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Entries for December 2020 (January 2021 »    February 2021 »    March 2021 »    Archives)

 

21 Things That Kept Me Going In 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 31, 2020

overhead view of my home office

For the past few years, I’ve been keeping track of everything I read, watch, listen to, and experience in my media diet posts. As a media diet wrap-up, here’s the most compelling content & experiences from 2020, stuff that helped stimulate and sustain me in a year of isolation and pandemic.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This was the final movie I saw in a theater before the pandemic hit; I chose well. Not a week has gone by this year that I didn’t think about some aspect or another of this film.

You’re Wrong About. By far my favorite episodic podcast. The joy with which the hosts delight each other with insights and humorous asides is the engine that drives the show. Literally my only complaint: I wish they hadn’t changed the theme music.

The Queen’s Gambit. Seems like everyone watched this miniseries this fall and I loved it just as much as anyone.

The Rain Vortex at Singapore’s Changi Airport. An enchanting oasis in the middle of an airport indicative of Singapore’s incorporation of natural elements into urban spaces.

MASS MoCA. For my birthday, I treated myself with a road trip to this superb museum. The Sol LeWitt, James Turrell, and Jenny Holzer exhibitions alone were worth the trip. I sorely miss museums.

Ted Lasso. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood + Major League. Who knew you could make radical empathy funny? Everyone I’ve recommended this show to has loved it.

The Land That Never Has Been Yet from Scene on Radio. An essential series on American democracy. Like, do we even have one? It’s hard to choose, but the episode on how the libertarianism of the contemporary Republican Party was the result of a deliberate campaign by just a few people that increasingly came to dominate American politics is my favorite.

Carol. I remember liking this back when it came out, but my rewatch a couple of months ago was a revelation. A remarkable, sparkling film.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson has a gift for finding new ways for her readers to think about entrenched systems and behaviors.

Devs. This show got neglected a little in the end-of-year lists because of an early-in-the-pandemic release, but it was one of my top 2-3 shows this year.

The Great. I really enjoyed this Hulu show as I watched it and it’s grown in my esteem in the months since. It’s one of the first shows I recommend when friends ask what I’ve been watching lately. Huzzah!

Nintendo Switch. To distract themselves from the pandemic, did America spend more hours playing video games or watching TV? I did both. Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 35, Rocket League, Fortnite, Minecraft, Among Us, and all the old NES games were popular in our household this year.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I found reading difficult for most of the year — I only finished three books in the past 10 months. But this one I couldn’t put down; finished it in two days.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Perfect little stories expertly told. Don’t miss the endnotes, where Chiang reveals where the ideas for each of his stories came from.

AirPods Pro. The best augmented reality device yet devised — the music feels like it’s actually in your head more seamlessly than ever before.

Little Women. Fantastic casting, performances, and direction. Waiting patiently for whatever Gerwig does next.

My Brilliant Friend (season 2) & Normal People. I didn’t think anyone could effectively adapt either of these authors, but somehow the shows nearly equalled the books.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. Everything from Larson is great and this book about the Battle of Britain and the triumph of leadership resonated throughout this pandemic year.

Future Nostalgia. I listened to this more than anything else in 2020. Also notable because IMO there are no skippable songs on this album.

Tomidaya shoyu ramen. This tiny ramen shop in the Little Tokyo section of Saigon is supposed to closely resemble Japan shops. One of the best bowls I’ve ever had.

The Mandalorian. I was lukewarm on season one but loved season two. Of all the recent Star Wars things, this show best channels the sometimes goofy/campy magic that made the original movie so compelling.

The image above is an overhead view of my home office, where all the kottke.org magic happens.

That’s All, Folks!

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 29, 2020

VT Monolith

As things are winding down here in 2020, I’m taking this last week off. Mostly. There might be a couple of things that trickle through, but regular posting will resume on Jan 4th or 5th. Covering the pandemic and politics this year has been challenging at times — reading continuously on social media and in the news about how the sky is falling for months on end isn’t great for one’s mental health — and I haven’t had a break of more than a day or two since February, so I’m calling this a necessary pause.

I’d like to thank you all for reading and for the membership support this year. Thanks to your response to my mini membership drive at the end of October, the site is on solid ground for the next year. I feel beyond lucky to have had steady and meaningful work that can be done from home during all of this. Thanks again — I’ll see you in 2021.

Photo above is of Vermont’s very own monolith, taken Dec 31, 2020.

The Gap Between Having Good Taste and Doing Good Work

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 24, 2020

I’ve shared this observation from Ira Glass about the gap between having good taste and doing good creative work before, but I ran across it the other day and thought it was worth highlighting again. Here’s a partial transcript (courtesy of James Clear):

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

The full interview from which the video above is excerpted can be found here. Notably, Glass’s advice matches that of this parable from Art & Fear.

Between the Places Where I Have Lived

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2020

In 1980, Sol LeWitt created a piece of art called The Area of Manhattan Between the Places I Have Lived Is Removed where he cut out the area between all the places he’d lived in NYC on a satellite image. Matt Miller whipped up an app on Glitch that allows you to make your own map according to those rules. Here’s my Between the Places map:

Between the spaces

Here is LeWitt’s original map:

The Area of Manhattan Between the Places I Have Lived Is Removed by Sol LeWitt

Looks like Miller’s app doesn’t optimize for solid, filled polygons — I suspect if I’d been a little more careful about entering my addresses in the correct order, mine would look more like LeWitt’s. But still a fun exercise!

Tea Bag Watercolor Paintings

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2020

Ruby Silvious

Ruby Silvious

Ruby Silvious

Ruby Silvious

Ruby Silvious paints watercolors on used tea bags. Art is everywhere and anything is a canvas. Check out her Instagram for regular updates. Prints and original art are available. (via colossal)

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2020

The 99% Invisible City

I somehow1 missed this a few months ago: Roman Mars’ venerable podcast 99% Invisible has resulted in a book that seems right up my alley: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

In The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to Hidden World of Everyday Design, host Roman Mars and coauthor Kurt Kohlstedt zoom in on the various elements that make our cities work, exploring the origins and other fascinating stories behind everything from power grids and fire escapes to drinking fountains and street signs.

Urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson gave the book a good review in the NY Times.

A brief review cannot do justice to such a diverse and enlightening book. The authors have sections on oil derricks, cell towers, the Postal Service, water fountains, the transcontinental telegraph, cisterns, telephone poles, emergency exits, cycling lanes, archaeological sites in Britain, national roads, zero markers, the Oklahoma land rush, cemeteries, public lighting, pigeons, raccoons and half a hundred other eccentric topics.

I suspect that with Mars’ podcast pedigree, the audiobook version of this (Amazon, Libro.fm) is pretty good too.

  1. Lol, “somehow”. How anyone manages to keep up to speed on anything but their job and family (and maybe a couple of shows) during this pandemic is a wonder.

The Year in Photos 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

The Year in Photos 2020

How will we remember this pivotal year in human history? Many of us won’t want to, but in doing so we risk repeating what got us into this mess in the first place. Photography is always a powerful way to document events and this year was particularly suited to it: these photos vividly tell the story of 2020. You can check out many more of them here:

The embedded photos above, from top to bottom: Black Lives Matter protests by Dai Sugano, hospital staff by Sarah Lawrence, Black Lives Matter protests by Matt Rourke, empty grocery shelves by Justin Sullivan, Black Lives Matter protests by David Dee Delgado, California wildfires by Noah Berger, Covid-19 vaccine by Graeme Robertson.

Meet the Monkey Slug Caterpillar

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2020

This handsome looking character is called the monkey slug caterpillar and its appearance has evolved to resemble a tarantula, which affords it protection from predators. This video was captured in the Ecuadorian rain forest by David Weiller; it’s a great example of mimicry. From Wikipedia:

In evolutionary biology, mimicry is an evolved resemblance between an organism and another object, often an organism of another species. Mimicry may evolve between different species, or between individuals of the same species. Often, mimicry functions to protect a species from predators, making it an antipredator adaptation. Mimicry evolves if a receiver (such as a predator) perceives the similarity between a mimic (the organism that has a resemblance) and a model (the organism it resembles) and as a result changes its behaviour in a way that provides a selective advantage to the mimic.

(via colossal)

“Listen to a Random Forest”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2020

A mossy forest

Tree.fm lets you tune into the sounds of different forests from around the world, bringing a taste of forest bathing to those who are staying at home, people in cities, or anyone else who needs to hear remote wild places. The sounds are taken from this crowdsourced forest soundmap that I featured a few months ago. Feature request: a “take me to another random forest in 10 minutes” button.

See also Gordon Hempton’s work and his recordings of forests and other wild places. (via kottke ride home)

By An Eye-Witness

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2020

(Note: The images below depict simulated violent death.) By An Eye-Witness is an arresting series of images by Azadeh Akhlaghi that recreate seventeen prominent deaths from Iran’s history. According to this interview, Akhlaghi was inspired by post-election uprisings in Iran and Arab Spring to document these deaths.

Eiferman: How was this like shooting a movie?

Akhlaghi: After three years of research by myself, I found a producer and then a crew. We had one month for pre-production and 20 days to shoot all 17 pictures, so we had to be very quick, with only one day to shoot each picture. We had a very low budget so we couldn’t hire actors, and we mostly used friends or extras. But like a movie, I had a professional team with a make-up artist, set designer, assistant director, and everything.

Eiferman: You have a lot of experience in filmmaking; why did you choose to do this series as photographs?

Akhlaghi: I worked as an assistant director for a few years, yes. But I thought staged photography would be closer to the idea of art I had in mind. I was heavily influenced by old paintings but the narrative techniques are borrowed from my old engagement with cinema and literature.

Azadeh Akhlaghi

Azadeh Akhlaghi

Azadeh Akhlaghi

A Sneak Preview of Peter Jackson’s Documentary About The Beatles

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2020

The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s documentary about the making of Let It Be, was delayed by the pandemic, so he and the studio have released a montage of about four minutes of the film as a sneak peek. The film, constructed from 55+ hours of largely unseen footage and 140 hours of audio recordings, seeks to portray the making of the band’s final studio album in a better light than previous accounts. The project has the support of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison and will out in August 2021. (via ted gioia)

50 Years of Trickle-Down Economics Didn’t Work

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2020

Trickle-down economics is the economic theory that lowering taxes on the wealthy and on businesses will stimulate business investment to the long-term benefit of society. The idea is that by sprinkling a huge amount of money into the bank accounts and stock portfolios of the wealthy, a portion of that money will “trickle down” to everyone else. Despite ample evidence that it hasn’t worked, trickle-down has been an economic driver for discussions about taxes in the US since at least the Reagan administration. The newest research that argues that tax cuts for the rich don’t work for anyone other than the rich comes in the form of working paper by David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King’s College London called The Economic Consequences of Major Tax Cuts for the Rich. From the press release:

Our results show that…major tax cuts for the rich increase the top 1% share of pre-tax national income in the years following the reform. The magnitude of the effect is sizeable; on average, each major reform leads to a rise in top 1% share of pre-tax national income of 0.8 percentage points. The results also show that economic performance, as measured by real GDP per capita and the unemployment rate, is not significantly affected by major tax cuts for the rich. The estimated effects for these variables are statistically indistinguishable from zero.

And the authors’ conclusion:

Our results have important implications for current debates around the economic consequences of taxing the rich, as they provide causal evidence that supports the growing pool of evidence from correlational studies that cutting taxes on the rich increases top income shares, but has little effect on economic performance.

Limberg connected the results of the research to post-pandemic economic recovery:

Our results might be welcome news for governments as they seek to repair the public finances after the COVID-19 crisis, as they imply that they should not be unduly concerned about the economic consequences of higher taxes on the rich.

Former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich agrees that the US should tax the rich to invest in public infrastructure.

The practical alternative to trickle-down economics might be called build-up economics. Not only should the rich pay for today’s devastating crisis but they should also invest in the public’s long-term wellbeing. The rich themselves would benefit from doing so, as would everyone else.

At one time, America’s major political parties were on the way to embodying these two theories. Speaking to the Democratic national convention in 1896, populist William Jennings Bryan noted: “There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

Build-up economics reached its zenith in the decades after the second world war, when the richest Americans paid a marginal income tax rate of between 70% and 90%. That revenue helped fund massive investment in infrastructure, education, health and basic research — creating the largest and most productive middle class the world had ever seen.

Fuck You, 2020!

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2020

I enjoyed this holiday campaign ad from Public Inc. (It contains some salty language! It’s ok — kids are swearing more during the pandemic.)

I watched it twice, donated to the Mental Health Coalition as requested, and now I feel……. better? A little bit? (fuck you, adam lisagor!)

Weathering Time: Nancy Floyd’s Anti-Perfectionist Selfies

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2020

Since 1982, Nancy Floyd has regularly been taking photos of herself around the house and now she’s compiled 1200 of them into a book called Weathering Time, “a meditation on the passage of time, loss and the ageing female body”.

Weathering Time

Johanna Fateman wrote about the project for the New Yorker:

Floyd began the undertaking in 1982, at the age of twenty-five, as a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. Each morning, she’d capture herself in a full-length shot, with her camera set up on a tripod in the corner of her room. Her aim, at the start, was to keep up the daily ritual for twenty years, in order to observe herself aging. At first, on days when she skipped taking a photo, she advanced the film in her camera, leaving a blank when she processed the roll. But, as the project continued, she ended up skipping weeks, entire months, a good chunk of the nineties. Over the years, she moved the tripod around, from room to room, from house to house, outdoors, and around the world; she included family members and pets in her pictures. The metamorphosis or decline of her own body turned out to be, it seems, less interesting than — or inextricable from — the major events, changing backdrops, and interdependent relationships that made up her life.

Amazing project. (via noah kalina)

Today’s Work Music: Max Richter’s My Brilliant Friend Soundtracks

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2020

That someone was able to turn Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels into a compelling TV series is nothing short of miraculous. It could have gone so wrong.1 A key aspect of that success has to be Max Richter’s score for the show. I’ve been listening to the season one soundtrack for awhile now, but just stumbled across the season two soundtrack.

That’s today work music sorted, then.

P.S. For the first couple of months of the pandemic, I shared what I was listening to during my workday in this thread (continued here). Check it out if you need some wordless music to beaver away to.

  1. Same with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The TV series could have been terrible but it very much was not.

“Can We Do Twice as Many Vaccinations as We Thought?”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2020

In an opinion piece for the NY Times, Zeynep Tufekci and epidemiologist Michael Mina are urging for new trials of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines to begin immediately to see how effective a single dose might be in preventing new infections. If the trials do indicate that a single dose works, that would effectively double the number of people we could vaccinate within a certain time period, saving countless lives in the US and worldwide.

Both vaccines are supposed to be administered in two doses, a prime and a booster, 21 days apart for Pfizer and 28 days for Moderna. However, in data provided to the F.D.A., there are clues for a tantalizing possibility: that even a single dose may provide significant levels of protection against the disease.

If that’s shown to be the case, this would be a game changer, allowing us to vaccinate up to twice the number of people and greatly alleviating the suffering not just in the United States, but also in countries where vaccine shortages may take years to resolve.

But to get there — to test this possibility — we must act fast and must quickly acquire more data.

For both vaccines, the sharp drop in disease in the vaccinated group started about 10 to 14 days after the first dose, before receiving the second. Moderna reported the initial dose to be 92.1 percent efficacious in preventing Covid-19 starting two weeks after the initial shot, when the immune system effects from the vaccine kick in, before the second injection on the 28th day

That raises the question of whether we should already be administrating only a single dose. But while the data is suggestive, it is also limited; important questions remain, and approval would require high standards and more trials.

The piece concludes: “The possibility of adding hundreds of millions to those who can be vaccinated immediately in the coming year is not something to be dismissed.”

NY Times Retracts “Caliphate” Podcast

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2020

Caliphate, Rukmini Callimachi’s podcast for the NY Times about ISIS, was one of my favorite podcasts of 2018 — I recommended it in a post in June of that year. The NY Times has now retracted a central story in the podcast, that of an alleged ISIS executioner from Canada named Abu Huzayfah.

During the course of reporting for the series, The Times discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story. The Times took a number of steps, including seeking confirmation of details from intelligence officials in the United States, to find independent evidence of Huzayfah’s story. The decision was made to proceed with the project but to include an episode, Chapter 6, devoted to exploring major discrepancies and highlighting the fact-checking process that sought to verify key elements of the narrative.

In September — two and a half years after the podcast was released — the Canadian police arrested Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax. Canadian officials say they believe that Mr. Chaudhry’s account of supposed terrorist activity is completely fabricated. The hoax charge led The Times to investigate what Canadian officials had discovered, and to re-examine Mr. Chaudhry’s account and the earlier efforts to determine its validity. This new examination found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the “Caliphate” podcast.

As a result, The Times has concluded that the episodes of “Caliphate” that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.

From a Times piece about Chaudhry’s hoax:

Before “Caliphate” aired, two American officials told The Times that Mr. Chaudhry had, in fact, joined ISIS and crossed into Syria. And some of the people who know and have counseled Mr. Chaudhry say they have no doubt that he holds extremist, jihadist views.

But Canadian law enforcement officials, who conducted an almost four-year investigation into Mr. Chaudhry, say their examination of his travel and financial records, social media posts, statements to the police and other intelligence make them confident that he did not enter Syria or join ISIS, much less commit the grievous crimes he described.

You can read more about this on NPR. Callimachi has been reassigned by the Times; the paper’s editor in chief Dean Baquet said, “I do not see how Rukmini could go back to covering terrorism after one of the highest profile stories of terrorism is getting knocked down in this way.”

Update: Here’s a statement from Callimachi on the retraction. It reads, in part:

Reflecting on what I missing in reporting our podcast is humbling. Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting. I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and I reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and I should have. I added caveats to try to make clear what we knew and what we didn’t. It wasn’t enough.

There are several listeners of the podcast in her mentions that do not feel as though they were misled. I’d have to go back and listen to the whole thing again to have an opinion, but I would like to note that Caliphate told a story and showed the behind-the-scenes at the same time. That non-traditional approach was really compelling, a key aspect of the show’s success IMO. Because you’re dealing with violent organizations and sealed investigations (neither ISIS nor government groups like the FBI want their information out there), there are limits on how stories like this can even be told. Callimachi and her colleagues creatively found a way to tell this one: by being upfront and transparent about those limitations and explicitly showing their work, misgivings and all. But perhaps, as she said, it wasn’t enough.

In Flight

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2020

photo of a bird in flight

photo of a bird in flight

Those are just a couple of the shots of birds in the air from Mark Harvey’s In Flight series. I love that top photo — I don’t know if those feathers are translucent or if it just appears that way because of the sky color. You can see more of Harvey’s photography on his website, at Instagram, and at Colossal.

The Credibility Is in the Details

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2020

The book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland contains a passage about whether artists should focus of quantity or quality in their work.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

It’s a great anecdote but with the absence of specific details (like the teacher’s name), it’s always struck me as apocryphal — a parable of unknown origin used to illustrate a counterpoint to conventional wisdom. Austin Kleon recently noticed another version of this story, featuring photographer Jerry Uelsmann, from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. It starts:

On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.

Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group.

Then it continues exactly as the ceramics story goes. Turns out, Orland says that he and Bayles changed the photography story into one about ceramics for their book, per Clear’s footnote:

“Yes, the ‘ceramics story’ in ‘Art & Fear’ is indeed true, allowing for some literary license in the retelling. Its real-world origin was as a gambit employed by photographer Jerry Uelsmann to motivate his Beginning Photography students at the University of Florida. As retold in ‘Art & Fear’ it faithfully captures the scene as Jerry told it to me — except I replaced photography with ceramics as the medium being explored. Admittedly, it would’ve been easier to retain photography as the art medium being discussed, but David Bayles (co-author) & I are both photographers ourselves, and at the time we were consciously trying to broaden the range of media being referenced in the text. The intriguing thing to me is that it hardly matters what art form was invoked — the moral of the story appears to hold equally true straight across the whole art spectrum (and even outside the arts, for that matter).”

Same anecdote, same takeaway, just different details right? I’m not so sure. The specific details lend credibility to the actual story and to the lesson we’re supposed to learn from it. There’s a meaningful difference in believability and authority between the two versions — one is a tale to shore up an argument but the other is an experiment, an actual thing that happened in the world with actual results. Even though I’ve known it in my bones for years because of my own work, I’m happy now to fully believe the connection between quantity and quality demonstrated in this story.

Update: Tangentially related from Emre Soyer and Robin Hogarth in Havard Business Review: Don’t Let a Good Story Sell You on a Bad Idea. (thx, rob)

Private Views

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2020

Private Views

Private Views

Posing as young apartment-hunting Hungarian billionaire, artist Andi Schmied was able to gain access to more than two dozen luxury apartments in Manhattan and photograph the views from them. The resulting project is called Private Views and you can see some of her photos in this portfolio. Christopher Bonanos interviewed Schmied about the project for Curbed. Regarding the banal sameness of rich people things:

Did you discover anything interesting about the apartments themselves?

They are all the same! I mean, really! For example, the layout of the apartments are essentially identical. You enter, and there’s a main view, always from the living room — in the case of Billionaires’ Row, everything’s facing the park. The second-best view is from the master bedroom, which is usually the corner. Then there’s the countertop, which usually a kitchen island in the middle, and there’s different types of marble but there’s always marble — Calacatta Tucci, or Noir St. Laurent, or Chinchilla Mink, and they always tell you, “It’s the best of the best,” from a hidden corner of the planet where they hand-selected the most incredible pieces. After five of these, it’s incredibly similar, all of them. Also they put a lot of emphasis on naming the designer.

The branding.

Yes. And there’s a big competition for amenities, who has the craziest amenities. Of course there’s the pool and all of that, but one of the newest things in the past two years in every single development is the golf-simulator room - it’s just the standard now.

Private Views is performance art as much as it is about photography and architecture. I love the details about how she conned her way into these buildings by using the eagerness of real estate brokers against them.

But after a while I realized that it absolutely doesn’t matter what I wear: From their point of view, you’ve passed the access, and you can do anything — anything is believable. For example, all the pictures were taken with a film camera, which is [gestures broadly] this big. I’d just ask, “Can I take some pictures for my husband?” which is a very obvious and normal thing to do. There were a few agents who noticed that it was a film camera, not a digital camera, and those who noticed asked, “Oh, wow, is it film?” And I’d always say something like, “Oh, my grandfather gave it to me — to record all the special moments in my life.” And they’d just put me in this box of “artsy billionaire,” and would start to talk to me about MoMA’s latest collection. So anything goes.

For a taste of the real estate banter, you can watch videos that Schmied recorded of her visits in a talk she gave early last year. Schmied is crowdfunding a book based on the project — you can back it here.

Unsettling Photographs

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2020

Thundergirl

Thundergirl

Thundergirl

Thundergirl

Some unsettling/weird/funny photos from @thundergirl_xtal on Instagram. They have a separate account just for nails/hands. (via swissmiss)

The Millennium Camera, a Pinhole Camera with a Thousand-Year Exposure Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2020

a Millennium Camera designed to take 1000-year-long exposures

Critic, artist, and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats has installed pinhole cameras in three locations around the United States — Amherst College, Arizona State University, and Lake Tahoe — that are designed to take 1000-year-long exposures of their surroundings.

I don’t plan to be here in a thousand years, but for those of you who are, what you’ll see if all goes well is not an image of a single landscape, but rather an image of change within that landscape over that very long period of time. How is that possible? To address the question at a technical level, I built the camera based on archaeological and art-historical research. The casing of the camera is made out of copper. Archaeologists know what happens to copper: it will take on a patina, and the oxidation creates a sort of protective surface that will preserve the integrity of the camera as an object, which is intentionally very simple and very small. The pinhole can’t be allowed to oxidize at all, so that is pierced through a sheet of hardened twenty-four-carat gold, and gold will not corrode. This provides integrity over the next thousand years for the means by which the image is focused.

The image is focused onto the back of the camera, which is not paper in this case. Instead it is oil paint. The pigment that I chose is a paint called rose madder. The madder root has a red color that was very much valued in antiquity, but is the bane of any conservator today. Examples of paintings from the Renaissance show that it’s not very light-fast. It is a fugitive color. And the so-called “inherent vice” of it becomes a virtue in the case of a camera like this, because we are causing it to fade.

A prototype of the camera is pictured above. It will be interesting to see to what extent the final product is averaged out — when you’re dealing with 1000 years, you have to reckon with the motion blur of even seemingly stationary objects. (via @zander)

How to Self-Rescue If You Fall Through Thin Ice

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2020

In this video, Kenton Whitman explains how to survive a fall through ice on a frozen lake or river.

The explanation could have been tighter and more engaging, but it gets really interesting around the 6:40 mark when Whitman ventures out onto some ice and falls through it to demonstrate the self-rescue technique (and he’s not wearing a wetsuit). Watching him relax to mitigate the cold shock response in realtime is spellbinding. His calmness really drives home that if you don’t panic and think clearly, you actually have a lot of time and energy to get yourself out of trouble. From the Four Phases of Cold Water Immersion:

While it varies with water temperature and body mass, it can take 30 minutes or more for most adults to become even mildly hypothermic in ice water. Knowing this is vitally important in a survival situation, since people would be far less likely to panic if they knew that hypothermia would not occur quickly and that they have some time to make good decisions and actions to save themselves.

Oh and don’t miss when Whitman gets back into the water so that you can see him climb out from another camera angle. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Ghosts of Segregation, the Vestigial Architecture of America’s Racism

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2020

Ghosts of Segregation

Ghosts of Segregation

Ghosts of Segregation is a project by photographer Rich Frishman with the goal of documenting the “the vestiges of America’s racism evident in the built environment, hidden in plain sight: Schools for ‘colored’ children, theatre entrances and restrooms for ‘colored people,’ lynching sites, juke joints, jails, hotels and bus stations.” The top photo above is of a segregation wall in a restaurant in Texas photographed in 2017:

This partition was constructed in the early 20th Century to keep people of different races apart. It is decorated with an original pre-1929 Dr. Pepper logo. At the time of its construction (circa 1906) only Caucasian customers were allowed to sit in the front of the saloon. All Hispanic, Asian and African-American customers had to sit behind the wall. When the saloon was remodeled and re-opened in 2014 the wall, no longer used for its original purpose, was retained as a historical reminder. It has recently been demolished.

The bottom photo shows the “colored entrance” for a movie theater in Texas:

The enigmatic door atop the stairway on the south side of the Texan Theater, long locked and largely overlooked, is the “colored entrance,” a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation. In Kilgore, Texas, the term “colored” extended to anyone not Caucasian, including Hispanics and the occasional Asian.

Also included in the project are photos of WWII internment camps (where persons of Japanese ancestry were held during WWII, many of them American citizens), the US/Mexico border wall, and the Stonewall Inn in NYC. You can view the photos here as well as a few more in the NY Times.

The Best Book Cover Designs of 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2020

Best Book Covers 2020

Best Book Covers 2020

Best Book Covers 2020

Best Book Covers 2020

Best Book Covers 2020

Well, what an unprecedented year that was! *sigh* 2020 is not a great year for ledes, so let’s skip right to the chase: many books were published this year and some of them had great covers. Lit Hub has the best roundup, with a selection of 89 covers chosen by book cover designers. Mark Sinclair’s ten selections for Creative Review are excellent as well. Electric Lit and Book Riot shared their cover picks as well.

I chose a few of my favorites and shared them above. From top to bottom: Zo by Xander Miller designed by Janet Hansen, the UK cover for Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates designed by Jamie Keenan (the US cover for comparison), Anger by Barbara H. Rosenwein designed by Alex Kirby, Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener designed by Rodrigo Corral, and Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch designed by Rachel Willey. Looking at great work like this always gets my “maybe I should have been a book cover designer” juices flowing…

See also The Best Books of 2020.

Update: Oh good, the annual list from The Casual Optimist is here: Notable Book Covers of 2020. A cover that he highlighted that I particularly liked is from Michael Nylan’s translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu designed by Jaya Miceli.

Best Book Covers of 2020

The NY Times list of The Best Book Covers of 2020 is out as well.

Sometimes Choreography Involves Goalkeeping**

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2020

I’ve featured the work of choreographer Yoann Bourgeois on kottke.org before — his work gets performers moving on rotating stages and dropping onto trampolines. A 2019 performance choreographed by Bourgeois based on an unfinished Mozart piece sort of combines his previous performances, with dancers dropping into a slippery ramp that slides them onto a rotating platform.

As you might expect, getting gravity and centripetal force to play well together requires some experimentation — Bourgeois recently shared a rehearsal blooper where he catches one of his performers before they go whizzing off the stage into the orchestra.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by @yoann_bourgeois


You can watch more behind-the-scenes footage of this performance in this video:

** Goalkeeping definitely involves choreography.

Unendurable Line

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2020

For Design Ah by Daihei Shibata, Unendurable Line is a short film about sudden changes due to “thresholds hidden in everyday life”. The choral accompaniment to this is delightful.

See also Shibata’s Unexpected Outcome. If you’re in the US, you can watch 60 full episodes of Design Ah on THIRTEEN.

The Art of Traditional Japanese Wood Joinery

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2020

This video is three minutes and nine seconds of pure precision — welcome to the world of Japanese wood joinery. Carpenter Dylan Iwakuni wordlessly demonstrates taking two or more pieces of wood and (improbably, impossibly) making them one. Seriously, I am gobsmacked at how exactly these bits of wood fit together.

If you enjoyed that, you may want to check out another of Iwakuni’s videos, Making the “Impossible Joint”.

(via colossal & the kid should see this)

Beer Can Pinhole Camera Takes Longest Exposure Photograph Ever

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2020

a long exposure photo taken of the path of the sun through the sky using a beer can pinhole camera

This pinhole solargraph, taken using a beer can pinhole camera over a period of eight years and one month, is thought to be the longest exposure image ever made. The photo shows the path of the Sun across the sky over that time period, almost 3000 trails in all. Regina Valkenborgh set the camera up in 2012 and then forgot about it; it was found by someone else this year. Said Valkenborgh of the project:

“It was a stroke of luck that the picture was left untouched, to be saved by David after all these years. I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up. I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence.”

If you want to make your own solargraph (it doesn’t have to go for 8 years…), check out the instructions here.

Recommendation: The Audiobook for Barack Obama’s A Promised Land

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2020

I read both of the excerpts from A Promised Land, Barack Obama’s memoir of his time in the White House: I’m Not Yet Ready to Abandon the Possibility of America from The Atlantic and A President Looks Back on His Toughest Fight in the New Yorker. I have also been listening to the audiobook version, read by Obama himself, over the last few days and if you’re at all interested in this book, I would suggest going with the audiobook. Here’s an excerpt of Obama reading the preface (and several more of other parts of the book):

Not that there’s anything wrong with the written version, but the audiobook conveys more context and information. Much of the time, Obama writes like he talks, so listening to him read his own writing is like sitting across the dinner table from him as he tells you about how he became President. You can hear which parts of the book he really cares about and which parts are in there just to bridge gaps. He does impressions — of Desmond Tutu and his Kenyan relatives — and inflects words in other languages in the manner of Alex Trebek. He jokes around and gets serious. You can hear how frustrated he was, and continues to be, with Republican obstructionism. I’m only a few chapters in so far, but it will be interesting to hear his voice when he talks about the aspects of his Presidency that people believe didn’t live up to his lofty goals and visions. You really get the sense when listening to him that, unlike many politicians, he actually cares about helping people — or if you’re cynical, that he’s best-in-class at faking it; either way it’s fascinating to hear and make up your own mind.

You can listen to Obama read A Promised Land at Amazon or Libro.fm.

Ted Lasso, a Model for the Nurturing Modern Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2020

Have you watched Ted Lasso? If not, you should — it’s probably my favorite TV thing of 2020. (It’s ok if you don’t care for sports. It’s not about sports.) Maureen Ryan’s excellent review of the series gets at why people are finding it so compelling.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this 2016 essay by Nora Samaran, who later expanded it into a slim but transfixing book called Turn This World Inside Out. It addresses a number of persistent questions I’ve had with lucid, thoughtful prose.

As Samaran puts it, “the men I know who are exceptionally nurturing lovers, fathers, coworkers, close friends to their friends, who know how to make people feel safe, have almost no outlets through which to learn or share this hardwon skill with other men…. Meanwhile, the men I know who are kind, goodhearted people, but who are earlier on in growing into their own models for self-love and learning how to comfort and nurture others, have no men to ask. … The answer to all of these difficulties is to openly discuss nurturance: how it looks, how it feels, how men can learn to practice it from the men who already know how.”

Ryan argues that Ted Lasso is an outlet that models the type of nurturing that Samaran is talking about.

Ted Lasso does a lot of things well — I adore the budding friendship between Rebecca and marketing whiz Keeley (Juno Temple) — but one of the things it explores wisely and well is what it looks like when men engage in (sorry for using these dreadful words) nurturing behaviors.

It’s a sprightly, well-constructed, enjoyable comedy about sports, sure, but it’s also about men who — like the many good men I have known (even in Hollywood!) — take responsibility for the example they set, for their emotions and for the actions they take. Ted Lasso will remain deeply valuable into next year and beyond, because it is also about a bunch of very different people who display fulfilling, conscientious confidence and leadership — not the bullying, toxic, arrogant, violent, condescending domination that has, in this country, has too often masqueraded as “leadership” and “confidence.” In evolving and supporting each other through those changes, these characters form friendships and communities that are truly meaningful.

Watching the show and reading this, I can’t help but think of another person who modeled kindness, goodheartedness, and nurturing male behaviors on TV for decades: Fred Rogers. (See, for instance, soaking in a kiddie pool with François Clemmons.) Ted Lasso co-creators & co-stars Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt are right around my age; I’d be shocked if one or both of them didn’t watch a bunch of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up like I did. The two shows are obviously very different but Rogers’ brand of radical empathy is all over Ted Lasso. As I’ve grown more conscious over the past decade about the type of person I want to be in the world and the type of example I want to set for my kids, Rogers has been a guiding light and I’m happy to add Ted Lasso to the list as well.

Update: I forgot to add: another aspect I appreciate about the show is it demonstrates how you can be competitive without being toxic. Lasso is a very competitive guy who cares about winning, but he goes about it in a constructive way, not a destructive way. It’s the kind of energy their mom and I are always trying to impart to our kids, who are both competitive (albeit in pretty different ways).

See also Building Belonging at Summer Camp.

Lego Version of Hokusai’s Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2020

Lego Version of Hokusai's Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Lego Version of Hokusai's Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Jumpei Mitsui, the youngest-ever Lego Certified Professional, has created a Lego version of Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The Great Wave is perhaps the most recognizable (and most covered) Japanese artwork in the world. Mitsui’s Lego rendering is composed of 50,000 pieces and took 400 hours to build. From Spoon & Tamago:

In ensuring that his 3D lego replica not only payed homage to the original but also captured the dynamics of crashing waves, Mitsui says he read several academic papers on giant wave formations, as well as spent hours on YouTube watching video of waves.

You can check out the Lego Great Wave in person at the Hankyu Brick Museum in Osaka.

A Marvelous Marble Machine for Making Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2020

For the past four years, Martin Molin of the “folktronica” band Wintergatan has been building a marble machine that the band can use to make music. He’s documenting the entire build on YouTube in a long series of videos (149 and counting). The most recent videos show Molin’s test of the machine with thousands of marbles and his tweaking to get things juuuust right. In the one above, he makes several adjustments from failures observed from his last test and then runs 30,000 marbles through the machine.

These videos are long, so you’d be forgiven for skipping to the end just to see the machine in action, but Molin is really enthusiastic — obsessed in the best way — and is great at showing his work. People really digging into things, especially tangible mechanical things, and bringing us along for the ride is always interesting. (thx, sippey)

“Spready Mercury” and Other Scottish Snow Plow Names

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2020

This is a map showing the real-time location of Scotland’s fleet of snow plows (which they call “road gritters”). As Jackie Sojico discovered, Scotland names their plows and some of them are hilarious.

a map of Scotland's fleet of snow plows

Some of the plows are named things like Sprinkles or Salty but there are also Gangsta Granny Gritter, Mr Plow, Spready Mercury, License to Chill, Ready Spready Go, and Gritney Spears. A possibly out-of-date list of plow names shared on Twitter includes Darth Spreader, Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, and Snowbegone Kenobi.

Plows elsewhere in the UK are also given interesting names: Basil Salty, David Plowie, Freezy Rider, and Roger Spreaderer. (thx, meg)

Identical Strangers

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2020

With almost 8 billion people in the world, chances are pretty good that everyone has a doppelgänger somewhere out there. Finding My Twin Stranger is a short documentary that follows researchers from the Department of Twin Research at St Thomas’ Hospital as they look for the most identical strangers — people who aren’t biological twins but sure look like they do.

In this documentary, we follow people as they track down their twin stranger across the globe and meet for the first time. They get to know one another and find out about each other’s lives and whether there are any other similarities. While the pairs get to know each other, they are also undergoing a series of tests by the twin-experts at St Thomas’ Hospital. These include measuring similarities of facial features using the latest 3D scanning technology, 2D facial recognition analysis and DNA ancestry testing.

The experts then get 100 people to rate the similarities from photos from most alike to least alike. Taking all of the results into consideration, the twin-experts will then reveal which pair is the most identical.

You can use the site Twin Strangers to find your own doppelgänger — you can see some of their matches here and on Instagram.

See also the fascinating 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers and Identical Twins Who Look Nothing Alike.

Watch a Chicken Embryo Grow in a Transparent “Egg”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2020

If you crack a fertilized chicken egg into a transparent container — in this case, plain old kitchen plastic wrap — and incubate it, you can observe the embryo as it develops and eventually “hatches” into a chick, heartbeat and all. The process takes about 21 days from start to finish.

The Northern Lights Photographer of the Year for 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2020

The best photos taken of the northern & southern lights in 2020

The best photos taken of the northern & southern lights in 2020

Capture the Atlas has collected some of the best aurora borealis and aurora australis photos taken this year in their 2020 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year competition. I’ve highlighted two photos from the competition above, by Ben Maze & Nico Rinaldi respectively. Maze’s photo, of the aurora australis in Tasmania, is stunning — one of the best astronomy photos I have ever seen. Here’s how he captured it:

Captured in this image is a trifecta of astronomical phenomena that made for some of the best astrophotography conditions one can witness in Australia, namely, the setting Milky Way galactic core, zodiacal light, and of course, the elusive Aurora Australis. On top of this, a sparkling display of oceanic bioluminescence adorned the crashing waves, adding the cherry on top to what was already a breathtaking experience.

Having been out of reception and civilization for over a day, fellow photographer Luke Tscharke and I had no idea the aurora would strike on this night. We’d just heard rumors of a potential solar storm. We could barely contain our excitement when the lights first showed up on our camera’s screens. We later realized we were in the best place on the entire continent to witness the rare show, with Lion Rock being on the southernmost cape of Tasmania and much more cloud-free than the rest of the state at the time.

The colors that our cameras picked up were incredible, too. Rather than the classic green, the display ranged from yellow and orange to pink and purple. When I’d captured enough frames that I was happy with, I simply stood by my camera with my head tilted towards the sky, occasionally swirling my hand around in the sparkling water by my feet. I’m forever grateful for moments in nature like this that show us the true wonders of our planet.

The aurora, the Milky Way, zodiacal light, and bioluminescence all in one image — what a magical conjunction. You can check out the rest of the winners here.

Inside the World of Professional Tag

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2020

This look inside the world of professional tag — the court setup, the vocabulary, the strategy — by Phil Edwards was the perfect low-stakes thing I needed to watch today. If you’d like to know more after watching, you can check out the World Chase Tag site, including the rules and terminology of the game (which has too many trademarked terms for my taste) or some competition videos (this compilation of the best moves from the last world championships is probably a good place to start).

The Chart of Doom: Ranking Apocalypses

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2020

Chart Of Doom

Spurred by the pandemic — what he calls “the first experience we’ve had of a global disaster affecting every single person on Earth”1 — Domain of Science’s Dominic Walliman takes stock of many of the possible catastrophes that might befall humanity, ranking possible threats based on their likelihood and the number of potential casualties.

This year was the first experience we’ve had of a global disaster affecting every single person on Earth. And also how unprepared society was to deal with it, despite plenty of people giving warnings that this was going to happen at some stage.

But in the midst of all the doom I started to wonder, what other things could threaten humanity, that we are not thinking about? So I made the Map of Doom to list all the threats to humanity in one place.

The result is the quadrant chart and the video above as well as the Map of Doom.

One could imagine a third dimension of this chart: what, if anything, humans can do about each of these threats. Earthquakes can be detected, buildings can be designed to withstand them, and evacuation procedures enacted and prioritized. Many effects of climate change can be mitigated. Asteroids can be detected, but doing something about them might prove difficult. We’ve lowered the threat of nuclear war — for now. Supervolcanoes? Yikes.

You can find a list of references used in the video’s description. (via open culture)

  1. Well, I think you could make good arguments for Western colonial expansion and capitalism here. Oh and some past volcanic eruptions.

When We Look Back on This…

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2020

In remarks to the German parliament today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated for tighter Covid-19 restrictions, as cases & deaths in Germany reach new peaks. The restrictions she’s referring to were recommended by “a national academy of scientists and academics” and are intended at reducing the spread of Covid-19 over the December holidays. The impassioned argument that she makes in this short video clip (full report here) is difficult for me to find fault with (even though conservative members of her parliament and Twitter commenters disagree). Here’s a partial transcript:

If the price we pay is 590 deaths per day, then that is unacceptable in my view. And when scientists are practically begging us to reduce our contacts for a week before we see Grandma and Grandpa, grandparents and older people at Christmas, then perhaps we really should think again about whether we can’t find a way to start the school holidays on the 16th instead of the 19th. What will we say when we look back on this once-in-a-century event if we weren’t able to find a solution for these three days? And it may be the case that sending children home is the wrong thing to do, if so then it will have to be digital lessons or something else. I don’t know, this is not my area of expertise and I don’t want to interfere. I only want to say: if we have too many contacts now, in the run-up to Christmas, and it ends up being the last Christmas with our grandparents, then we will have done something wrong. She should not let this happen.

I teared up watching her talk. In the US, we are dealing with many more cases (which will turn into eventual deaths) and deaths than Germany, both in absolute and per capita terms. It’s like 10 fully-loaded passenger planes a day are crashing with no survivors and there are small things that we all can do to keep many of those people alive and … many of us just don’t want to do those things!

Like Merkel says, we are going to look back on this and be completely ashamed that we didn’t do these things and that we elected people that won’t advocate for these things on our behalf and that we let 300-400,000 Americans die and countless others lose loved ones and go bankrupt and get evicted and lose their businesses and be chronically ill and be food insecure and and and. If we aren’t ashamed, if we don’t reckon with all of this someday, then maybe nothing can redeem us and we deserved it all.

Two Puzzles

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2020

Two Puzzles

Two Puzzles by Micah Lexier consists of a pair of jigsaw puzzles, each with the die-cut pattern of the other puzzle printed on it. From Lexier’s Instagram:

They look like two of the exact same puzzles, but are in fact different. One is the image of the nine-piece puzzle foil-stamped on to the 16-piece die-cut puzzle and the other is the image of the 16-piece puzzle foil-stamped on to the nine piece die-cut puzzle.

The puzzles are for sale in a limited edition of 100 at Paul + Wendy Projects. (via @kellianderson)

Update: See also Jigsaw Jigsaw, the puzzle for fans of the Droste effect. (via @christopherjobs)

Swirling Portraits by Martin Satí

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2020

Martin Sati

Martin Sati

Martin Sati

The vibrance and swirl of Martin Satí’s artwork reminds me, variously, of Milton Glaser’s portrait of Bob Dylan, the intricate calligraphy of Arabic art, and marbled paper. The artist shared a bit about his process with Colossal.

Satí shares that his practice, while digital, similarly molds facial features as a sculptor would. Despite using impalpable tools, he says that his “material is like semi-liquid and is difficult to model but at the same time is very rich in movement and liveliness… I work with this material, which I usually call ‘Silicone Pie,’ as an artisan works with ceramics. I am modeling the colors with lines of movement until I achieve an optimal level of detail.”

Mmmm, Silicone Pie. (via colossal)

A Detailed Analysis of the Doctor Who Theme Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2020

Delia Derbyshire

Even if you’re not a total sucker for old episodes of Doctor Who like I am, The Definitive Guide to the Doctor Who Theme Music is worth checking out to see how a very early piece of electronic music was constructed.

Created in 1963, the Doctor Who theme was one of the first electronic signature tunes for television and after nearly five decades remains one of the most easily recognised. The original recording of the Doctor Who theme music is widely regarded as a significant and innovative piece of electronic music, recorded well before the availability of commercial synthesisers.

I found this via Boing Boing, where Clive Thompson writes of the site:

I wish I had an analysis like this for more and more pop songs. The specific, nuanced decisions of musicians, producers and sound engineers are incredibly interesting, but can be really hard to tease apart just by listening to the mixed song.

Pictured above is Delia Derbyshire who, along with Dick Mills, arranged the theme music based on Ron Grainer’s composition.

Recently on the Kottke Ride Home Podcast

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2020

The Kottke Ride Home podcast has been humming away since August and host Jackson Bird has been sharing some great stuff lately. From today’s show comes this New York magazine piece by David Wallace-Wells about the stunning speed with which the Covid-19 vaccine was developed:

You may be surprised to learn that of the trio of long-awaited coronavirus vaccines, the most promising, Moderna’s mRNA-1273, which reported a 94.5 percent efficacy rate on November 16, had been designed by January 13. This was just two days after the genetic sequence had been made public in an act of scientific and humanitarian generosity that resulted in China’s Yong-Zhen Zhang’s being temporarily forced out of his lab. In Massachusetts, the Moderna vaccine design took all of one weekend. It was completed before China had even acknowledged that the disease could be transmitted from human to human, more than a week before the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States. By the time the first American death was announced a month later, the vaccine had already been manufactured and shipped to the National Institutes of Health for the beginning of its Phase I clinical trial.

Monday’s show featured the intrigue behind the discovery of a real life treasure:

And if you look back to last week, Jackson clued us in to Radiooooo (“The Musical Time Machine”), Tetris championships, China’s Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon, and DeepMind’s AI breakthrough in protein folding.

If any or all of that sounds interesting to you, you can subscribe to Kottke Ride Home right here or in your favorite podcast app.

Maps of Alternative Histories

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2020

map showing the USA with 124 states

For BBC Future, Sam Arbesman writes about “maps that plot alternative worlds to our own”.

These are the “what if” stories that ask us to imagine our world on a different path: what if a battle, election or assassination had gone the other way, or a pivotal person had never been born? Some of these stories involve time travel to make the change, but many alternate histories are simply imagined differences. What if the Nazis had not been beaten, as in the novel The Man in the High Castle, or what if the Soviets had landed a man on the Moon first, like in For All Mankind?

The map above was created by Andrew Shears and shows what the United States could have looked like if various state partition plans had come to fruition.

One of my favorite alternative history maps not covered by Arbesman is Melissa Gould’s Neu-York, a map of Manhattan after a hypothetical conquest of the United States by the Nazis in World War II (which I blogged about way back in 2003, when kottke.org had comments!)

partial map showing what Manhattan would have looked like if the Nazis had successfully invaded the US

See also Alternate Map of the Americas Features “Long Chile”.

Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2020

In this short video, Abigail Tucker, author of 2015’s The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, shares a brief overview of the role of cats in human lives, including their evolution from wild cats to tame lap friends.

But really, this is just a good excuse for me to feature once again Kevin Slavin’s marvelously entertaining talk about viral cat videos and the toxoplasma gondii parasite. See also Are Cats Domesticated?, How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice), and The Self-Domestication of Humans. (via open culture)

The Best Books of 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2020

The Best Books of 2020

I’m guessing that for most of you, reading books was either a comfort or a near impossibility during this unprecedentedly long and tough year. For me, I got some good reading in earlier in the year and then, as my focus shifted to writing about and researching the pandemic for this site and managing the logistics of safely navigating this new world, my energy for books waned. The last thing I wanted to do at the end of most days was more reading, especially anything challenging.

I also kinda didn’t know what to read, aside from the few obvious choices that were impossible to ignore. As I’m sure it is for many of you, a big part of my “getting the lay of the land” w/r/t books is seeing what my favorite bookstores were putting on their front tables — and that’s been difficult for the past several months. Looking through a bunch of end-of-2020 lists for what books everyone else recommended was especially valuable for me — there really were so so many good books published this year that are worth seeking out. So, here’s a selection of the best books of 2020 and links to the lists I used to find them. I hope you find this useful.

Let’s start with the NY Times. Their 10 Best Books of 2020 includes Deacon King Kong by James McBride while their larger list of 100 Notable Books of 2020 has both Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff and The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack on it. The Times’ critics have their own list for some reason; one of the books they featured is Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley.

Isabel Wilkerson’s masterful Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel (two books I actually read this year) deservedly made almost every list out there, including Time’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020. Those two books are also, respectively, on Time’s lists of The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020 and The 10 Best Fiction Books of 2020.

The Guardian breaks down their list of the Best Books of 2020 into several categories. The list of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2020 includes The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Kacen Callender’s King of the Rising.

The year-end lists on Goodreads (Best Books of 2020, Most Popular Books Published In 2020) typically cast a wider net on what a broader audience is reading. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett made their lists this year.

Kirkus has a bunch of categories in their Best Books of 2020 as well, including the timely Best Fiction for Quarantine Reading in 2020 — I found What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (“Dryly funny and deeply tender; draining and worth it”) on there.

The NYPL’s Best Books of 2020 has separate lists for adults, teens, and kids. For adult poetry, Nate Marshall’s Finna made their list. And for teen historical fiction: We Are Not Free by Traci Chee.

Some recommended books for kids from various lists (NYPL, NY Times, NPR): Shinsuke Yoshitake’s There Must Be More Than That!, Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (my daughter is reading this one right now for her book club), and Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk.

YA novel Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo and Homie by Danez Smith both made Book Riot’s Best Books of 2020. Oh, and I’d missed that Zadie Smith published a book of pandemic-inspired essays called Intimations.

NPR’s Book Concierge is always a great resource for finding gems across a wide spectrum of interests. Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile and The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante both made their Seriously Great Writing list and their Cookbooks & Food list includes Ottolenghi Flavor by Yotam Ottolenghi & Ixta Belfrage and Eat A Peach by David Chang.

Speaking of cookbooks and food, among the top titles for 2020 were In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan & Julia Turshen and Falastin by Sami Tamimi & Tara Wigley. (Culled from Food & Wine’s Favorite Cookbooks of 2020 and The Guardian’s Best Cookbooks and Food Writing of 2020.

I saw Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia on several lists, including Library Journal’s Best Books 2020.

The Book of Eels by Patrik Svensson and The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez both made Smithsonian Magazine’s The Ten Best Science Books of 2020.

Hyperallergic has selected Some of the Best Art Books of 2020, including Kuniyoshi by Matthi Forrer.

For the Times Literary Supplement’s Books of the Year 2020, dozens of writers selected their favorite reads of the year. Elizabeth Lowry recommended Artemisia, the companion book to the exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s at The National Gallery and sadly the best way for most of us to be able to enjoy this show.

More lists: Audible’s The Best of 2020 and Washington Post’s The 10 Best Books of 2020. I’ll update this post a couple of times in the next week with more lists as I run across them.

If you’d like to check out what I’ve read recently, take a look at my list on Bookshop.org.

Note: When you buy through links on kottke.org, I may earn an affiliate commission. This year, I’m linking mostly to Bookshop.org but if you read on the Kindle or Bookshop is out of stock, you can try Amazon. Thanks for supporting the site!

A Portrait of the Covid-19 mRNA Vaccine

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2020

portrait of the Covid-19 mRNA vaccine

Artist and biologist David Goodsell has done a painting of the Covid-19 mRNA vaccine.

The vaccine structure is highly idealized, with spike mRNA in magenta, lipids in blue, and PEG-lipid in green. The background is blood serum or lymph.

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna Covid-19 vaccines are based on mRNA — you can brush up on how they work at Stat or the CDC.

mRNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine to protect against infectious diseases. To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, they teach our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.

See also Goodsell’s painting of a SARS coronavirus from back in February.

The 41 Contiguous US States

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2020

map of the lower United States with 7 states missing

This map of the lower 48 US states hand-drawn by XKCD’s Randall Munroe is super clever: 7 of the states are actually missing. Maybe the pandemic is starting continuing to rot my brain, but I stared at this for an embarrassingly long time before finding any of the absent states. Even now that I know which ones are gone, the map doesn’t look out of place at all. *claps*

Dua Lipa’s Tiny Desk Concert

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2020

Like almost everything else these days, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts have gone remote. Their most recent play-from-home guest was Dua Lipa, who was the artist I listened to more than any other in 2020 (according to Spotify). Before playing a stripped-down acoustic version of Love Again with her band, Lipa said of the song: “It’s really about manifesting good things into your life when things aren’t quite going your way.” That’s a sentiment that a lot of us can relate to nowadays.

NPR has been tracking the 25-year-old singer/songwriter for a while now; she was featured in an episode of their Noteworthy series in August 2016, several months before the release of her debut album.

Dua Lipa walking unrecognized around NYC…won’t ever see that again.

Returning to Normal

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2020

cats wearing masks while social distancing

The NY Times recently surveyed 700 epidemiologists about how they are personally living during the pandemic and what they think is going to happen next. Epidemiologists should have a better idea than most of us about how to act during a viral pandemic, so there’s lots of good information in there about vaccines and high-risk behaviors. But I found their answers to a pair of speculative questions about a return to normalcy most interesting.

How and when will life go back to normal?

“For some, it has gone back to normal, and because of this, it will be two to three years before things are back to normal for the cautious, at least in the U.S.”

- Cathryn Bock, associate professor, Wayne State University

“The new normal will be continued masking for the next 12 to 18 months and possibly the next few years. This is a paradigm shift.”

- Roberta Bruhn, co-director, Vitalant Research Institute

What will never return to normal?

“My relationships with people who have taken this pandemic lightly and ignored public health messages and recommendations.”

- Victoria Holt, professor emeritus, University of Washington

“Every part of my daily life that involves interaction with anyone other than my spouse.”

- Charles Poole, associate professor, University of North Carolina

For many people, the pandemic has altered almost every aspect of their lives. If we listen to what epidemiologists are telling us (like we should have back in early 2020 to avoid much of our present hardship), it could help us accept that the pandemic will continue to affect most aspects of our lives even after it is “over”.

Free Covid-19 illustration courtesy of Pixel True.

Korean Study: Indoor SARS-CoV-2 Transmission from 21 Feet Away in Just 5 Minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2020

Zeynep Tufekci reports on a small study from Korea that has big implications on how we think about transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Scientists traced two cases back to a restaurant and discovered that transmission had occurred over quite a long distance in a very short period of time.

If you just want the results: one person (Case B) infected two other people (case A and C) from a distance away of 6.5 meters (~21 feet) and 4.8m (~15 feet). Case B and case A overlapped for just five minutes at quite a distance away. These people were well beyond the current 6 feet / 2 meter guidelines of CDC and much further than the current 3 feet / one meter distance advocated by the WHO. And they still transmitted the virus.

As Tufekci goes on to explain, the way they figured this out was quite clever: they contact traced, used CCTV footage from the restaurant, recreated the airflow in the space, and verified the transmission chain with genome sequencing. Here’s a seating diagram that shows the airflow in relation to where everyone was sitting:

seating diagram of a restaurant that shows how SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted across the room

Someone infecting another person 21 feet away in only five minutes while others who were closer for longer went uninfected is an extraordinary claim and they absolutely nailed it down. As Sherlock Holmes said: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And the truth is that in some cases, the recommended 6 feet of distance indoors is not sufficient when people aren’t wearing masks. Airflow matters. Ventilation matters. Which way people are facing matters. How much people are talking/laughing/yelling/singing matters. Masks matter. 6 feet of distance does not confer magical protection. All that can make it tough to figure out if certain situations are safe or not, but for me it’s an easy calculation: absolutely no time indoors with other people not wearing masks. Period. As Tufekci concludes:

I think there are three broad lessons here. One, small data can be extremely illuminating. Two, air flow and talking seem to matter a great deal. Three, sadly, indoor dining and any activity where people are either singing or huffing and puffing (like a gym) indoors, especially with poor ventilation, clearly remains high risk.

Read her whole post — as she says, it’s “perhaps one of the finest examples of shoe-leather epidemiology I’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic”.

My Recent Media Diet, The Late 2020 Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2020

Forgive me reader, for I have been lazy. It’s been 7 months since I’ve shared a list of the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts that I’ve been watching/reading/listening to, uh, recently. But I’ve been diligently keeping track1 and so here’s everything I’ve consumed since early May. Warning: soooo much TV and soooo many movies (and bad ones at that) and very few books. At the end of most days — after work, parenting, cooking yet another meal I’m not actually in the mood for, and constantly refreshing Instagram — I just don’t have enough left in the tank for books. (Oh, and as usual, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades!)

Winds of Change. A fun ride but ultimately kind of empty? (B)

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Perhaps not what you’d expect going in — thought-provoking on almost every page. (A)

The Ezra Klein Show — Madeline Miller. Super interesting, especially if you’ve read Song of Achilles or Circe. (A-)

Godzilla. This was sort of the tail end of my pandemic disaster movie film fest. (C+)

Fetch the Bolt Cutters. I love that this exists but it is not for me. (B-)

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel. I knew it was coming, Thomas Cromwell’s downfall; it’s historical fact after all. But somehow the actual moment shocked me, despite Mantel’s careful foreshadowing over hundreds of pages. (A)

Normal People. No way in hell was this going to be as good as the book, but they somehow did it. Stellar casting. (A-)

Fleabag Live. I wanted to love this like I loved the TV show but could not get into it. (C+)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Whatever else you might think about the third SW trilogy, the casting was fantastic. (B+)

Partysaurus Rex. One of my favorite Pixar shorts. (A-)

Iron Man 3. The only MCU movie I hadn’t seen. It was…fine? (B)

Dunkirk. A masterpiece. (A)

Arrival. Another masterpiece. (A)

Kursk. This should have been better. (B)

Harry Potter at Home. My kids and I listened to this in the car and loved it. (A-)

Watchmen. After admitting I’d stopped watching after a few episodes, several of you urged me to keep going. I finished it but still was not as dazzled as everyone else seemed to be. Maybe if I’d read the graphic novel? (B+)

Against the Rules with Michael Lewis (season two). This season was all about coaching and may have been even better than the first season. (A-)

The General. A silent film masterpiece from Buster Keaton. The kids were a little bored at first but ultimately loved it. (A-)

The Endless. Solid sci-fi horror. (B)

13th. A powerful argument that slavery is still constitutionally legal and alive & well in the United States. (A)

Ida. Beautiful film. (B+)

The Last Dance. I grew up watching and rooting for Jordan and the Bulls, so this was the perfect nostalgic entertainment. Jordan comes off as both more and less of a dick than I remember. (A-)

Da 5 Bloods. This was a mess. (C+)

Undone. Inventive animated sci-fi with plenty of plot left for season two. (B+)

Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls by Sonya Renee Taylor. Borrowed this from my daughter to brush up on how to help her approach some changes coming down the pike. (A-)

Beyond Meat. I snuck some of their ground “beef” into a casserole to try it out and see if the kids would notice. They didn’t at first, but once I told them, the three of us agreed that it was not that tasty — and definitely didn’t taste like beef. Plus I had an upset stomach until noon the next day. (C-)

Knives Out. I enjoyed this much more the second time. (A-)

Honeyland. A maddening microcosm of modernity. (A)

The Conversation. Maybe this hit me on an off-night? (B+)

The Great. Super fun show from the screenwriter of The Favourite. (A-)

Hamilton. Obviously better in person (and 4 years ago), but the performances and music are so great it doesn’t matter. (A)

Slate Money — Modern Monetary Theory. Really interesting alternate way of thinking about the economy, federal debt, inflation, and taxes. They kinda jumped right into the middle of it though, leaving this interested MMT beginner a little baffled. (B)

12 Monkeys. So very 90s. Brad Pitt is great in this though. (B+)

Cloud Atlas. An underrated gem. (A)

The Old Guard. Engaging and built for a sequel. But what isn’t these days? (B+)

Cars 2. I’d only ever seen the first 2/3s of this because my then-4-year-old son was so upset that the onscreen baddies were going to kill Lightning McQueen that we had to leave the theater. (B-)

Nintendo Switch. Such a fun little console that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (A-)

Greyhound. Not Hanks’ best effort. (B)

Radioactive. An overly complicated movie about a complex woman. (B+)

Ratatouille. The scene where Ego takes his first bite of ratatouille still gives me goosebumps. (A)

The Speed Cubers. Heartwarming story. (B+)

Project Power. Incredible that they were able to turn the story of Henrietta Lacks into a superhero movie. (B+)

Pluto TV. Am I the last person on Earth to find out about this app? Dozens of channels of reruns that you can’t pause and are interrupted by ads, just like old school TV. I’ve been watching far too much old Doctor Who on here. (B+)

Folklore. I don’t really get Taylor Swift and that’s ok. (C)

This Land. Excellent and infuriating — this had me yelling at my car radio. (A)

13 Minutes to the Moon — Apollo 13. Not as good as season one about Apollo 11 or Saving Apollo 13, but still compelling. (B+)

Black Panther. Had to rewatch. Rest in peace, Chadwick Boseman. What a loss. (A-)

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Anything she writes, I will read. (A)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I had forgotten how slow this starts, but once it gets going it’s completely gripping, even the quiet parts. (A-)

Contact by Carl Sagan. First time I’d read this in many years. Did not resonate as much as it had in the past. (B+)

Contact. They should have sent a poet. (A-)

True Grit. Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic in this. (A)

Being John Malkovich. Terrific performance by Malkovich. This was a favorite movie of mine for years but its impact on me has lessened. (B+)

Reply All, Country of Liars. The origin story of QAnon. But let’s just say there are some unreliable narrators in this story. (B+)

Jurassic Park. A blockbuster masterpiece. (A)

50 First Dates. One of the very few Sandler comedies I really like. (B+)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Really did not vibe with this one. (C+)

Pride & Prejudice. I am a huge sucker for this film. (A)

MASS MoCA. Took a day trip down here back in October. My first museum since Feb. Sol LeWitt, James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, great building, virtually no one here on a weekday — very much worth the 6-hour RT car ride. (A+)

Palm Springs. Groundhog Day + 50 First Dates. (A-)

Kona Honzo. After getting a taste of mountain biking on a borrowed bike, I upgraded to this hardtail. Had some really great rides on it but also stupidly crashed, landed on my face, had to go to the ER, and got 9 stitches on my chin. Would not recommend crashing (stupidly or otherwise, but especially stupidly), but I liked mountain biking enough to get back on the bike a couple of weeks later. (A-)

My Octopus Teacher. As I said previously: “It’s such a simple movie but it packs a surprising emotional wallop and is philosophically rich. Even (or perhaps especially) the bits that seem problematic are thought-provoking.” (A)

His Dark Materials. I like the show but the main character is so irritating that I don’t know if I can keep watching… (B+)

You’re Wrong About — Princess Diana. I never fully understood the appeal of Princess Diana but now I do. Excellent 5-part series. (A)

Human Nature. Documentary on Netflix about the discovery and potential of Crispr. (B+)

The Booksellers. Was ultimately not that interested in this. (B)

Ted Lasso. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood + Major League. Who knew you could make radical empathy funny? (A+)

The Queen’s Gambit. So well done in almost every way. (A)

Haywire. Solid Soderbergh thriller. (B+)

Enola Holmes. I will watch almost any Sherlock Holmes adaptation, riff, or spin-off. (B+)

The Trial of the Chicago 7. I loved this. Classic Sorkin and great ensemble cast performance. (A)

Zama. Maybe surrealist film is not my cup of tea. (B)

AlphaGo. I’d read a lot about the events in this film, but seeing it play out was still gripping and surprising. This and My Octopus Teacher would make a great double feature about the shifting definition of what makes humans human. (A)

The Way I See It. Pete Souza reflects on his proximity to power. (B+)

The Queen. Had to watch this after the Princess Di You’re Wrong About series. (B+)

Lego Star Wars Holiday Special. Is this canon now? If so, I have some questions. (C)

Carol. Holy shit, wonderful! I think I held my breath for the last two minutes of the movie. (A+)

Song Exploder. TV version of the OG podcast. The REM episode was great. (B+)

Rogue One. I wouldn’t call this the best Star Wars movie, but it isn’t not the best Star Wars movie either. (A-)

Little Women. Rewatched. I love this movie. (A)

Tenet. Primer + James Bond. Maybe the pandemic has made me dumber, but this totally confused me. In a bad way — it could/should have been simpler. (B)

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. A masterful examination of the skin color-based caste system of the United States, compared and contrasted with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. (A)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

  1. People have asked so here’s the extensive system I use to keep track of everything: the Notes app on my phone.

The Case of the Missing 2020 Gift Guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2020

Well, I might as well just say it: I will not be doing a holiday gift guide this year. For a whole bunch of interconnected reasons, mostly pandemic related, it just didn’t seem like a great idea. I usually enjoy putting the list together every year, but I sat down last week to start compiling links and just couldn’t muster the desire or energy. I don’t know about you, but my attention span over the past several months has not been conducive to doing projects that take more than an hour or two to complete, and the gift list usually takes me many hours spread over several days.

I know that some of you were looking forward to the list and I’m sorry to disappoint. But there’s some good news: last year’s gift guide is still perfectly serviceable. So are the guides from 2018, 2017, etc. Much of my advice stays the same from year-to-year: charitable giving should be high on your list; you can’t go wrong with the lists from Wirecutter, The Kid Should See This, Tools & Toys, and Serious Eats; and I still would love to hear from the reader who finally splurges on the 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant.1 If you were waiting on this year’s list, I hope that going back through these old lists will help you out.

One thing I will do soon is my annual compilation of the best books of the year (here’s 2019’s list). If your family and friends are anything like mine, books are a good 50-60% of the total gifts given, so hopefully that post will give you some ideas. Look for the 2020 list either tomorrow or Monday.

  1. Welp, there’s now a 275-gallon container of personal lubricant for sale on Amazon for $9700. What a world.

What If the Earth Got Knocked Out of the Solar System?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2020

The Milky Way galaxy may be home to billions or even trillions of rogue planets (planets that don’t orbit stars). In this video, Kurzgesagt considers how the Earth could go rogue (by following a nearby massive star away from the Sun) and what would happen to our oceans, atmosphere, and lives if it happened.

The first part of the video is pretty bleak — “as the days turn dark, the final winter of humanity would begin” — while the second part is hopeful: we’ll be able to predict our ejection thousands of years before it happens and may be able to prepare. In light of the world’s response to the pandemic and climate change, it would certainly be interesting to see if human civilization could get it together to save itself from a cold death in outer space. I have no doubt that scientist could accurately diagnose the problem and supply solutions, but the politics would be a total mess.

Aerial Photo of Manhattan, Circa 1931

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2020

Aerial Photo of Manhattan, Circa 1931

This is an aerial photo of Manhattan taken circa 1931. You can see all the way from 125th Street in Harlem down to the tip of Manhattan and beyond. That tall spike 25 blocks south of Central Park is the Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931. Also visible in the photo to varying degrees: Central Park’s Hooverville, the Statue of Liberty, several of the East River’s bridges, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Governors Island, and the much more uneven shorelines on both the Hudson and East River sides of the city. See also this aerial map of NYC from 1924, which is also available at NYCityMap (click on “Map Type” in the upper right) and a 1931 aerial photo of lower Manhattan.

Note: I tried and failed to track down the source and exact date of this photo. The earliest instances I could find were uncredited posts on Reddit and Facebook from a couple of years ago. Any idea where this came from? Would love to properly credit the source and nail down the year. (via @marinamaral2)

How Children Took the Smallpox Vaccine Around the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2020

With the first approved Covid-19 vaccines set to roll out in the US soon, some of the focus has shifted to how the vaccine will be distributed and its equitable allocation. Part of the distribution logistics puzzle is making sure there are enough glass vials to hold and transport the vaccine around the nation to those waiting to be vaccinated. For the New Yorker, Christopher Payne took some photos of two Corning factories that are manufacturing vials as fast as they can.

But back in the early 19th century, for a colonial empire dealing with overseas smallpox epidemics, glass vials were not an option. Smallpox vaccination at that time was most reliably accomplished by transferring material from cowpox blisters on one person (or cow) to another person. The freshly inoculated person got a little sick but later proved to be immune to the much deadlier smallpox. So when Spain’s Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition set sail in 1803 to inoculate the inhabitants of their overseas colonies for smallpox, they used the bodies of human beings to transport the vaccine. To be more specific, they used “twenty-two orphan boys, ages three to nine”.1

And so it was that, “in the era before refrigeration, freeze-dried vaccines, and jet aircraft,” writes medical historian John Bowers, “the successful circumnavigation of the globe with the vaccine…rested on a single medium — little boys.” During the long crossing, approximately twenty-two orphans who had not previously contracted smallpox or cowpox were “vaccinated in pairs every ninth or tenth day,” via arm-to-arm inoculation (taking lymph from an unbroken pustule on a recently vaccinated boy and introducing it under the skin of another). This created a vaccine chain — the vaccine remained active and viable for the entire journey.

The three-year expedition was success and an early & effective example of philanthropic healthcare, but you also have to note here that the reason the Americas were ravaged by smallpox was because Spain brought it there in the first place.

Update: In The Atlantic, Sam Kean provides some more detail on the vaccination effort.

Given the era, it’s likely that no one asked the orphans whether they wanted to participate — and some seemed too young to consent anyway. They’d been abandoned by their parents, were living in institutions, and had no power to resist. But the Spanish king, Carlos IV, decided to make them a few promises: They would be stuffed with food on the voyage over to make sure they looked hearty and hale upon arrival. After all, no one would want lymph from the arm of a sickly child. Appearance mattered. And they’d get a free education in the colonies, plus the chance at a new life there with an adoptive family. It was a far better shake than they’d get in Spain.

  1. The article describes these children as “orphaned” but I wonder if it’s not more accurate to describe them as “enslaved”. Surely these kids didn’t have a real choice in whether they wanted to be infected with cowpox and carried overseas in a cramped ship.

What Ancient Egyptian Sounded Like (and How We Know)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2020

For most of us, ancient Egyptian is a highly visual language represented by the familiar hieroglyphs left behind on monuments, papyrus documents, and even sarcophagi. But of course it was a spoken language as well…and linguists even have a good idea of what it sounded like. As NativLang’s Josh Rudder explains in this video, by studying the language family that ancient Egyptian descended from, the languages that evolved from it (like Coptic), and languages it traded words with, researchers have been able to determine how many ancient Egyptian words were pronounced.

For more, you can check out Rudder’s extensive list of sources, notes, and quotes related to the video. (via open culture)

The Rapidly Falling Cost of Solar Energy Visualized

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2020

Check out this graph from Our World in Data of the price of electricity from new power plants. In 2009, solar was the most expensive energy source and in 2019 it’s the cheapest.

graph showing the plunging cost of solar energy

Electricity from utility-scale solar photovoltaics cost $359 per MWh in 2009. Within just one decade the price declined by 89% and the relative price flipped: the electricity price that you need to charge to break even with the new average coal plant is now much higher than what you can offer your customers when you build a wind or solar plant.

It’s hard to overstate what a rare achievement these rapid price changes represent. Imagine if some other good had fallen in price as rapidly as renewable electricity: Imagine you’d found a great place to live back in 2009 and at the time you thought it’d be worth paying $3590 in rent for it. If housing had then seen the price decline that we’ve seen for solar it would have meant that by 2019 you’d pay just $400 for the same place.

The rest of the page is worth a read as well. One reason why the cost of solar is falling so quickly is that the technology is following a similar exponential curve to computer chips, which provide more speed and power every year for less money, an observation called Wright’s Law:

If you want to know what the future looks like one of the most useful questions to ask is which technologies follow Wright’s Law and which do not.

Most technologies obviously do not follow Wright’s Law — the prices of bicycles, fridges, or coal power plants do not decline exponentially as we produce more of them. But those which do follow Wright’s Law — like computers, solar PV, and batteries — are the ones to look out for. They might initially only be found in very niche applications, but a few decades later they are everywhere.

If you are unaware that technology follows Wright’s Law you can get your predictions very wrong. At the dawn of the computer age in 1943 IBM president Thomas Watson famously said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” At the price point of computers at the time that was perhaps perfectly true, but what he didn’t foresee was how rapidly the price of computers would fall. From its initial niche when there was perhaps truly only demand for five computers they expanded to more and more applications and the virtuous cycle meant that the price of computers declined further and further. The exponential progress of computers expanded their use from a tiny niche to the defining technology of our time.

Solar modules are on the same trajectory, as we’ve seen before. At the price of solar modules in the 1950s it would have sounded quite reasonable to say, “I think there is a world market for maybe five solar modules.” But as a prediction for the future this statement too would have been ridiculously wrong.

Science Gave us a Vaccine. Now to Turn That Into Vaccinations…

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2020

In an incredible effort, science has provided the world with what looks like an incredibly effective vaccine for Covid-19. For Stat, Helen Braswell writes about the challenges of turning that vaccine into vaccinations. In the US, despite heroic work from individuals and individual groups, our public health system has proved unequal to the challenge of addressing the pandemic, and we’re now turning, in part, to that system to distribute and administer the vaccines, as well as to educate the public and drum up support for vaccination. The people that we’re counting on are public officials and healthcare workers worn out from what is essentially one 9-month-long wave of illness, hospitalizations, and death across the country. Misinformation and skepticism of science and government has sowed “justified distrust” about vaccines in many people:

Concern about the vaccines, however, cuts across ethnic and socioeconomic groups. President Trump’s overt efforts to pressure the FDA to issue EUAs before the Nov. 3 election — before the vaccine trials were finished — has deepened the sense of unease. The CDC’s early pandemic testing fiasco, coupled with its sidelining by the Trump administration, has eroded its standing as a trusted source of information.

Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, refers to the current situation as a perfect storm of “justified distrust.”

“People who don’t think twice about vaccinating their kids totally on time, who get their flu shot every year, are in the sort of, ‘Hmmm. Might wait six months on this one,’” Buttenheim, who works on vaccine acceptance, told STAT. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ll get the European one,’” she said, adding other people have said they would get vaccinated after Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gets vaccinated.

And it’s not just the general public. A recent survey of 2,000 doctors and nurses in New Jersey found that 60% of doctors planned to take a Covid vaccine, but only 40% of nurses intended to, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said in a recent “60 Minutes” segment about Operation Warp Speed.

Fauci, along with other respected public health officials and workers, should get vaccinated live on CNN. Stream it on YouTube and Twitch. It won’t convert the anti-vax, anti-mask, QAnon wingnuts (nothing will) but if you can at least get healthcare workers and at-risk folks on board, it would be time well spent.

But that’s only one small piece of the puzzle. Braswell’s piece is long and comprehensive look at the challenges regarding the Covid-19 vaccines and is worth reading all the way through.

Detailed Forensic Reconstruction of the Beirut Port Explosions

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2020

On August 4, 2020, materials stored in a warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon caught on fire and then exploded multiple times. More than 200 people were killed, 6,500 injured, and around 300,000 residents were left homeless. Using photos and videos shot of the incident as well as other materials, a company called Forensic Architecture built a 3D model of the warehouse (inside and out), the fires, and the explosions. They cleverly used the unique second-to-second shape of the smoke plumes to sync up various bits of video shot from different vantage points.

We collected and examined images and videos taken by witnesses of the blast and shared on different platforms online. Using details about the smoke, fires, and explosions, we were able to geolocate each piece of footage and calculate the camera’s cone of vision. We places the cameras in the open source 3D model of the city , which we had adjusted to match the necessary precision. This helped us to identify the precise location of the source of the smoke plume within Warehouse 12 in each frame of each footage.

It’s a fascinating analysis. After going through more than 9 minutes of explanation of what they learned about the placement of materials (including highly explosive ammonium nitrate, tires, and fireworks) inside the warehouse from smoke colors, interior videos, and warehouse manifests, the narrator says simply:

From an engineering perspective, this is the spacial layout of a make-shift bomb on the scale of a warehouse, awaiting detonation.

The video is also available in Arabic. They’ve made the 3D files of the warehouse, the smoke plumes, and the port — as well as the source media used in their analysis — freely available for download on GitHub. (thx to several people who sent this in)

Stan Lee: “Fuck” Is the “Most Useful Word in the English Language”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

This is a lovely little animated video made from a recording of Stan Lee where he declares that the f-word is “probable the most useful word in the English language”. I found this via Josh Jones’ post at Open Culture, who shares some more Stan Lee tidbits.

Learn Some Black American Sign Language

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

After a video Nakia Smith did with her grandfather went viral, Netflix asked her to explain what Black American Sign Language is, how it came about, and how it differs from American Sign Language.

Black American Sign Language is a dialect of American Sign Language. It’s still a language. It was developed by Black deaf people in the 1800s and 1900s during segregation. For reference, the first American school for the deaf was created in 1817, but only started admitting Black students in 1952. So as a result, Black communities had a different means of language socialization and BASL was born.

Smith demonstrates a few BASL signs that differ from ASL signs and you can see more of those differences in the video w/ her grandfather, who is also deaf.

For more information, you can check out Smith’s TikTok, Wikipedia, and a documentary film called Signing Black in America.

Update: There was also a book about BASL published this year: The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL (Bookshop.org). The book includes 10 companion videos on YouTube.

“52 Things I Learned in 2020”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

Every year around this time, Tom Whitwell shares a list of 52 things he’s learned over the course of the year, complete with references so you can drill down into each one. Here’s 2020’s version — fascinating as usual. A few favorites:

3. The hold music you hear when you phone Octopus Energy is personalised to your customer account: it’s a number one record from the year you were 14. [Clem Cowton]

18. 10% of the GDP of Nepal comes from people climbing Mount Everest. [Zachary Crockett]

30. In Warsaw’s Gruba Kaśka water plant there are eight clams with sensors attached to their shells. If the clams close because they don’t like the taste of the water, the city’s supply is automatically shut off. [Judita K]

44. A micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. Just being alive is about 24 micromorts per day, skydiving is 8 micromorts per jump. [Matt Webb]

52. British clowns register their unique makeup patterns by having them hand painted onto chicken eggs. The eggs are then stored either at the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston or at Wookey Hole caves in Somerset. [Dave Fagundes & Aaron Perzanowski]

You can check out the rest here.

Vanity Fair Interviews Billie Eilish for a Fourth Consecutive Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

For the fourth year in a row, Vanity Fair interviewed teen pop star Billie Eilish on where she is in her life, what she’s learned, where she sees herself in the future, how her work is progressing, and how her answers from previous years hold up. (Past interviews: 2019, 2018.) This year is obviously different because of the pandemic and hits differently because of it.

I still marvel that Vanity Fair embarked on this project with this particular person. They could have chosen any number of up-and-coming 2017 pop singer/songwriters and they got lucky with the one who went supernova and won multiple Grammys.

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