compelling case for why they were so moving to her during her own depression.

In the shanties, there are gals: the gals o’ Dublin Town, the gals o’ Chile, New York gals, Spanish ladies, the girl in Portland Street, Maggie May, Lucy Long, Susiana Brown. There is food—salt beef, salt bread, oatcake, codfish—and (of course) there is drink: grog, rum, whiskey, lime juice, beer. There are ports in Quebec, Bonnie Scotland, South Australia, ‘Frisco Bay. There is longing, there is forward motion, there is purpose; a shore behind and a shore before.

But there is also endlessness, the futility of a horizon that spills wave over wave. A life adrift is the only life that can endure, one journey after another the only way to earn your keep. There is certainty without stability, there is solid ground only briefly under your feet. Then poor old Jack must understand / There’s ships in docks all wanting hands; / So he goes on board as he did before, / And bids adieu to his native shore. / For he is outward bound, hurrah, he is outward bound.

The language of depression can be curiously maritime. It comes in waves; it drowns us; it’s the Mariner’s albatross around our necks. We long for smooth sailing, for hope on the horizon, an even keel. And the summer I stopped taking Seroquel, my depression was a riptide. I could see the shimmering okayness of everything around me, all the way to the edge: I was employed, insured, well-fed, loved. And yet it was useless to me: I was either plunged into hopelessness, or dying slowly of thirst.

Family snapshots of ancient Earth

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Earth 240 Million Years Ago.png

This is fun to play with: Dinosaur Pictures has a Google Earth-style globe that shows the state of the planet at various intervals 20 million, 200 million, or 750 million years ago, with plenty of stops in between. You can watch India collide into the rest of Asia, or jump to the birth (and death) of dinosaurs, the first flowers, the first hominids, etc. And you can watch the whole planet or zero in on an individual contemporary address.

One point of view that I found oddly soothing: the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All over the planet, millions of years are passing by, transforming the land-bound flora and fauna through tectonic and climatic upheavals, and the ocean just… stays the ocean. Big things are happening below the surface, but the biggest part of the planet just continues to be this deep blue, undisturbed marble.

This is every TED Talk

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

From CBC’s This Is That, a satirical presentation that is

I’m now going to come back to the center of the stage and give you some unremarkable context about how I became a thought leader. If it’s ok with you, I’d like to pace while telling you this story.

I chuckled throughout this, but deep down I’d love to have the stage presence to give a talk like this. Whenever I’ve done talks in the past, my brain always convinces me that I’m about to be eaten by a lion — “flee flee flee!” — and I end up doing my best impression of the squeaky-voiced teen from The Simpsons.

Update: In 2014, Will Stephen did a talk at TedxNewYork that’s very similar to the one above, perhaps even a bit better.

White men speaking confidently gets you 85% of the way to a compelling talk, irrespective of content. (via @h4emtfr)

Where do common sports idioms like “out of left field” come from?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

Victor Mather wrote about the origin of sports idioms like “wild-goose chase”, “hands down”, and “sticky wicket” for the NY Times. Some of these I didn’t even know were sports terms. “Back to square one” is an interesting entry:

As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.

First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.

The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.

That soccer explanation is more compelling, even if untrue. It’s fun to hear how practitioners of early media tried to represent sports to people who couldn’t view the game. For a time, baseball games were broadcast to viewers using various machines and even actors who “played” the game as reports came in via telegraph.

“A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report,” read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn’t enough to entice you, the paper also noted that “A great many ladies were present.”) Although this live-action reenactment attempted at the opera house in Atlanta may have been the closest approximation of a real baseball game, it does not seem to have ever spread beyond Georgia.

Recently digitized and declassified videos of nuclear tests

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

For the past six years, physicist Greg Spriggs and a team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have been tracking down films of nuclear tests conducted by the United States in order to digitize and declassify them.

“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” Spriggs said. “We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless. The data that we’re collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose. They’re made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data.”

You can find over 400 of the films they’ve restored so far on LLNL’s YouTube account.

From Errol Morris, a list of 10 things you should know about truth & photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

In 2011, writer and filmmaker Errol Morris summarized the main points in Believing Is Seeing, his book on the nature of truth, belief, and reality in photography with a series of tweets.

1. All photographs are posed.

2. The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)

3. Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)

4. False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.

5. There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)

6. Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.

7. Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they believe about a photograph.

8. The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.

9. All photographs are posed but never in the same way.

10. Photographs provide evidence. (The question is of what?)

Morris expanded on the third item in his list in a 2007 NY Times piece.

In discussing truth and photography, we are asking whether a caption or a belief — whether a statement about a photograph — is true or false about (the things depicted in) the photograph. A caption is like a statement. It trumpets the claim, “This is the Lusitania.” And when we wonder “Is this a photograph of the Lusitania?” we are wondering whether the claim is true or false. The issue of the truth or falsity of a photograph is only meaningful with respect to statements about the photograph. Truth or falsity “adheres” not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph. Depending on the statements, our answers change. All alone — shorn of context, without captions — a photograph is neither true nor false.

(via austin kleon)

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

Culled from thousands of entrants from more than 140 countries around the world, here are the winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards. What’s really interesting is that many of the winners were not shot on iPhone 8 or iPhone X but with iPhone 7s and 6s and even 5s. That’s a good reminder of Clayton Cubitt’s three step guide to photography: “01: be interesting. 02: find interesting people. 03: find interesting places. Nothing about cameras.”

That said, the increase in photo quality from the first contest in 2008, just a year after the iPhone launched, is welcome. The initial iPhone had just a 2 megapixel camera with a mediocre lens while the iPhone X packs a 12 megapixel resolution and an incredible lens.

Photos above by Huapeng Zhao and Alexandre Weber.

Today’s moment of zen: 30 hummingbirds splashing around in a birdbath

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

I’m not saying that your day will be 100% better if you watch this short video of 30 normally super-aggro hummingbirds splashing around together in a birdbath, but I’m not not saying that either. At any rate, this video is quite charming. (via colossal)

Behind-the-scenes footage shows how the Mission Impossible: Fallout stunts were done

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

Tom Cruise is not scared of heights. And he can fly helicopters? (Not only can he fly them, he does it well enough to perform stunts.) In this rough 30-minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of Mission Impossible: Fallout, you get to see how many of the movie’s best stunts are done. Note: you’ll need to skip around a bit…there’s a lot of less exciting bits in there too. But don’t miss the car/bike stuff at the beginning, Cruise flying/hanging from the chopper, and, holy shit, the skydive choreography at the end, where the actors and camera folks dance intricately in a military cargo plane with the back hatch open before just jumping out of it, Cruise acting all the way.

You can tell when watching the film that you’re seeing practical effects. Visual effects are getting really really good, but movies like this with real people driving real vehicles…they just feel different. Visual effects sometimes break the fourth wall (and not in a good way); if it looks fake, your brain says “that’s fake”, and then you’re just a little less invested in what’s going on in the story.

“Rodney Mullen on Bath Salts”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

I don’t know what is going on in this video — boards coming apart and then back together again, trucks on hinges, ice “skating”, and other inventive nonsense on a skateboard — but it seems like a lot of it defies reality in a Newtonian sense. Sir Isaac’s all like, feck thee, thou’st foote wagon is not poss’ble. (Yeah, I don’t know either. Matt Tomasello is good at skateboarding and seems to have fun doing it. Watch the video.) (via @bmovement)

The book of wood

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

Wood Book

Wood Book

Between 1888 and 1913, Romeyn Beck Hough worked on a multi-volume book called The American Woods that contained 1000+ paper-thin wood slices from more than 350 different varieties of North American trees.

Each specimen page of the work is dedicated to a single tree and consists of a cardboard plate into which three translucent slices have been placed, three variations of cross-section — transverse, radial, and tangential. The wafer-thin slivers — which would glow like a slide when held up to the light — were prepared using a slicing machine of Hough’s own design and which he patented in 1886. In addition to the specimens Hough also provides information about the characteristics, growth habits, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities of the tree. With some of the trees in the book now very rare the series now has an added value and, as Rebecca Onion from Slate’s The Vault comments, “stands as a memorial to the shape and extent of American forests at the end of the 19th century”.

What a fantastically odd book. You can view the whole thing at Internet Archive.

The Economist: “America’s electoral system gives the Republicans advantages over Democrats”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

The Economist writes about how the US Constitution, our first-past-the-post voting system, and demographic changes have combined to give Republicans a significant advantage in legislative elections.

The source of this discrepancy is that Democrats will win their seats with big majorities in fewer districts, whereas Republicans will prevail by narrower margins in a larger number of districts. In 2016 Democrats who beat Republican opponents won an average of 67.4% of the two-party vote in their districts, whereas Republicans who defeated Democrats received an average of 63.8%. This imbalance is partly due to deliberate attempts to create districts that provide such results, and partly just down to the fact that Democrats tend to live more tightly bunched together in cities. Together, these two factors put up quite an obstacle. According to our model, the Democrats need to win 53.5% of all votes cast for the two major parties just to have a 50/50 chance of winning a majority in the House.

If this imbalance were limited to a single chamber of the legislature, or a single election cycle, the Democrats’ frequent carping about a stacked electoral deck might sound like sour grapes. All electoral systems have their oddities. But changes in where Americans live and contradictions in their constitution — a document designed to work with many weak factions that has instead encouraged and entrenched an increasingly polarised two-party system — have opened gaps between what the voters choose and the representation they get in every arm of the federal government. In recent decades these disparities have consistently favoured the Republicans, and there is no reason to think that trend is going to change on its own.

In the past three House elections, Republicans’ share of House seats has been 4-5 percentage points greater than their share of the two-party vote. In 2012 they won a comfortable 54% of the chamber despite receiving fewer votes than their Democratic opponents; in 2014 they converted a 51% two-party-vote share into 55% of the seats.

Such comparisons are harder for the Senate, where only a third of the 100 seats are contested in any election. But adding together all the votes from the most recent election of each senator, Republicans got only 46% of them, and they hold 51 of the seats.

And let’s not even talk about the presidential elections…

In all the world’s other 58 fully presidential democracies — those in which the president is both head of state and head of government — the winning candidate gets the most votes in the final, or only, round of voting. But due to the “electoral college” system that America’s founders jury-rigged in part to square the needs of democracy with the demography of slavery, this does not hold true for America. States vote in the college in proportion to their combined representation in both houses of Congress. This set-up means that a candidate who wins narrowly in many small and smallish states can beat one who gets more votes overall, but racks most of them up in big majorities in a few big states.

During almost all of the 20th century this did not matter much; the candidate who got the most votes won every election from 1896 to 1996. But both of the past two Republicans to win the presidency have received fewer votes when first elected than their Democratic opponents did. In the contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, this margin was a modest 0.5 percentage points. In 2016, however, it was substantial: Hillary Clinton’s lead of 2.1 percentage points was larger than those enjoyed by the victorious John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

In 1998, author and media critic Neil Postman gave a talk he called Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Here are the five ideas Postman shared that day, which are all still highly relevant today:

1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.

5. Media tend to become mythic. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.

His first idea about technology is perhaps the most apropos to the current moment:

The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. Or you might reflect on the paradox of medical technology which brings wondrous cures but is, at the same time, a demonstrable cause of certain diseases and disabilities, and has played a significant role in reducing the diagnostic skills of physicians. It is also well to recall that for all of the intellectual and social benefits provided by the printing press, its costs were equally monumental. The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman — that is to say, printing reduced God to the dimensions of a local potentate.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.

It is nearly impossible to read these paragraphs and not think about how social media (and the internet more generally) has shaped our culture in both good and bad ways…and those who still believe that services like Facebook or Twitter are “unmixed blessings”. The rest of the talk is equally thought-provoking and enlightening.

P.S. Postman made these remarks about 2 weeks after I started publishing kottke.org 20 years ago. At that time, very few people I knew or interacted with online saw anything but the positive aspects of the internet and personal publishing online. Should we have seen the weaponization of the internet coming? Perhaps. But then again, not a lot of people who enjoyed the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Lassie could have anticipated the government-shaping toxicity of Fox News and cable news in general.

Territorial maps of indigenous nations in the Americas & Australia/NZ

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

Native Lands Map

Native Lands Map

The Native Land site is a collaborative effort to map the approximate boundaries of the territories and languages of the indigenous nations in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand.

Did this unassuming small-town couple steal a $160 million Willem de Kooning painting?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2018

De Kooning Stolen

When Jerry and Rita Alter died, a painting was found in their bedroom in the tiny town of Cliff, NM, and then was sold to an antiques dealer along with the rest of their effects for $2000. The dealer soon discovered that the painting was an original Willem de Kooning worth in the neighborhood of $150 million. The painting had been stolen in a daring raid from a Tucson museum in 1985 and a recently discovered piece of evidence shows the Alters were in Tucson on the day before the theft.

De Kooning Stolen

The next morning, a man and a woman would walk into the museum and then leave 15 minutes later. A security guard had unlocked the museum’s front door to let a staff member into the lobby, curator Olivia Miller told NPR. The couple followed. Since the museum was about to open for the day, the guard let them in.

The man walked up to the museum’s second floor while the woman struck up a conversation with the guard. A few minutes later, he came back downstairs, and the two abruptly left, according to the NPR interview and other media reports.

Sensing that something wasn’t right, the guard walked upstairs. There, he saw an empty frame where de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” had hung.

At the time, the museum had no surveillance cameras. Police found no fingerprints. One witness described seeing a rust-color sports car drive away but didn’t get the license plate number. For 31 years, the frame remained empty.

Earlier this year, WFAA made a short documentary film about the Alters and the heist.

(If you don’t want to watch the entire video, at least check out the bit starting at 18:00 where the painting is given back to the museum and authenticated…that is something you rarely see on video as it happens.)

Adding to the mystery: the couple obviously never sold the painting but they retired early, travelled the world, and left a $1 million inheritance, all seemingly beyond their means as public school employees.

Something else doesn’t add up. Jerry and Rita Alter worked in public schools for most of their careers. Yet they somehow managed to travel to 140 countries and all seven continents, documenting their trips with tens of thousands of photos.

And yet, when they died, they had more than a million dollars in their bank account, according to the Sun News.

“I guess I figured they were very frugal,” their nephew, Ron Roseman, told WFAA.

Hmm, where did they get all that coin?

My Crane Wife

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

crane.jpg

At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in northern Virginia, a rare crane named Walnut imprinted at a young age on a human keeper. This made it impossible for her to mate with other cranes; she soon acquired a reputation for killing any males who tried to court her. Surprisingly, she instead was able to produce by courting with, mating, and bonding for life with another human zoo worker, who now dances and simulates copulation with her even when they’re not trying to reproduce. It’s a weird and amazing story.

When Crowe stopped by her yard, she would bow her head and raise her wings — motions that Crowe now recognizes as the first moves of a mating dance. “At first, I thought that she was just excited to see me,” Crowe says. “But then I’d see the other pairs doing the same things, and it kind of dawned on me.” Crowe accepted Walnut’s invitation to dance. Though he felt a little silly, he bobbed his head when Walnut bobbed hers, and raised and lowered his arms like wings. The two circled each other, and sometimes Walnut would make a loud, trumpeting call — the beginning of the white-naped crane love duet. If no one was around, Crowe would try to do the male part of the song — making a Homer Simpson-like “woo-hoo” — but Walnut never found his efforts satisfactory….

Captive cranes can live past 60 years old, which means Crowe’s commitment to Walnut could, in theory, last decades. “If she’s still here when I’m eligible for retirement, I won’t be able to leave,” he says. “I’d feel like a jerk.” Another male keeper — and Walnut clearly prefers men to women — might be able to woo her if Crowe were to disappear. But, as Crowe has seen with his other cranes, the loss of a mate is traumatic. Widowed cranes stop eating and fill the air with mournful calls, sometimes for weeks on end.

It’s unlikely that Walnut will be called on to produce more chicks, but Crowe continues to dance with her and even “mate” with her when she asks. It’s a strange job, but Crowe says he’s used to getting teased at this point. “I’ve heard every joke,” he says, and then shares his favorite: “What’s the difference between erotic and kinky? Erotic, you use a feather. Kinky, you use the whole bird.”

The whole thing reminds me of The Decemberists’ song “The Crane Wife,” and “Tsuru no Ongaeshi,” the Japanese folk tale it’s based on.

Once upon a time, there lived an elderly couple in a certain place. On a snowy day in winter, the old man was going to town to sell firewood, when he found a crane that was caught in a hunter’s trap. Feeling sorry, he released the bird from the trap. That night while the snow fell violently, a beautiful girl came to the couple’s house. According to her explanation, ever since her parents died, she had been traveling between relatives she had never met before, when she got lost and as a result would like to stay for one night. The couple heartily welcomed her into their home. The snow had not quite stopped the next day, and the day after that, as the girl remained in the house of the elderly couple. Meanwhile, the girl tirelessly took care of the couple, making them happy. One day, the girl asked the couple, instead of sending her off to meet relatives she had never met before, to please make her their daughter. The elderly couple was delighted to accept.

As she continued to help the old couple, one day she requested: “I would like to weave a cloth, so please buy me yarn”. When she was handed the purchased yarn, she stated: “Please don’t ever look in the room.” to the couple; then hid in the room, and wove for three days straight without a break. “Sell this, and buy me more yarn”, she told the couple. The cloth was very beautiful, and became the talk of the town immediately, and sold for a good price. With the new thread that was bought with the new money, their daughter wove another fabric with stunning workmanship, selling at a higher price and making the elderly couple wealthy.

However, when she confined herself to the room to weave a third piece, while the couple persevered in keeping the promise at first, they began to wonder how she wove such beautiful cloth. Unable to fight curiosity, the old lady took a peek inside. Where there should have been a girl was a crane. The crane plucked its own feathers to weave between the threads to produce a glittering cloth. Large portions of the wing had already been plucked out, leaving the crane in a pitiful state. In front of the shocked elderly couple, the daughter who finished weaving approached them, confessing that she was the crane that was saved. While she had intended to remain their daughter, she had to leave, as her true identity has been discovered. She turned back into a crane and flew into the sky, leaving behind the remorseful elderly couple.

The golden age of TV recaps

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

I have mixed feelings about The Ringer’s enormous ranking of the 100 best TV shows of the century (so far), but I’ve enjoyed some of the accompanying material. In particular, I like Alison Herman’s essay on the rise, fall, and metastasis of TV recap culture in the late 90s and early 2000s. Regardless of whether you believe the premise that time was a golden age of television, it was almost certainly the golden age of TV recaps.

Part of the reason now-classic episodes like Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” or The Sopranos’ finale are remembered as such is because recappers were there to register their amazement and enumerate the reasons why those hours had the power to shock and surprise. “Sopranos and Mad Men are two of the best shows to write recaps of, because they’re so dense and laden with meaning and subtext and symbolism,” [Alan] Sepinwall explains. “You get to really dive in deep with, Well, what does all that mean? What was the show trying to say?” This would prove a common theme of the rise of recapping: More was being written about TV because, in many critics’ minds, there was more to write about. As for viewers, they got the message that neither TV criticism nor TV itself was a one-way street. Television didn’t have to be talked about as an investment to be made or checked in on, but as it was actually experienced: as a regular, consistent part of our lives.

Herman’s genealogy hits some of the usual suspects (Television Without Pity, The Onion’s AV Club, Gossip Girl) while also giving time to some lesser-traveled corners of the recaposphere, like Mad Style, the Mad Men fashion recap series that helped spawn similar specialist takes on other costume-heavy shows.

But the arc in general is pretty familiar: a few pioneers (both TV shows and the people who recap them) help establish the parameters of style, before a glut of content and commentary made the form less coherent and universal. Streaming and social led to a deemphasis of the episode as a unit and the recapper as an authority. Production, distribution, and reception all fundamentally changed. (So did the blogosphere and the broader cultural media universe, which maybe gets shortchanged some in Herman’s account.)

And maybe the Recap Age was all a little too ponderous and self-serious, especially when it came to “jokes.” Some of it doesn’t age well. But it’s a time when a lot of exciting things were happening, not least on the television set, and it’s one I still miss.

The history and future of the hardware store

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

hardware art show.jpg

Like a lot of small-scale local retail, independent hardware stores have taken a hit from the encroachment of big box stores. But their numbers remain steady, and the stores that remain are doing quite well. That’s no accident, writes Shannon Mattern in a wise, well-observed article at Places that doubles as a history of the American general store.

Why should we care about the survival of these quotidian spaces, with their ten-cent goods, at a time of crisis when many American cities lack affordable housing and clean water? I’d argue that the hardware store is more than a “common ground.” It’s a place of exchange based on values that are evidently in short supply among our political and corporate leaders: competence, intention, utility, care, repair, and maintenance. In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, hardware stores promote a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility. They encourage civic forms of accreditation, resistant to metrics and algorithms. At some neighborhood stores, you can stop in for a couple of screws and be waved off from paying at the register.

Mattern, whose family owned a hardware store in Pennsylvania, writes about the effect the hardware store’s worldview had on her as she worked there growing up:

Everything had its place. Wires and cables, pipes and elbows, hinges, washers, nuts, and springs; screws slotted, Phillips, hex, and torx; roofing nails and framing nails and finishing nails. People, too, had their stations: mostly women at the cash registers up front, all men at the back service counter and in the yard. To me the store’s order seemed sublime: magical and scary, and always tempered by a persistent layer of dust.

Yet growing up in that environment impressed upon me that pretty much everything can be made and fixed by regular people. It helped me appreciate how the world hangs together — how a building stands up, how electricity gets to the outlet, how water gets in the kitchen sink and out of a flooded basement. Triangle offered an elegant geometry. You could buy frames and fasteners for fixing material things, and you could access a social infrastructure that gave shape to the community. The world was built from the stuff on its shelves.

All this makes me wonder — what epistemology (or epistemologies) do the common commercial spaces of the 21st century represent? What’s been gained, and what’s been lost? What’s been transformed so subtly we can barely even see it?

(Via Maryn McKenna)

A beautiful pedestrian bridge in Vietnam

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2018

Ba Na Hills Bridge

This new pedestrian bridge at the Sun World Bà Nà Hills resort near Da Nang, Vietnam is really something else. From Colossal:

The 500-foot bridge rests in two outstretched palms which have been weathered with cracks and moss to give the appearance of age. While walking along the attraction visitors can look out over the sweeping mountains at a height of nearly 4,600 feet above sea level, and take in the beauty of the bright purple Lobelia Chrysanthemum flowers which dot the structure’s perimeter.

“I have a secret. My father is Steve Jobs.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Vanity Fair has an excerpt of Small Fry, a memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the oldest daughter of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who named an early computer after her. Jobs notoriously denied paternity from the moment of Brennan-Jobs’ birth.

Then, in 1980, the district attorney of San Mateo County, California, sued my father for child-support payments. My father responded by denying paternity, swearing in a deposition that he was sterile and naming another man he said was my father.

I was required to take a DNA test. The tests were new then, and when the results came back, they gave the odds that we were related as the highest the instruments could measure at the time: 94.4 percent. The court required my father to cover welfare back payments, child-support payments of $385 per month, which he increased to $500, and medical insurance until I was 18. The case was finalized on December 8, 1980, with my father’s lawyers insistent to close. Four days later Apple went public and overnight my father was worth more than $200 million.

But before that, just after the court case was finalized, my father came to visit me once at our house in Menlo Park, where we had rented a detached studio. It was the first time I’d seen him since I’d been a newborn in Oregon.

“You know who I am?” he asked. He flipped his hair out of his eyes.

I was three years old; I didn’t.

“I’m your father.” (“Like he was Darth Vader,” my mother said later, when she told me the story.)

“I’m one of the most important people you will ever know,” he said.

10 useful foreign language words without direct English translations

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

From The Guardian, 10 of the best words in the world that don’t have direct English translations. From Spain, “sobremesa”:

Lunch — and it is more usually lunch than dinner — will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

And from Iran, “Ta’arof”:

It is an etiquette that is seen almost in all aspects of Iranian life, from hosts insisting on guests taking more food from the table, to the exchanges in the bazaar. “How much is this carpet?” asks Ms A after choosing her favourite in the shop. “It’s worthless, you can just take it,” responds the seller, quite disingenuously.

Although Ms A in reality cannot take the carpet out of the shop without paying for it, the seller might insist up to three times that she should just do that, until the amount of the price is finally mentioned.

Here’s one not from the piece that I’ve seen floating around Twitter in recent days: the Japanese word “tsundoku”, which means to purchase books but never read them, letting them pile up on shelves or nightstands.

If Beale Street Could Talk

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Director Barry Jenkins is back with his first feature film since Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar in 2016. It’s called If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of a 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin.

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions-affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

The trailer looks amazing…can’t wait to see this one.

Photos of Tokyo taken with a fractal lens look incredibly futuristic

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Photographer Steve Roe brought his fractal lens to Japan & Korea and got some shots that look like they’re out of Blade Runner, Speed Racer, or anime.

Steve Roe Fractal

Steve Roe Fractal

Steve Roe Fractal

The lenses are adjustable prism filters that picks up images from outside the camera’s normal field of view, allowing for in-camera layering effects. You can check out more photos shot with these lenses on Instagram (though few quite as successful as Roe’s).

The etymology of “orange”: which came first, the color or the fruit?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Orange Painting

The human eye can see millions of colors but it can take awhile for language to catch up. Take the color orange. Until the 16th century, there was no word for that color in English and even then, when writers referenced it, they said something like “that thing that is the color of an orange”.

Orange, however, seems to be the only basic color word for which no other word exists in English. There is only orange, and the name comes from the fruit. Tangerine doesn’t really count. Its name also comes from a fruit, a variety of the orange, but it wasn’t until 1899 that “tangerine” appears in print as the name of a color-and it isn’t clear why we require a new word for it. This seems no less true for persimmon and for pumpkin. There is just orange. But there was no orange, at least before oranges came to Europe.

This is not to say that no one recognized the color, only that there was no specific name for it. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the rooster Chaunticleer dreams of a threatening fox invading the barnyard, whose “color was betwixe yelow and reed.” The fox was orange, but in the 1390s Chaucer didn’t have a word for it. He had to mix it verbally. He wasn’t the first to do so. In Old English, the form of the language spoken between the 5th and 12th centuries, well before Chaucer’s Middle English, there was a word geoluhread (yellow-red). Orange could be seen, but the compound was the only word there was for it in English for almost 1,000 years.

Also, it has never occurred to me before reading this that “chromatically brown is a low-intensity orange”. !!! Anyway, this piece is an excerpt from the book On Color.

See also literature’s slow invention of the color blue. Orange painting by James Shull (via jodi)

Logos for Trump’s Space Force from eight leading designers

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

Bloomberg Businessweek asked eight designers to design a logo for Trump’s proposed new branch of the military, Space Force. 89-year-old Milton Glaser, designer of the iconic I ❤ NY logo, can still bring the heat:

Space Force Logo

I really really *really* want this on a hat. (via df)

Anthropocene, a new film about how humans are changing the Earth forever

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

From Edward Burtynsky (known around these parts for his aerial photographs of industrial landscapes) and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier comes a film called Anthropocene.

The Holocene epoch started 11,700 years ago as the glaciers of the last ice age receded. Geologists and other scientists from the Anthropocene Working Group believe that we have left the Holocene and entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Their argument is that humans have become the single most defining force on the planet and that the evidence for this is overwhelming. Terraforming of the earth through mining, urbanization, industrialization and agriculture; the proliferation of dams and diverting of waterways; CO2 and acidification of oceans due to climate change; the pervasive presence around the globe of plastics, concrete, and other technofossils; unprecedented rates of deforestation and extinction: these human incursions, they argue, are so massive in scope that they have already entered, and will endure in, geological time.

The film is one part of a larger “multimedia exploration” of the human epoch, which will include a book of new photography from Burtynsky, a traveling museum exhibition, interactive VR & AR experiences, and an educational program.

The film is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Stunning photo of a lightning storm with undulating asperitas clouds

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

Gabriel Zaparolli

Holy moly, would you look at this photo taken by Gabriel Zaparolli!

This photo shows a distant lightning storm and asperitas clouds looming over the outskirts of Torres, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, as observed during the evening of June 10, 2018. On this long-exposure image it seems that most of the lightning consisted of cloud-to-ground strokes. Asperitas form in convective storms when the air in downdrafts (cooled by the sublimation of ice crystals) pushes through the cloud base.

Asperitas clouds plus lightning? What a capture.

Computer-optimized floor plans

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

Optimized Floor Plans

Joel Simon used a generative design process powered by a genetic algorithm to optimize the floor plans of buildings for different characteristics. That is, the algorithm “grew” buildings that had ideal floor plans for minimizing construction materials, shortest fire escape paths, and access to views — without worrying about how the buildings would actually be constructed.

The results were biological in appearance, intriguing in character and wildly irrational in practice.

As building materials and techniques continue to develop beyond the rectilinear bricks and concrete blocks, the “wildly irrational in practice” bit will become increasingly irrelevant. (via bb)

We almost stopped climate change in the 80s. What happened?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2018

Steinmetz Desert

The New York Times Magazine has devoted its entire issue this weekend to a single article by Nathanial Rich: Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.

The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?

Because in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Photo by George Steinmetz, who did the photography for the Times piece.

Update: For a critical reading of Rich’s piece, check out this Twitter thread by Alex Steffen.

I notice that reactions to “Losing Earth” seem divided along a pretty straight-forward line: Those who work in climate science, journalism or advocacy-and those who don’t.

Folks who don’t work on climate for a living seem more positive about the piece than those who do.

There’s a reason for that: It’s a long essay that gets its subject wrong, and the ways it goes wrong are ways many of us who work on climate have seen again and again. It’s work that doesn’t know its history, and so makes old mistakes.

Weirdly central in Nathaniel Rich’s story is the claim that there existed a time before politics, when climate change was not hampered by opposition: “The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way…”

This is simply untrue.

He doubles down on the idea by explicitly exonerating high-CO2 industries + the GOP

“A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado. …Nor can the Republican Party be blamed.”

Robinson Meyer makes a similar point at The Atlantic.

The thrust of this history seems to suggest that powerful figures in the Republican Party were already skeptical of human-caused climate change by 1980. These leaders had not yet converted most Republican rank-and-file voters to their view, and indeed there may have been a few supporters of climate action in the party. But by and large, the most influential administration officials muddied climate science and weakened climate policy.

If Rich seems a little too charitable to the G.O.P, he lets fossil-fuel interests off the hook entirely. It’s likely that oil executives knew humans were triggering climate change before Rich’s story even picks up.

Archives    July 2018 »    June 2018 »    May 2018 »