homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

Entries for August 2018 (September 2018 »    October 2018 »    November 2018 »    Archives)

 

Letter of Recommendation: Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, read by Martin Shaw

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 31, 2018

fingolfin-the-silmarillion.jpeg

So for the past year or two, almost nonstop, I’ve been reading and rereading JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the great, weird pseudo-prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Or rather, I’ve been listening to it, since the version I’ve been rereading is the audiobook read by Martin Shaw. If my digital counters are correct, I’ve listened* to the whole thing at least 40 times (where “listened*” includes dozing off and barely paying attention, but those count too). I recently described it on Twitter as my favorite book of any type, and that’s the kind of big talk that requires some elaboration, which I’ll try to give here.

The Silmarillion is a weird-ass book. You could call it a book with a book up its own ass. I called it a pseudo-prequel because while it was published after The Lord of the Rings and to a certain extent presupposes it, much of it was written well before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings was published. It also doesn’t really tell you (except for a comparatively short bit at the end) what happened just before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that led up to it as it does what happened centuries before that set the entire universe into motion. So it’s not so much “Young Aragorn goes on adventures” as “who were Elrond’s parents and grandparents exactly?” It’s a much deeper cut.

It includes some of the oldest material Tolkien ever wrote that had anything to do with Middle Earth, as well as later revisions he made. You could see it as a kind of historical/mythological background for The Lord of the Rings, or as a set of connected stories that are interesting in their own right. There are no hobbits, but plenty of elves, dwarves, humans, and angelic and demonic monsters and gods. It’s all told in a high, historical style, with relatively little direct dialogue or internal monologue. There are very few routes into the material by way of consistent or relatable characters. But despite all this, it’s a remarkably moving, cinematic, and powerful piece of fiction.

Oh, and it also wasn’t exactly intended for publication, and was sort of a mess when Tolkien died, so his son Christopher did a lot of work assembling and condensing the material and making it consistent. It’s been through the blender a couple of times.

While there are great examples of narrative within it, it’s not really a narrative. It’s a combination of narratives and architecture, or taxonomy. Some of the chapters tell stories, and others explain who everybody is, where they live, and how they’re related to each other. It stops and starts in time, telling different stories from different points of view. Some of the chapters are much richer in narrative details than others, giving you the impression that it’s been condensed from heterogeneous materials (which it kind of was). The books it’s closest to are anthologies of classical mythologies (which it kind of is).

None of this sounds like it should be a great book, let alone a great audiobook. But I’m telling you, somehow, it works. The stops and starts, the catalogs and stories within stories, give it a modular quality that is especially good for listening for twenty minutes or an hour at a time. You can pick it up and leave it off anywhere, and you haven’t necessarily missed anything. Something new is always starting.

What it actually reminds me of is modern serial storytelling, especially in prestige TV dramas. Every episode builds towards the whole, but can also stand on its own. There’s a huge interconnected cast of characters, and a high bodycount, which means narrative focus tends to drift between different characters as focal points as people come and go. It just happens over centuries rather than years, because they’re gods and elves and shit.

There are also a few self-contained stories in the book that are given longer treatment that represent Tolkien’s best attempts to imitate the kind of older storytelling he was trying to revive. The two most noteworthy stories are Beren and Luthien, which sort of prefigures the Aragorn and Arwen story but also channels old folktales and myths in a way that none of The Hobbit or LOTR can really touch, and then the story of Turin Turambar, which was expanded and released on its own as The Children of Hurin. The Turin story is high Germanic operatic tragedy. (A third story, The Fall of Gondolin, never really reached a final form, and it gets a rather cursory telling in The Silmarillion).

The rest of the stories are told pretty quickly. It’s written more like a movie treatment than a novel. And I think this helps the book work as an audiobook as well — you have to work a little harder to generate the characters and their interactions in your mind, so you do it, mainlined from a relatively brief audio description, so you don’t have that dragging feeling like you’re already ahead of the text. It’s just one brisk scene after another.

Now, all this means that there’s huge potential in The Silmarillion as a high-end TV series, especially now that Amazon owns the rights to the Tolkien legendarium. There’s also huge potential to screw it up. And — I think — Amazon is not necessarily wrong in thinking there might be more commercial potential in writing the adventures of a Hot Young Aragorn from more-or-less scratch than there is in bringing the stories of Elrond’s grandparents to the screen for a bunch of hard-core Tolkien fans who aren’t ever going to really be happy with what they’re given.

But if you are a hard-core Tolkien fan, or want to be, or want to get a jump on the stories that might or might not be the next Game of Thrones, or just want to experience a very different but exciting kind of high fantasy storytelling, then I strongly recommend the Silmarillion audiobook. I don’t know how I would have fallen asleep or killed time typing blog posts for the past few years without it.

Update: For some reason, Audible won’t let you buy or download the Shaw audiobook in the United States. If you’re in the UK, you’ve got better luck. This link for Kobo audiobooks seems to work in the US, although I didn’t go all the way through with a purchase. (And it might be less appealing than if Audible just did what it’s supposed to do.)

Update: The Fall of Gondolin was just released as a standalone book, in hardcover and e-book. It’s still in an unfinished state, and presented in multiple versions, but it sounds like Christopher Tolkien made the best of it he could. (Thanks, @RLHeppner!)

The history and future of data on magnetic tape

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 31, 2018

IBM Magnetic Tape.jpeg

Maybe it’s because I’m part of the cassette generation, but I’m just charmed by IBM researcher Mark Lantz’s ode to that great innovation in data storage, magnetic tape. What could be seen as an intermediate but mostly dead technology is actually quite alive and thriving.

Indeed, much of the world’s data is still kept on tape, including data for basic science, such as particle physics and radio astronomy, human heritage and national archives, major motion pictures, banking, insurance, oil exploration, and more. There is even a cadre of people (including me, trained in materials science, engineering, or physics) whose job it is to keep improving tape storage…

It’s true that tape doesn’t offer the fast access speeds of hard disks or semiconductor memories. Still, the medium’s advantages are many. To begin with, tape storage is more energy efficient: Once all the data has been recorded, a tape cartridge simply sits quietly in a slot in a robotic library and doesn’t consume any power at all. Tape is also exceedingly reliable, with error rates that are four to five orders of magnitude lower than those of hard drives. And tape is very secure, with built-in, on-the-fly encryption and additional security provided by the nature of the medium itself. After all, if a cartridge isn’t mounted in a drive, the data cannot be accessed or modified. This “air gap” is particularly attractive in light of the growing rate of data theft through cyberattacks.

Plus, it writes fast (faster than a hard drive), and it’s dirt cheap. And hard drives are up against some nasty physical limits when it comes to how much more data they can store on platters. This is why cloud providers like Google and Microsoft, among others, still use tape backup for file storage, and why folks at IBM and other places are working to improve tape’s efficiency, speed, and reliability.

Lantz describes how the newest tape systems in labs can read and write data on tracks 100 nanometers wide, at an areal density of 201 GB per square inch. “That means that a single tape cartridge could record as much data as a wheelbarrow full of hard drives.” I’ve never needed a wheelbarrow full of hard drives, but I think that is pretty cool. And I’m always excited to find out that engineers are still working to make old, reliable, maybe unsexy technologies work better and better.

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 31, 2018

While Isaac Newton and the 17th century were more decisive for understanding the physics of color, you can’t beat the late 18th and early 19th century for a broader, subtler, more humanistic sense of the science of colors. The playwright and polymath J.W. von Goethe built up his Theory of Colours by collecting almost 18,000 meteorological and mineralogical specimens, with an emphasis on subtle distinctions between colors and their psychological perception in nature, rather than wavelengths of light.

Another phenomenal collection of naturalist examples is Abraham Gottlob Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, first published in 1814. An 1821 edition recommends it for “zoology, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and morbid anatomy.” At My Modern Met, Kelly Richman-Abdou writes:

Nomenclature of Colours served as a must-have reference for artists, scientists, naturalists, and anthropologists alike. The exquisitely rendered guide showcases the earth’s rich range of color by separating it into specific tones. Illustrated only by a small swatch, each handwritten entry is accompanied by a flowery name (like “Arterial Blood Red” and “Velvet Black”) as well as an identifying number. What the book is truly known for, however, is its poetic descriptions of where each tone can be found in nature.

Werner was a German mineralogist who created the system of color classification in the book to help distinguish between his own samples. His Scottish collaborators Patrick Syme and Robert Jameson were a painter and naturalist, respectively, who adapted the system into the book format in which it exists today. As you might guess, each color in the book includes a name, a swatch, and examples from the animal, vegetable, and mineral world showing where each color is found in nature.

werners-nomenclature-of-colours-4.jpg

Probably the most famous user of Werner’s book was Charles Darwin, who used it to help describe animals and other bits of the natural world in his books and journals. But if you think about it, before photography, anything that let naturalists describe what they were seeing in something resembling a universal vocabulary had to be essential. Essential enough that they were willing to produce the book by hand, with no real way to print in color.

Amazon sells a pocket-sized facsimile edition of the book. It may not be as handy as a color wheel for painting a room, but might be handier if you’re identifying bird eggs or a rare bit of stone.

Joel Embiid and the YouTube Generation

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 31, 2018

Joel Embiid is (probably) the most talented and (easily) the most entertaining young player in the NBA today. It’s really not even close. He’s created a persona that feels like it wasn’t created at all, an unfiltered big kid on a scale we haven’t seen since young Shaquille O’Neal. He’s full of unbridled enthusiasms and trash talk, peppered with charm and feeling, and a kind of canny naïveté. He’s also 7’2,” can jump out of the gym, is already an all-defense lock as long he’s healthy, hits three-pointers, etc. So he’s fun to watch, too.

Unsurprisingly, Joel’s first-person narrative for The Players Tribune is a perfect specimen of Pure Embiid. He writes about his childhood in Cameroon, being unable to watch basketball or sports because his mother was too strict, and piecing together the game from YouTube clips, natural talent, and sheer competitiveness.

So I’m chilling one night, and I go on YouTube, and I’m thinking I’m about to figure this shooting thing out.

I go to the search box like….

HOW TO SHOOT 3 POINTERS.

Nah.

HOW TO SHOOT GOOD FORM

Nah.

Then the light bulb went off, man. I typed in the magic words.

WHITE PEOPLE SHOOTING 3 POINTERS.

Listen, I know it’s a stereotype, but have you ever seen a normal, 30-year-old white guy shoot a three-pointer? That elbow is tucked, man. The knees are bent. The follow-through is perfect. Always. You know how in America, there’s always an older guy wearing like EVERLAST sweat-shorts at the court? That guy is always a problem. His J is always wet.

Thankfully, Embiid also watched plenty of clips of legendary big men like Hakeem Olajuwon, so he doesn’t just chuck up Js like a thirtysomething Duke grad or play nonstop hero ball like his idol Kobe Bryant. That’s the thing about piecing together your game or your personality through YouTube, hip-hop, social media, etc. Ideally, you don’t just get one flavor. You get to sample a little of everything.

Stunning high-res photo of a stellar nursery

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2018

Carina Nebula

Astronomers using an infrared telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile recently released an infrared photo of the Carina Nebula that shows the inner workings of the star factory “as never before”.

This spectacular image of the Carina nebula reveals the dynamic cloud of interstellar matter and thinly spread gas and dust as never before. The massive stars in the interior of this cosmic bubble emit intense radiation that causes the surrounding gas to glow. By contrast, other regions of the nebula contain dark pillars of dust cloaking newborn stars.

This is a massive image…the original is 140 megapixels (<- that’s a 344MB download). Phil Plait notes that it may contain about 1 million stars and gives a bit of background on what we’re looking at here:

The colors you see here are not what you’d see with your eye, since it’s all infrared. What’s shown as blue is actually 0.88 microns, or a wavelength just outside what your eye can see. Green is really 1.25 microns and red is 2.15, so both are well into the near-infrared.

Even in the infrared, a lot of gas and dust still are visible. That’s because there’s a whole bunch of it here. And it’s not just randomly strewn around; patterns are there when you look for them.

For example, in this subimage you can see long, skinny triangles of dust. These are formed when very thick clots of dust are near very luminous stars. The wind and fierce blast of ultraviolet light from the stars erode away at the clump and also flow around it. They’re like sandbars in a stream! This is the same mechanism that made the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle nebula, and they’re common in star-forming nebulae.

The Other Side of the Wind

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Netflix is finally releasing The Other Side of the Wind, a film by Orson Welles that has been unfinished since filming was completed in the mid-70s. Here’s how Netflix describes the movie:

Surrounded by fans and skeptics, grizzled director J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (a revelatory John Huston) returns from years abroad in Europe to a changed Hollywood, where he attempts to make his comeback: a career summation that can only be the work of cinema’s most adventurous filmmaker, Orson Welles.

And here’s Wikipedia’s take:

Starring John Huston, Bob Random, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg and Oja Kodar, it is a satire of both the passing of Classic Hollywood and the avant-garde filmmakers of the New Hollywood of the 1970s. The film was shot in an unconventional mockumentary style in both color and black-and-white, and it incorporated a film-within-a-film that spoofed the work of Michelangelo Antonioni.

You can also read about the many trials and tribulations of the film’s production on Wikipedia.

Update: As a companion to The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix is releasing a documentary about Welles at the end of his career as he labored to make the film. Here’s the trailer for They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead:

The documentary is directed by Morgan Neville, whose most recent film was Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers.

The Indonesian customized Vespa scene is straight out of Mad Max

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Indonesia Vespa 01

Indonesia Vespa 02

Festivals dedicated to the celebration and modification of Vespa scooters are held in various places around Indonesia. Photographer Darren Whiteside traveled to these festivals to capture the “extreme Vespa” scene going on there. I love the creativity and ingenuity on display here. For more, here’s a video tour of the 2018 festival in Kediri.

(via robin sloan)

Offering a more progressive definition of freedom

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is a progressive Democrat, Rhodes scholar, served a tour of duty in Afghanistan during his time as mayor, and is openly gay. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Buttigieg talked about the need for progressives to recast concepts that conservatives have traditionally “owned” — like freedom, family, and patriotism — in more progressive terms.

You’ll hear me talk all the time about freedom. Because I think there is a failure on our side if we allow conservatives to monopolize the idea of freedom — especially now that they’ve produced an authoritarian president. But what actually gives people freedom in their lives? The most profound freedoms of my everyday existence have been safeguarded by progressive policies, mostly. The freedom to marry who I choose, for one, but also the freedom that comes with paved roads and stop lights. Freedom from some obscure regulation is so much more abstract. But that’s the freedom that conservatism has now come down to.

Or think about the idea of family, in the context of everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about family values as a theme, or a wedge — but what’s it actually like to have a family? Your family does better if you get a fair wage, if there’s good public education, if there’s good health care when you need it. These things intuitively make sense, but we’re out of practice talking about them.

I also think we need to talk about a different kind of patriotism: a fidelity to American greatness in its truest sense. You think about this as a local official, of course, but a truly great country is made of great communities. What makes a country great isn’t chauvinism. It’s the kinds of lives you enable people to lead. I think about wastewater management as freedom. If a resident of our city doesn’t have to give it a second thought, she’s freer.

Clean drinking water is freedom. Good public education is freedom. Universal healthcare is freedom. Fair wages are freedom. Policing by consent is freedom. Gun control is freedom. Fighting climate change is freedom. A non-punitive criminal justice system is freedom. Affirmative action is freedom. Decriminalizing poverty is freedom. Easy & secure voting is freedom. This is an idea of freedom I can get behind.

What does a nuclear bomb blast feel like?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

In the 50s and 60s during tests of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, thousands of British soldiers were deliberately exposed to the blasts “to prepare them for nuclear war”. Motherboard recently traveled to a reunion of atomic veterans to talk to them about their experiences. This is a powerful video — the men shared what the blasts felt like and how it affected the rest of their lives: medical problems, not being able to have children, etc.

I gasped when several of the men talked about how the blasts gave them temporary x-ray vision; the radiation from the nuclear reactions allowed them to see the bones of their hands and arms right through the skin. One recalled, “When the flash hit, you could see the x-rays of your hands through your closed eyes.” And another veteran said, “If I was looking at you now, I would see all your bones. You would see all the blood vessels and everything, the bones, the lot.” I’d never heard this before…what a marvelous and horrifying thing.

A full-scale Lego supercar that actually drives

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Over the past few months, a team at Lego has been building a full-scale model of a Bugatti Chiron supercar using only Lego Technics pieces — aside from the wheels, tires, and a few other key components. They got the look of the car down, but the truly impressive thing is that the car actually drives, powered by an electric engine made up of over 2300 Power Function motors. The Lego press release has the details.

Bugatti Lego

The model is the first large scale movable construction developed using over 1,000,000 LEGO Technic elements and powered exclusively using motors from the LEGO Power Function platform. Packed with 2,304 motors and 4,032 LEGO Technic gear wheels, the engine of this 1.5 tonnes car is generating 5.3 horse power and an estimated torque of 92 Nm.

The doors open and close, the spoiler moves up and down, the headlights work, and the all-Lego speedometer works — what a goofy and amazing accomplishment. cc: my Lego- and supercar-loving son

Stephen Colbert connects Chance the Rapper & Childish Gambino to the Lord of the Rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Stephen Colbert is a *huge* J.R.R. Tolkien nerd. When Rolling Stone asked the late night host to break a song down, he chose “Favorite Song” by Chance the Rapper (feat. Childish Gambino) and connected a verse in it to both Gilbert & Sullivan and Lord of the Rings.

Whether or not you know it, Chance and Childish, you wrote a song that includes in it this really kind of rare rhyme and rhythm scheme that Tolkien used in the poem that actually influences all of the rest of Lord of the Rings.

I wonder about the “rare” bit though…rappers packing songs with internal rhymes is not a new thing nor is referencing Gilbert & Sullivan in hip-hop. Still, this is superbly nerdy. (via craig)

The Community of The Tables

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2018

The Tables is a short documentary about the ping pong tables in NYC’s Bryant Park and the cast of characters who play there frequently — homeless folks, pro players, bike messengers, and a guy who uses a block of wood for a paddle.

Close-up shark portraits

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2018

Todd Bretl Shark

Todd Bretl Shark

I’m not sure how underwater photographer Todd Bretl manages to take such close-up snaps of sharks — diving cage? underwater telephoto? some sort of robotic camera? — but the results are pretty great. I think I’ve seen these exact facial expressions on characters’ faces in The Sopranos and The Godfather.

Painting the skin you live in

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2018

School Colors

For the beginning of school, second-grade teacher Aeriale Johnson had each of her students mix up a container of paint that matched their skin color so they could use it in paintings of themselves during the rest of the school year.

We started with a base of brown or peach tempera for each child then, in small groups, added white, yellow, red, dark brown and/or green to get to just the right hue. They looked like they were at Ulta trying to find foundation. :) The conversations were great!

Summer sunset

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2018

Sunset Summer 2018

Sunset Summer 2018

Sunset Summer 2018

Last night’s sunset threw all of these crazy colors into the sky. If you’re into that sort of thing, these images available as wallpaper for your phone: 1, 2, 3.

Go back in time to the Byzantine Empire

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2018

Antoine Helbert

Antoine Helbert

Antoine Helbert

French illustrator Antoine Helbert is a great fan of the architecture of Byzantium and has created more than two dozen intricate drawings of buildings and monuments in the capitol city of Constantinople spanning a period of almost 1000 years from the 4th century to the 13th century. (via open culture)

When traveling, avoid The Algorithmic Trap

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2018

2018 Roadtrip

In a piece called The Algorithmic Trap, David Perell writes about the difficulty of finding serendipity, diversity, and “real” experiences while traveling. In short, Google, Yelp, Instagram, and the like have made travel destinations and experiences increasingly predictable and homogeneous.

Call me old-fashioned, but the more I travel, the less I depend on algorithms. In a world obsessed with efficiency, I find myself adding friction to my travel experience. I’ve shifted away from digital recommendations, and towards human ones.

For all the buzz about landmarks and sightseeing, I find that immersive, local experiences reveal the surprising, culturally-specific ways of living and thinking that make travel educational. We over-rate the importance of visiting the best-places and under-rate the importance of connecting with the best people. If you want to learn about a culture, nothing beats personalized time with a passionate local who can share the magic of their culture with you.

There’s one problem with this strategy: this kind of travel doesn’t scale. It’s in efficiency and doesn’t conform to the 80/20 rule. It’s unpredictable and things could go wrong.

Travel — when done right — is challenging. Like all face-to-face interaction, it’s inefficient. The fact that an experience can’t be found in a guidebook is precisely what makes it so special. Sure, a little tip helps — go here, go there; eat here, eat there; stay here, stay there — but at the end of the day, the great pleasures of travel are precisely what you can’t find on Yelp.

Algorithms are great at giving you something you like, but terrible at giving you something you love. Worse, by promoting familiarity, algorithms punish culture.

While reading parts of this, I was reminded of both premium mediocre and the randomness of this approach to travel.

I took the photo above in the Beartooth Mountains on my recent roadtrip. This was one of the surprise highlights of my trip…I wouldn’t have known to take the road through those mountains had it not been recommended to me by some enthusiastic locals.

Every US President at their worst

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2018

On Twitter, @InstantSunrise wrote an entertaining thread “in which I drag every single US president in order”. She starts off with The Founding Fathers:

Thomas Jefferson: Motherfucker owned slaves, and was a rapist, committed forced removal against Native Americans. Started an actual war in North Africa and a trade war with Britain that would eventually escalate into an actual war.

Andrew Jackson is deservedly dragged more than most:

Ohhhhhh my god. This absolute motherfucker garbage president. Literally committed genocide. Owned slaves, gave govt. jobs to people who gave him money. Decided that a central bank was a bad idea and closed it in 1837, breaking the entire economy.

Teddy Roosevelt gets a B/B-:

Did some good busting trusts and monopolies with his big dick energy. Discovered that if you bait the media with “access” they’ll eat up whatever shit you say. Had a lot of policies that were racist as shit, like banning all Japanese ppl from entering the US.

Woodrow Wilson gets a Jackson-esque OMG:

Ohhhhhh my god. Dude was like super fucking racist. So racist that his election emboldened racists enough where they literally revived the KKK. His AG, Palmer, loved to deport leftists for no reason. There’s so much shit about Wilson I can’t fit it into 280 chars.

I think she could have gone in on Nixon a bit harder (for creating the war on drugs for example):

Created the southern strategy and stoked racial tensions. Sabotaged the peace negotiations for Vietnam in order to get elected, then prolonged the war. Bombed the shit out of Laos and Cambodia for no real reason. Also watergate.

Only Lincoln and John Quincy Adams get off relatively unscathed.

The best designed maps from the past two years

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2018

Published by the North American Cartographic Information Society, the upcoming 2018 Atlas of Design showcases 32 of the best maps made over the past 2 years. Atlas Obscura has a selection of maps featured in the book.

2018 Atlas Of Design

2018 Atlas Of Design

You can preorder the book here or view a list of all the maps and their designers included in the book.

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

NPR does this thing called Tiny Desk Concerts where they bring musicians and bands into the office to play behind a desk. Recent guests have included T.I., Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews, and the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma played selections from Bach’s suites for cello, which he’s been playing for almost 60 years, and talked about the value of incremental learning.

Why did Laurence Olivier return so often to Shakespeare’s Othello? Why did Ansel Adams keep photographing the Grand Canyon? Obsessed or awestruck, artists revisit great inspirations because they believe there is yet another story to tell — about life, about themselves.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his great inspiration, and in turn part of his own life story, to an enthusiastic audience packed around the Tiny Desk on a hot summer day. Ma is returning, yet again, to the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a Mount Everest for any cellist. He has just released his third studio recording of the complete set and is taking the music on a two-year, six-continent tour. Ma’s first recording of the Suites, released in 1983, earned him his first Grammy.

Amazingly, when Ma was only 7 years old, he played in a benefit concert for an audience that included President John F. Kennedy. Composer Leonard Bernstein introduced Ma, saying in part: “Now here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen. A seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.”

Even though he’s only 62 years old, Ma is a great example of The Great Span in action, linking JFK and YouTube and Lil Buck together across seemingly disparate stretches of American history. When he plays a duet with the first virtuoso robotic cellist sometime in the next 20 years, Ma will have more than secured his spot in The Great Span Hall of Fame.

American Dharma, Errol Morris’ upcoming documentary about Steve Bannon

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

Errol Morris has made a documentary film about Steve Bannon called American Dharma that he refers to as “a kind of horror movie” for folks uneasy in Trump’s America. There’s no trailer yet but a pair of recent interviews with Morris shed light on the film, the third installment of the director’s American Political Monsters trilogy (along with The Fog of War and The Unknown Known).

Both interviews are quite good. Here’s a bit from Frank Bruni’s chat with Morris in the NY Times:

Bruni: Is Steve Bannon an earnest ideologue or is he a cynical and grandiose opportunist?

Morris: It’s the big question. And everybody, including myself, wants a pie graph. They want to be able to say what percentage is ideologue, what percentage is snake-oil salesman. And I’m not sure I can answer the question. We all know that being an effective salesman is coming to believe in what you’re selling. You know, I like to think that the human capacity for credulity is unlimited, unfettered. But the human capacity for self-deception — the ultimate self-credulity — is also unfettered, unlimited. I look at him and I think to myself: You can’t really believe this stuff. And yet, for all intents and purposes, he does.

Bruni: Which stuff do you find it hardest to believe he believes?

Morris: I find it hardest to believe that he thinks that Donald Trump is an honest man. I find it hard to believe that he thinks that Donald Trump is enabling populist programs. How is this tax cut or the attempt to roll back capital gains taxes — how does that benefit the people? Is allowing all kinds of industrial pollution populism? I could go on and on.

I try making fun of him. You know, he was reading a book about tariffs and China and the Great Wall. And I said to him, “You know, the wall really worked in China.” He said, “How’s that?” I said, “No Mexicans.”

And from Deborah Chasman’s conversation for the Boston Review:

DC: It’s clear that he’s good at giving voice to a legitimate grievance, at least in some contexts. In the United States there’s the legitimate grievance that a corrupt political machine has left a bunch of people behind. But I’m unclear what he is actually delivering to these people, or even just thinks he is giving them, other than this permission to hate.

EM: I think that’s certainly part of it. He told the French National Front, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

I also think you see it in his reaction to Charlottesville. He basically says, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The neo-Nazis have no currency in our culture.” In my movie he even says that the neo-Nazis are a creation of the liberal press. Which, of course, is absurd. Yes, the liberal press gets upset by neo-Nazis being coddled by the president, and why shouldn’t they? But that’s not to say that journalists parked them in Charlottesville and caused them to run over people.

Bannon also called Macron “a little Rothschild’s banker.” He said, “The French are realizing how much Macron has become an embarrassment. He’s a Rothschild banker who never made any money, the ultimate definition of a loser. He would sell his soul for nothing.” I did not like that. He doubtlessly would say that his remarks were not anti-Semitic, but I would respectfully disagree. He knew what he was doing. He knows who he’s appealing to.

DC: So why talk to Bannon at all? What’s to be gained?

EM: I think there’s a lot to be gained. I consider myself a journalist, proudly so, and the job of journalism is not to have five pundits sitting around a table on Fox News or CNN. The job of journalists is to report-to go out, look at stuff, and report on it. I went out in the field and this is what I saw, and I would like to present it to you for your consideration.

I find Morris’ constant interrogation of the truth — in politics, in photography, in storytelling, in people’s own minds — endlessly fascinating. I’m looking forward to this one, despite the subject matter, and will share the trailer when it arrives.

Biodegradable food containers inspired by egg shells & orange peels

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall Pass

Inspired by natural packaging like egg shells and orange peels, Swedish design studio Tomorrow Machine created a series of biodegradable food packaging called This Too Shall Pass. Anna Glansén explained the project in an interview with Matters Journal.

Ok, so generally, “This Too Shall Pass” is a series of food packages where the package and its contents are working in symbiosis. In this project, we asked ourselves how packaging can be made in the near future using technology that is available today.

The smoothie’s package consists only of agar-agar seaweed and water. To open it you pick the top and the package will wither at the same rate as the smoothie. It is made for drinks that have a short life span and needs to be refrigerated. For example, fresh juice, smoothies and cream. The packaging reacts to its environment so you could, just by looking at the package, see if it has been exposed to excessive heat during transport.

The rice package is made of biodegradable beeswax. To open it you peel it like an orange. The package is designed to contain dry goods such as grains and rice.

The oil package is made of caramelised sugar, coated with wax. To open it you crack it like an egg. When the material is cracked the wax no longer protects the sugar and the package melts when it comes in contact with water. This package is made for oil-based food.

(via @pieratt)

An appreciation and brief history of generative art

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

Vera Molnar

In his piece Why Love Generative Art?, Jason Bailey takes us on a short journey through the history of using computers to generate artwork, from the influence of Cézanne to the algorithmic art of Sol Lewitt to the women generative artists in the 60s and 70s, to John Maeda to the AI-generated artworks of the present day.

Imagine for a second that you drew the image above yourself using a pen and a piece of paper and it took you one hour to produce. It would then take you ten hours if you wanted to add ten times the number of squares, right? A very cool and important characteristic of generative art is that Georg Nees could have added thousands more boxes, and it would only require a few small changes to the code.

Unlike analog art, where complexity and scale require exponentially more effort and time, computers excel at repeating processes near endlessly without exhaustion. As we will see, the ease with which computers can generate complex images contributes greatly to the aesthetic of generative art.

The image at the top of the post is a piece done by Vera Molnar in 1974. I’m an instant fan…her stuff is fantastic.

The post also praises the work of Jared Tarbell, which I was obsessed with back in the 2000s. Tarbell’s work is still one of my favorite online things ever.

Jared Tarbell

Jared Tarbell

Jared Tarbell

Tarbell still works with generative art but makes real-life objects using digital fabrication techniques.

The original demo of Imagine by John Lennon

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

A demo version of Imagine, unheard for decades, was recently uncovered in an archive of Lennon audio tapes. You can listen to the beautifully spare rendition here:

While sifting through boxes upon boxes of the original tapes for Yoko Ono, engineer Rob Stevens discovered something truly remarkable that had gone unnoticed all these years. “Early 2016, during the gestation period of this project, I’m in the Lennon archives with my people going through tape boxes that have labeling that’s unclear, misleading, or missing entirely”, says Stevens. “There’s a one-inch eight-track that says nothing more on the ‘Ascot Sound’ label than John Lennon, the date, and the engineer (Phil McDonald), with DEMO on the spine. No indication of what material was on the tape. One delicate transfer to digital later, the “Imagine” demo, subsequently enhanced superbly by Paul Hicks, appears within this comprehensive set. It was true serendipity.”

Compare it to the remastered studio version and a live version.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

I could definitely get into that. For those unwilling to imagine no possessions, the demo, along with several others, appears on a collection coming out in the fall: preorder on Amazon or iTunes. (via @tedgioia)

Infinite mirrored tunnels

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

Sarah Meyohas

Sarah Meyohas

Sarah Meyohas

Digging this work by Sarah Meyohas. I mean, why do I like these so much? (via colossal)

The (mostly) true story of hobo graffiti

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

TIL that the hieroglyphic hobo code probably wasn’t used as extensively as the internet suggests. However, hobos and tramps did tag bridges, water towers, and train cars with tramp writing, which usually consisted of their moniker (i.e. their hobo name), the date, and the direction they were heading in.

Hobos, or tramps, were itinerant workers and wanderers who illegally hopped freight cars on the newly expanding railroad in the United States in the late 19th century. They used graffiti, also known as tramp writing, as a messaging system to tell their fellow travelers where they were and where they were going. Hobos would carve or draw their road persona, or moniker, on stationary objects near railroad tracks, like water towers and bridges.

More on hobo graffiti from CityLab. (via open culture)

“I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

Beto O’Rourke is running against Ted Cruz for one of Texas’ two Senate seats. At a recent event, he was asked if he thought that NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence against black people was disrespectful.

I kind of wanted to know how you personally felt about how disrespectful it is — like, you have the NFL players kneeling during the national anthems. I wanted to know if you found that disrespectful to our country, to our veterans, and anybody related to that.

O’Rourke’s answer, which connects this protest to past non-violent protests undertaken by black Americans, is pitch-perfect — honest, respectful of the questioner & the audience, and inclusive.

I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights anytime, anywhere, any place.

That’s how you politic.

P.S. In his campaign against Cruz, O’Rourke is relying solely on individual donors, no PAC money. If you’d like to help him out, you can donate to his campaign here.

10 wonder-filled years of Legal Nomads

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

In 2008, corporate lawyer & city slicker Jodi Ettenberg quit her job to travel the world for a year…and then just never went back to her old job (or self). For 10 years, she traveled and ate her way through the world, documenting her adventures at Legal Nomads. For the 10-year anniversary of the site, Ettenberg has posted a retrospective highlighting some of her most memorable times.1

Writing in a true voice was important. Presenting a glimmering version of yourself that doesn’t feel real is an easy path to discontent. You can follow your passion all you want, but if you’re not expressing it authentically, in a way that is indisputably you, the gap will catch up with you. The space between who you are and who you express yourself to be exists in varying degrees. But if it’s too large, especially if your work involves sharing your thoughts creatively, the disparity can easily engulf you.

As I’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit over the last couple of years, this post about The Overview Effect, Mindfulness, and Travel particularly caught my eye.

You cannot ignore the happenings in other places, or stick your head in the sand, because it’s too late — you’ve stepped away and looked at the planet in a different light. (Or, as I said to someone recently “once you’re a pickle you can’t go back to being a cucumber.”) While far less vivid or spectacular than a space trip, travel does tend to push people to think about the forest through the trees and to constantly pin current observations against past experiences. We all do this, naturally. But I think that the more you see, the more you have to compare ‘against’, which then permanently alters your views of the planet and of its people. The ultimate example of this, of course, is seeing it all from above, an orb glowing in the darkness of space.

This reflection on her travels in Mongolia also had my head nodding.

I included this post because nothing since has compared to the magic of simply watching the identity I had dissolve, replaced by pure wonder. Who I was shortly prior didn’t matter, because everything in front of me felt so intensely new that it blotted out anything familiar.

These wonder-filled moments, large and small, have happened to me while traveling, looking at art, lost in the company of others, watching heavenly bodies eclipse each other and even while working on this here website…and that’s a perfect succinct description of how it feels when it happens.

  1. Even though writing is a difficult task for her these days. Nevertheless, she persisted indeed.

Pixel Pottery

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

Toshiya Masuda

Toshiya Masuda

Toshiya Masuda

Using traditional materials and techniques to achieve a digital effect, Japanese artist Toshiya Masuda makes this cool ceramic pixel art. (thx, karen)

Ancient Denisovan/Neanderthal human-hybrid discovered

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

Wow! Genetic analysis of a human bone fragment found in Siberia reveals that her parents belonged to two different groups of humans: her father was Denisovan and her mother Neanderthal.

A female who died around 90,000 years ago was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan, according to genome analysis of a bone discovered in a Siberian cave. This is the first time scientists have identified an ancient individual whose parents belonged to distinct human groups. The findings were published on 22 August in Nature1.

“To find a first-generation person of mixed ancestry from these groups is absolutely extraordinary,” says population geneticist Pontus Skoglund at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “It’s really great science coupled with a little bit of luck.”

Luck is right…what a needle in a haystack.

The man who owns the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2018

For more than 35 years, Dennis Hope has been selling land on the Moon. Hope registered a claim for the Moon in 1980 and, since the US government & the UN didn’t object, he figures he owns it (along with the other planets and moons in the solar system).

“I sent the United Nations a declaration of ownership detailing my intent to subdivide and sell the moon and have never heard back,” he says. “There is a loophole in the treaty — it does not apply to individuals.”

The US government had several years to contest such a claim. which they never did. Neither did the United Nations nor the Russian Government. This allowed Mr. Hope to take the next step and copyright his work with the US Copyright registry office. So, with his claim and Copyright Registration Certificate from the US Government in hand, Mr. Hope became what is probably the largest landowner on the planet today.

An acre-sized plot of the Moon is currently available for $24.99 and Hope says he has sold over a billion acres of his celestial properties to more than 6 million people, including to such moonsteaders as George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Star Trek cast members.

New No’s by Paul Chan

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2018

After the 2016 election, artist and writer Paul Chan wrote the following poem that he called “New No’s”.

No to racists
No to fascists
No to taxes funding racists and fascists

No mercy for rapists
No pity for bigots
No forgiveness for nativists
No to all those

No hope without rage
No rage without teeth
No separate peace
No easy feat

No to bounds by genders
No to clickbait as culture
No to news as truths
No to art as untruths

No anti-Semitic anything
No Islamophobic anything
No progress without others
No meaning without meaning

No means no
No means no
No means no
No means no

I ran across this several times at The Whitney; it’s part of their great exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest. The exhibition is closing next week and the poem is difficult to find online (Chan’s own publishing company, which was selling posters of the poem, seems to be defunct at the moment), so I wanted to preserve a copy here.

Update: The notable prior art for this piece includes Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto, Ad Reinhardt’s No War, and The No Manifesto for Poetry Readings and LISTSERVs and Magazine and ‘Open Versatile Spaces Where Cultural Production Flourishes’. (via @joeld)

Grandmaster Flash built his first mixer using parts from Radio Shack

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2018

Hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash grew up in the Bronx and attended a public vocational high school. There he learned how to fix electronics. He was also into music — his father had a huge record collection. In this video, Flash talks about how he combined those two interests and built his first mixer using parts he bought at Radio Shack.

Grandmaster Flash was tinkerer and a hacker. There were commercially available mixers at the time; he built his own. He absorbed the nascent music culture developing around him and twisted it to his own ends, developing new mixing techniques like beat juggling. He perfected scratching and brought it to a wider audience.

Any scientist, engineer, or artist would recognize the process at work here, how tightly coupled the development of new technology and fresh ideas is. Club DJs wanted a way to transition from one record to another without missing a beat, so the mixer was invented. Once that technology existed, people started using mixers to do things other than their initial purpose. New tech begat new ideas begat new tech, the adjacent possible expanding all the while, until a curious kid who dabbled in electronics and was obsessed with music came along and helped invent hip hop, the most culturally significant movement of the past 40 years. (via kelli anderson)

Aretha Franklin’s soul roots and gospel power

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

In this video for Vox, Estelle Caswell explores Aretha Franklin’s unique blend of pop, soul, and gospel, particularly in her cover songs and live performances.

Aretha Franklin will always be the Queen of Soul. In the 1960s songs like “Respect” became the symbol for political and social change. It’s likely the reason her music moved so many people wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but the way she delivered them.

Aretha was raised in the church, and her life and music was rooted in gospel music. You can hear this so clearly in her live performances and covers, where every musical decision she made was in the moment.

Listen to any one of Aretha’s songs and you’ll understand the power of gospel music, but her live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “Son of a preacher man” are a great place to start.

Holy moly, what a voice.

Using a crane and concrete blocks to store energy for later retrieval

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

A Swiss company has designed a system for storing energy in concrete blocks. The blocks are lifted by a crane when surplus energy is available (say, when the Sun is shining or the wind blowing) and then, when energy is needed later, allowed to fall, turning turbines to generate electricity.

The innovation in Energy Vault’s plant is not the hardware. Cranes and motors have been around for decades, and companies like ABB and Siemens have optimized them for maximum efficiency. The round-trip efficiency of the system, which is the amount of energy recovered for every unit of energy used to lift the blocks, is about 85% — comparable to lithium-ion batteries which offer up to 90%.

Pedretti’s main work as the chief technology officer has been figuring out how to design software to automate contextually relevant operations, like hooking and unhooking concrete blocks, and to counteract pendulum-like movements during the lifting and lowering of those blocks.

The storage of energy in this way isn’t new…the ARES project uses hills and heavy trains to accomplish the same thing.

It’s a wonderfully simple idea, a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem, with some help from the abundant natural resource that is gravity. When the local utility’s got surplus electricity, it powers up the electric motors that drag 9,600 tons of rock- and concrete-filled railcars up a 2,000-foot hill. When it’s got a deficit, 9,600 tons of railcar rumble down, and those motors generate electricity via regenerative braking — the same way your Prius does. Effectively, all the energy used to move the train up the hill is stored, and recouped when it comes back down.

There’s something really interesting about big kinetic machines operating as though they were computers, autonomous black boxes where data flows in and out that can operate anywhere with a bit of flat ground.

Barack Obama’s end-of-summer reading list for 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

Earlier this year, before a trip to Africa, President Obama shared a recommended reading list for this summer heavy on African authors.

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.

With the end of summer approaching (**heavy sobbing**), Obama posted a list of books he’s personally been reading over the past few months.

Tara Westover’s Educated is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.

Set after WWII, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a meditation on the lingering effects of war on family.

With the recent passing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread A House for Mr Biswas, the Nobel Prize winner’s first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.

Relax and watch billions of particles dance and change colors

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

Volumes is a 4K Full CG art film by Maxim Zhestkov exploring the juxtaposition of emotions with the laws of nature. Billions of colourful particles dance, play and communicate with each other in an eternal hypnotic ballet governed by the invisible wind of fate.

This looks fantastic at fullscreen resolution on my iMac. A nice little break in a hectic day. (via colossal)

The 23 best films of the 2000s

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday proposes a list of movies made in the 2000s that should be added to the canon of the best films ever made. Many of my favorites are on there — The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fog of War, Spirited Away, There Will Be Blood, Children of Men.

Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of the P.D. James novel evinced the perfect balance of technical prowess, propulsive storytelling, complex character development and timeliness when it was released in 2006. But its depiction of a dystopian near-future — what we ruefully now call the present — has proved to be not just visionary but prophetic. Its predictive value aside, it stands as a flawless movie — a masterwork of cinematic values at their purest, with each frame delivering emotion and information in equally compelling measure.

Dunkirk, from just last year, is a bold inclusion…I love that movie but it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up. You can compare this list with two older lists: Dissolve’s and BBC Culture’s.

Update: The NY Times did a similar list last year, with There Will Be Blood and Spirited Away taking the #1 and #2 spots. (thx, paul)

What Homer Simpson would look like in real life

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Real Homer Simpson

Welp, I want to unsee that. 3D rendering courtesy of Miguel Vasquez, who did the same thing for SpongeBob awhile back.

Real Spongebob

(via @roeeb)

Watching an art conservator restore a damaged painting

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

There’s something so relaxing about watching art conservator Julian Baumgartner restore this damaged painting, a self-portrait by Italian painter Emma Gaggiotti Richards. I love how he paints tiny cracks in the damaged areas to match those in the rest of the painting.

There are many more videos and photos of Baumgartner’s restoration process on Instagram and YouTube. (via the kid should see this)

The carrot is not important. Chasing it is.

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

I finally picked up Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal the other day. This is how it begins (emphasis mine):

The imaginary horizontal lines that circle the earth make sense. Our equator is 0°, the North and South Poles are 90°. Latitude’s order is airtight with clear and elegant motives. The earth has a top and a bottom. Longitude is another story. There isn’t a left and right to earth. Any line could have been called 0°. But Greenwich got first dibs on the prime meridian and as a result the world set clocks and ships by a British resort town that lies outside London.

It was an arbitrary choice that became the basis for precision. My father knew a family named Wolfawitz who wanted to go on vacation but didn’t know where.

It hit them. Take a two-week road trip driving to as many towns, parks, and counties as they could that contained their last name: Wolfpoint, Wolfville, Wolf Lake, etc.

They read up and found things to do on the way to these other Wolf spots: a hotel in a railroad car, an Alpine slide, a pretzel factory, etc.

The Wolfawitzes ended up seeing more than they planned. Lots of unexpected things popped up along the route.

When they came back from vacation, they felt really good. It was easily the best vacation of their lives, and they wondered why.

My father says it was because the Wolfawitzes stopped trying to accomplish anything. They just put a carrot in front of them and decided the carrot wasn’t that important but chasing it was.

The story of the Wolfawitzes’ vacation was told hundreds of times to hundreds of customers in the small restaurant that my mom and dad ran in Greenwich Village. Each time it was told, my dad would conclude that the vacation changed the Wolfawitzes’ whole life, and this was how they were going to live from now on — chasing a very, very small carrot.

The restaurant was Shopsin’s, no longer in Greenwich Village, and after a start like that, I read the next 80 pages without stopping. Really wish I’d heeded much advice to pick this up sooner.

See also “I’ve never had a goal”.

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.

Update: In an episode of The Pay Check podcast, Duke and Konnikova “discuss power dynamics and sexism in the ultra male dominated field” of poker.

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!

Update: Prior art: Hey Waldo, HereIsWally, There’s Waldo!

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.

Update: In this video for Canadian Geographic, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, talks with Burtynsky, Baichwal, and de Pencier about this project.

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 »