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Entries for December 2021 (January 2022 »    Archives)

 

18 Things That Kept Me Going In 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 31, 2021

a snowy peak through the trees

For a few years now, I’ve been keeping track of all the stuff I read, watch, listen to, and experience — I call it my media diet. As 2021 comes to a close, I’m sharing some of my favorite things from a year that was somehow even weirder than last year.

The French Dispatch. I saw this twice and loved it. Maybe my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Tenenbaums? (That feels crazy to say but also might be true?)

Making Sense — The Boundaries of Self. This podcast conversation with poet David Whyte felt like a turning point in my year.

Strava. I first tried mountain biking in the fall of 2020 and this year it blossomed into a favorite hobby. Despite a lot of other responsibilities and engagements, I got out on the bike once or twice a week during the spring, summer, and fall and missed it when I couldn’t manage a ride. I recorded all of my rides with Strava and was gratified to see progress and to try and beat my personal bests.

Handshake Speakeasy. Post-vaccination (and pre-Delta and Omicron) I was able to travel a bit. This new-ish bar in Mexico City had some of the coolest, tasty, and unique cocktails I’ve ever had. (Handshake was named the 25th best bar in the world earlier this month.) Baltra Bar was also quite good. Restaurant-wise, Quintonil was amazing. But just walking around the city, eating street food, going to museums, ducking into bookstores, and wandering through markets was such a fantastic experience after a difficult 16 months.

Fleabag (season two). I rewatched this when I was deep in the emotional weeds this summer and I think it might be the best season of television ever made. I laughed like a maniac and cried like a baby. The final scene is absolute perfection.

The Great British Bake-Off. My kids got me into this over the summer and it is, as many of you discovered in early 2020, the perfect low-stakes entertainment for getting one’s mind off of current events for 60 minutes at a time.

Pfizer-BioNTech (BNT162b2) and Moderna (mRNA-1273) Covid-19 Vaccines. Getting vaccinated (full three-series) and seeing my kids & friends (and their kids) get fully vaccinated was the absolute best thing that happened to me this year. Getting back to some semblance of normalcy, at least in certain situations at certain times with certain people, while being protected against severe disease and death, felt incredible.

The Premier League. I’ve watched a lot of football this year, mostly the Premier League but also the occasional PSG, Dortmund, Bayern, and Barca matches. Oh, and the Euros and Copa America. I don’t have a favorite team, I just like watching the best players in the world play football at a high level. I know this particular way of being a sports fan is often offensive to Real Sports Fans™ because you need to have a team and get upset and rend your garments when they lose and beat up the other teams’ fans, but my parents didn’t happen to live within 20 miles of an English soccer stadium when I was born, so I can do what I like.

You’re Wrong About. For the second year in a row, my favorite podcast. I couldn’t wait for the new episodes to drop on Monday. However. Michael Hobbes left the show in October and while I’ve been giving the show’s new format the benefit of the doubt, I’m not sure about it. Both Hobbes and co-host Sarah Marshall are individually wonderful but it was their combination that made the show marvelous and that bit is missing now.

Succession (season 3). My interest waned at times in the middle of the season, but I thought the last two episodes were outstanding. Plus, in preparation for this season, I watched season two’s finale and got to see this scene again.

The ocean. This should be on the list every year. Visiting the ocean nourishes my soul like little else and I was able to make that happen several times this year.

The Painter and the Thief. Remarkable documentary and maybe the best film I saw this year.

L.L. Bean fleece-lined hoodie. I lived in this thing for most of the year — so comfortable.

Dune. I can’t even put my finger on why I enjoyed this movie so much.

Donda. Ugh, I know. I continue to hate how much I love parts of this album.

The pandemic scribes. Even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist in thrall to religion, fascist media, or “wellness”, it’s been difficult to find steady, non-hysterical information, analysis, and opinion about the pandemic. I’m grateful to Zeynep Tufekci, Eric Topol, Ed Yong, Katelyn Jetelina, Jodi Ettenberg, Carl Zimmer, and others for keeping me informed.

NYC. I missed this place immensely: the restaurants, the bars, the museums, the people, the subway, the bookstores, the architecture, the crowds, the culture, the walkability. Keep all the outdoor seating and space reclaimed from cars please!

Wandavision. I was extremely charmed by this wonderful love letter to television.

I also enjoyed Mare of Easttown, Nixon at War, Summer of Soul, Black Art: In the Absence of Light, The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, Ted Lasso (season two), Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, Soul (+ the soundtrack), and Laserwriter II by Tamara Shopsin but don’t have anything specific to say about them, for secret reasons. I’ll see you in 2022.

The Photos of the Year for 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2021

tornado debris is visible from inside a movie theater

a ship called the Ever Given is stuck in the Suez Canal

terrorist storm the Capitol Building on January 6

a man dressed in an elaborate costume get a vaccine shot

a group of kids play soccer in front of a setting sun

a young child with Covid on a respirator

a school band rehearses, each in an individual airtight pod

a monkey walks though a scale model of a city

volcanic ash almost completely covers a house

citizens protesting the coup in Myanmar firing slingshots

Simone Biles flying high in the air above the vault

It is difficult to separate 2021 from the previous year — Covid, social & political unrest, and the climate crisis bind them together in my memory. I think, at the beginning of this year, many people thought it was going to be better year than the last, but instead it was 2020: The Sequel. Meaghan Looram summed the year up succinctly for the NY Times:

The year 2021 opened with the promise of vaccines, and the belief that we would all return to “normal” after the tumultuous year of the pandemic. But the year instead took off with an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, and saw a summer of carefree gatherings derailed by a fast-spreading virus. Governments fell, democracies were challenged, and climate-related destruction was unleashed, all while the casualties of the pandemic continued to amass. The vaccine saved some lives, but human passions, hopes and fears did their usual work to create a year that was anything but calm, and is ending with the prospect of a new variant upending plans once again.

As I do every year, I went through a bunch of photos-of-the-year lists and picked up some favorites; they are embedded above. The first photo, taken by amateur photographer Shawn Triplett with his iPhone in the aftermath of the Kentucky tornados, wasn’t included in any of the lists but it was probably my favorite of the year. There’s something about the framing, the emptiness, the destruction, and the screen-mediated chaos vs. order that is the perfect metaphor for how things are feeling right now.

You can check out more of the year’s best photos here:

The photos above were taken by (from top to bottom): Shawn Triplett, satellite imagery, Shannon Stapleton, Jouni Porsanger, Siphiwe Sibeko, Callaghan O’Hare, Don Seabrook, Alexey Pavlishak, Emilio Morenatti, Anonymous, and Doug Mills.

Dreamy & Surreal Imagery by KangHee Kim

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2021

clouds appear to come out of the top of a gas station canopy

a transparent road sign says 'Hope 1/2 Mile'

clouds in the middle of a lamp

a cloud nestles in a tre branch above a cliff face

Loving these fanciful and playful manipulated photos by KangHee Kim, which can be found on her Instagram or her series Street Errands.

Decoding Manhattan: Island of Diagrams, Maps, and Graphics

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2021

pages of a book called Decoding Manhattan with maps, charts, and other graphic representations of the city

Well, I’m not sure this book could be any further up my alley; I mean:

The life and legend of New York City, from the size of its skyscrapers to the ways of its inhabitants, is vividly captured in this lively collection of more than 250 maps, cross sections, flowcharts, tables, board games, cartoons and infographics, and other unique diagrams spanning 150 years. Superstars such as Saul Steinberg, Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann, Roz Chast, and Milton Glaser butt up against the unsung heroes of the popular press in a book that is made not only for lovers of New York but also for anyone who enjoys or works with information design.

Unleashing Beaver to Restore Ecosystems and Combat the Climate Crisis

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2021

While indigenous communities, farmers, and those living close to the land have known for generations the role that beavers play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, more and more scientists have been experimenting and gathering data on just how essential these animals are. Through their actions, beaver (and humans mimicking their actions) can help restore river-based ecosystems, improve wildfire resilience, bring fish & other animals back to habitats, and fight drought.

Beaver should be our national climate action plan because connected floodplains store water, store carbon, improve water quality, improve the resilience to wildfire, and what beaver do play an enormous role in controlling the dynamics of those systems. So, yeah, it sounds really trite to give a national climate action plan to some rodents. But if we don’t do that directly, we should at least be trying to mimic what they do.

The video above provides a great overview on what we’re learning about how beavers restore ecosystems. Last month, I linked to this Sacramento Bee piece about how beavers were used to revitalize a dry California creek bed:

The creek bed, altered by decades of agricultural use, had looked like a wildfire risk. It came back to life far faster than anticipated after the beavers began building dams that retained water longer.

“It was insane, it was awesome,” said Lynnette Batt, the conservation director of the Placer Land Trust, which owns and maintains the Doty Ravine Preserve.

“It went from dry grassland… to totally revegetated, trees popping up, willows, wetland plants of all types, different meandering stream channels across about 60 acres of floodplain,” she said.

The Doty Ravine project cost about $58,000, money that went toward preparing the site for beavers to do their work.

In comparison, a traditional constructed restoration project using heavy equipment across that much land could cost $1 to $2 million, according to Batt.

See also The Beaver Manifesto and this long piece from Places Journal about beavers as environmental engineers.

Across North America and Europe, public agencies and private actors have reintroduced beavers through “re-wilding” initiatives. In California and Oregon, beavers are enhancing wetlands that are critical breeding habitat for salmonids, amphibians, and waterfowl. In Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico, environmental groups have partnered with ranchers and farmers to encourage beaver activity on small streams. Watershed advocates in California are leading a campaign to have beavers removed from the state’s non-native species list, so that they can be managed as a keystone species rather than a nuisance. And federal policy is shifting, too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sees beavers as “partners in restoration,” and the Forest Service has supported efforts like the Methow Beaver Project, which mitigates water shortages in North Central Washington. Since 2017, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has funded beaver initiatives through its Aquatic Restoration Program.

(via the kid should see this)

A Black Box for the Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2021

an oddly shaped building on a grassy hill in Tasmania

A group of researchers, scientists, and artists is building an Earth’s Black Box in a remote area of Tasmania that will function like a flight data recorder for climate change, recording the potential crash of our civilization.

Earth’s Black Box will record every step we take towards this catastrophe. Hundreds of data sets, measurements, and interactions relating to the health of our planet will be continuously collected and safely stored for future generations.

The purpose of the device is to provide an unbiased account of the events that lead to the demise of the planet, hold accountability for future generations, and inspire urgent action.

In a quote to the NY Times, one of the project’s participants said, “I’m on the plane; I don’t want it to crash.”

CDC Report Shows Steep Drop in US Life Expectancy in 2020

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2021

The CDC recently released their report on Mortality in the United States, 2020 and this graph of US life expectancy at birth since 1950 by Christopher Ingraham dramatically summarizes the report’s main finding:

graph showing US life expectancy at birth since 1950, featuring a steep drop in 2020

That’s a decrease in life expectancy of 1.8 years from 2019. Here are some more of the report’s significant findings:

In 2020, life expectancy at birth was 77.0 years for the total U.S. population — a decrease of 1.8 years from 78.8 years in 2019. For males, life expectancy decreased 2.1 years from 76.3 in 2019 to 74.2 in 2020. For females, life expectancy decreased 1.5 years from 81.4 in 2019 to 79.9 in 2020.

In 2020, the difference in life expectancy between females and males was 5.7 years, an increase of 0.6 year from 2019.

graph of the death rates in the US for 2020

The age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 16.8% from 715.2 per 100,000 standard population in 2019 to 835.4 in 2020. Age-adjusted death rates increased in 2020 from 2019 for all race-ethnicity-sex groups, increasing 42.7% for Hispanic males, 32.4% for Hispanic females, 28.0% for non-Hispanic Black males, 24.9% for non-Hispanic Black females, 13.4% for non-Hispanic White males, and 12.1% for non-Hispanic White females.

graph of the leading causes of death in the US in 2020

In 2020, 9 of the 10 leading causes of death remained the same as in 2019. The top leading cause was heart disease, followed by cancer. COVID-19, newly added as a cause of death in 2020, became the 3rd leading cause of death. Of the remaining leading causes in 2020 (unintentional injuries, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease), 5 causes changed ranks from 2019. Unintentional injuries, the 3rd leading cause in 2019, became the 4th leading cause in 2020. Chronic lower respiratory diseases, the 4th leading cause in 2019, became the 6th. Alzheimer disease, the 6th leading cause in 2019, became the 7th. Diabetes, the 7th leading cause in 2019, became the 8th. Kidney disease, the 8th leading cause in 2019, became the 10th leading cause in 2020. Stroke, and influenza and pneumonia, remained the 5th and 9th leading causes, respectively. Suicide dropped from the list of 10 leading causes in 2020.

And from the report’s summary:

From 2019 to 2020, the age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 16.8%. This single-year increase is the largest since the first year that annual mortality data for the entire United States became available. The decrease in life expectancy for the total population of 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020 is the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years.

Since more people in the US died of Covid in 2021 than in 2020, I’d expect the decline life expectancy and the rise in death rate to continue.

Tim Flach’s Beautiful Bird Photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2021

group of flamingos on a black background

two ducks

closeup of a bird with a mustache

a mottled blue bird's egg

a brightly colored bird in flight

Oh, Tim Flach takes wonderful photos of birds, birbs, and everything in-between (including an avian dead ringer for Hercule Poirot). He recently published a book of this work called Birds and you can of course keep up with his stuff on Instagram. (via jodi)

Charles Darwin’s First Microscope

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

In the mid-1820s, the naturalist Charles Darwin began his research career studying botany in university and he bought a portable brass microscope to aid him in his studies. The microscope was passed down through the generations of his family and was recently sold at auction for ~$790,000.

Charles Darwin’s own research career began in earnest with the more prosaic, but no less philosophical, investigation into the sea creatures being dredged up from the Firth of Forth, which Charles obtained from friendly fishermen while he was trying to avoid his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin’s studies of these strange ‘zoophytes’, which made liberal use of the microscope, began in 1826 and reached a successful conclusion in the spring of 1827, when he presented his very first scientific paper to the University’s Plinian Society.

These dates coincide with the first appearance of the present model on the market: the instrument was designed by Charles Gould for the firm Cary around 1825, and was certainly on sale by 1826, when its accompanying booklet was mentioned in the Mechanics’ Register. Of the five other surviving microscopes associated with Charles Darwin, four are known to have been acquired later (two in 1831, one each in 1847 and c.1848), and the other cannot be used for studying marine invertebrates.

a brass microscope that was owned by Charles Darwin

a brass microscope that was owned by Charles Darwin, packed into its box

(thx, mick)

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

From executive producer Adam McKay (who also directed the first episode) comes a glitzy HBO series about the Lakers’ NBA dynasty in the 80s called Winning Time. It’s based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. The casting looks great — Adrien Brody as Pat Riley is particularly fitting.

Winning Time was also the last straw in the disintegration of the creative partnership between McKay and Will Ferrell. From a recent profile of McKay in Vanity Fair:

McKay had been making an HBO limited series about the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team in the 1980s based on the book Showtime and Ferrell, a huge Lakers fan, had his heart set on the role of Jerry Buss, the legendary ’80s-era team owner. After Gary Sanchez dissolved, however, the Lakers show moved under McKay’s new production banner, Hyperobject Industries. And Ferrell, it turns out, was never McKay’s first choice. “The truth is, the way the show was always going to be done, it’s hyperrealistic,” he says. “And Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss. And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion.”

The person McKay wanted for Buss was John C. Reilly, who looks more like the real thing, and who is Ferrell’s best friend. McKay hesitated. “Didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” he says flatly. “Wanted to be respectful.”

In the end he cast Reilly in the role anyway-without telling Ferrell first. Ferrell was infuriated. “I should have called him and I didn’t,” says McKay. “And Reilly did, of course, because Reilly, he’s a stand-up guy.”

Winning Time debuts in March 2022.

The Betty White Timeline of Human History

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

It can be difficult to wrap our minds around just how short recorded human history is — 5500 years is not actually all that long of a time period. In this Twitter thread, Jelena Woehr suggests that we use the unit of Betty White’s lifetime (99 years and counting) as a tool to probe the temporal relationships of important events in the evolution of humans and society.

Y’all, it’s only been about 16 really old people since the fall of Rome.

Shakespeare died four very long-lived grandparents ago?!

It’s been less than two Betty Whites since the Emancipation Proclamation?!?!

I feel like if we expressed time in units of Betty White we’d be better able to understand the lack of human moral progress.

“Society has not gotten better at implementing public health measures since the 1918 flu pandemic” sounds impossible, but that was only 1.03 Bettys ago.

It gets even wilder when you go farther back, too.

Humans have had roughly the same brain size and shape for 1000 Betty Whites.

But we’ve only had writing since 52 Betty Whites ago.

We were going around with these big brains never writing anything down for 948 Bettys????!

This reminds me of The Great Span1 but more specifically of Mark Sumner’s 50 Men from Ur.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States’ great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you’re no more than three away yourself. That’s how short the history of our nation really is.

Not impressed? It’s only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You’re ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.

(thx, matt)

  1. kottke.org readers in chorus: “What doesn’t remind you of The Great Span, Jason?!” Ok, fair enough but it’s still cool!

The Northern Lights Photographer of the Year for 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

intense pink and yellow aurora in the night sky

light blue aurora in the sky over a group of snow flocked trees

green aurora flows over a steep mountain peak

Check out some of the best aurora borealis and aurora australis photos taken in 2021 in the results of the 2021 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year competition.1 My three favorites (embedded above) were taken by Larryn Rae, Marc Adamus, and Frøydis Dalheim. (thx, caroline)

  1. Off-topic, but I covered this contest last year and they used the same nonspecific URL for this year’s winners as they did for last year’s. Which means that last year’s winning photos are nowhere to be found and in 2022 the 2021 photos will also disappear. Don’t do this!

Award-Winning Photos from an Action & Adventure Sports Photo Competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

a climber jumps away from a cliff face

a person in a kayak shoots out of a massive wave in the rapids

dozens of paragliders fly in the air over the mountains

a man skateboards on a curved rock face next to a stream in the forest

The winners of the 2021 Red Bull Illume Image Quest photography contest have been announced. You can take a look at the winners, runners-up, and finalists in the contest — so much impressive work here. Photos above are by Will Saunders, Rod Hill, Andreas Busslinger, and Adrien Petit. (via in focus)

The Best Books of 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

The Best Books of 2021

Like last year, I had a lot of trouble reading this year and even more difficulty regularly visiting good book stores, with months-long stretches without both. So, I went into compiling this post with a (fairly) clean slate and it was exciting to learn about what’s been good this year.

I consulted a number of best-of lists (fiction, nonfiction, kids, poetry, audiobooks, food/cooking, art) and here’s what popped out at me. [All source lists are included at the bottom of the post. ** denotes books I have read or am currently reading.]

Beautiful World, Where Are You (ebook) by Sally Rooney.**

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up, and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young — but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

When We Cease to Understand the World (ebook) by Benjamín Labatut.

When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.

Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

Crying in H Mart (ebook) by Michelle Zauner.

In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

Klara and the Sun (ebook) by Kazuo Ishiguro.**

Here is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir (ebook) by Ashley C. Ford.

Through poverty, adolescence, and a fraught relationship with her mother, Ashley C. Ford wishes she could turn to her father for hope and encouragement. There are just a few problems: he’s in prison, and she doesn’t know what he did to end up there. She doesn’t know how to deal with the incessant worries that keep her up at night, or how to handle the changes in her body that draw unwanted attention from men. In her search for unconditional love, Ashley begins dating a boy her mother hates. When the relationship turns sour, he assaults her. Still reeling from the rape, which she keeps secret from her family, Ashley desperately searches for meaning in the chaos. Then, her grandmother reveals the truth about her father’s incarceration… and Ashley’s entire world is turned upside down.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (ebook) by Patrick Radden Keefe.

A grand, devastating portrait of three generations of the Sackler family, famed for their philanthropy, whose fortune was built by Valium and whose reputation was destroyed by OxyContin. From the prize-winning and bestselling author of Say Nothing, as featured in the HBO documentary Crime of the Century.

The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions — Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing a blockbuster painkiller that was the catalyst for the opioid crisis.

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (ebook) by Clint Smith.

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks — those that are honest about the past and those that are not — that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history, and ourselves.

No One Is Talking About This (ebook) by Patricia Lockwood.**

As this urgent, genre-defying book opens, a woman who has recently been elevated to prominence for her social media posts travels around the world to meet her adoring fans. She is overwhelmed by navigating the new language and etiquette of what she terms the portal, where she grapples with an unshakable conviction that a vast chorus of voices is now dictating her thoughts. When existential threats — from climate change and economic precariousness to the rise of an unnamed dictator and an epidemic of loneliness — begin to loom, she posts her way deeper into the portal’s void.

Cloud Cuckoo Land (ebook) by Anthony Doerr.

Set in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now, Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous third novel is a triumph of imagination and compassion, a soaring story about children on the cusp of adulthood in worlds in peril, who find resilience, hope — and a book.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (ebook) edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning “1619 Project” issue reframed our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative. This new book substantially expands on that work, weaving together eighteen essays that explore the legacy of slavery in present-day America with thirty-six poems and works of fiction that illuminate key moments of oppression, struggle, and resistance. The essays show how the inheritance of 1619 reaches into every part of contemporary American society, from politics, music, diet, traffic, and citizenship to capitalism, religion, and our democracy itself.

Matrix (ebook) by Lauren Groff.

One of our best American writers, Lauren Groff returns with her exhilarating first new novel since the groundbreaking Fates and Furies.

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (ebook) by Oliver Burkeman.

Drawing on the insights of both ancient and contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers, Oliver Burkeman delivers an entertaining, humorous, practical, and ultimately profound guide to time and time management. Rejecting the futile modern fixation on “getting everything done,” Four Thousand Weeks introduces readers to tools for constructing a meaningful life by embracing finitude, showing how many of the unhelpful ways we’ve come to think about time aren’t inescapable, unchanging truths, but choices we’ve made as individuals and as a society — and that we could do things differently.

Harlem Shuffle (ebook) by Colson Whitehead.

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

Yolk (ebook) by Mary H.K. Choi.

From New York Times bestselling author Mary H.K. Choi comes a funny and emotional story about two estranged sisters and how far they’ll go to save one of their lives — even if it means swapping identities.

The Lincoln Highway (ebook) by Amor Towles.

The bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility and master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction returns with a stylish and propulsive novel set in 1950s America.

I’m all jazzed up about reading now…I love books and I need to figure out how to read more of them in the upcoming year. Here are some of the lists I used to assemble this collection:

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!

Lake Toiletbrush and the Curse of Ikea’s Product Names

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

a woman standing in front of a billboard that reads 'Welcome to Bolman, more than an IKEA toilet brush

Ikea names their products after locations all over Scandinavia and a bunch of those places in Sweden are fighting back against the practice with a clever “discover the originals” ad campaign.

From Strange Maps:

Bolmen. Now there’s a word you don’t use every day. Where have you encountered it before? In IKEA, where it’s the name of a cheap toilet brush — for a dollar, it’s yours. What you probably don’t know is that the brush was named after a pristine lake in southern Sweden. And now that you do know, that lake doesn’t sound so pristine anymore.

Call it the Curse of IKEA. A curse repeated hundreds of times across the map of Sweden. Beautiful places with exotic names, their appeal diminished by association with mundane items from the world’s most popular furniture catalog. Where does that leave the tourist industry around Lake Toiletbrush? Down in the dumps, is where.

Bodviken is “more than an IKEA countertop sink”; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Voxnan is “more than an IKEA shower shelf”; it’s home to a marvelous river for fishing, paddling, and hiking. Björksta is “more than an IKEA picture with frame”; it’s an historic Viking site. You can check out more of the originals here.

Get Back: Creativity Lessons from The Beatles

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

the Beatles asking for some toast and tea during a practice session

I haven’t had a chance to watch Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary yet, but I really enjoyed reading Tom Whitwell’s 10 lessons in productivity and brainstorming from The Beatles gleaned from the series.

1. The ‘yes… and’ rule

The first rule of improvisation (and brainstorming) is “yes… and”. When someone suggests an idea, plays a note, says a line, you accept it completely, then build on it. That’s how improvisational comedy or music flows. The moment someone says ‘no’, the flow is broken. It’s part of deferring judgement, where you strictly separate idea generation from idea selection.

As they slog through Don’t Let Me Down, George breaks the spell. Instead of building and accepting he leaps to judgement, saying “I think it’s awful.” Immediately, John and Paul lay down the rules: “Well, have you got anything?” “you’ve gotta come up with something better”.

Don’t judge, build.

I worked on a secret project recently (shhh…) where I really wanted to just say no but chose to do “yes… and” instead, which led my collaborator and I to a better solution. I love the improv rule, but it’s so hard for me to follow sometimes because my job is basically saying no to things all day.

6. One conversation at a time

One of the striking thing about the sessions is how polite everyone is. Perhaps it’s editing, but nobody speaks over anyone else. Everyone has a chance to be heard, which means people spend most of the time listening, rather than talking (apart from Paul, perhaps).

This is another lesson from musical and theatrical improvisation. The difference between a creative environment and a bunch of people shouting out ideas is the listening.

You can read all ten lessons here.

Donations to Local Holiday Toy Drives Are Down This Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

My kids and I went to the local toy store yesterday to do some holiday shopping for Toys for Tots. When we took our purchases to the counter, the woman thanked us for contributing and said that individual donations are much more important this year because big corporate donations to the program were way down. She said that the toy companies don’t have excess inventory to donate (I’m assuming because of supply chain issues and a desire for more corporate efficiency).

I posted about this on Instagram and heard from folks in other parts of the country that both individual and corporate donations to community toy drives are down. A quick check of Google News reveals several articles around the country about toy drive shortages; here’s a good piece from the Associated Press:

Similar worries are being felt across the country as COVID-related supply chain snafus — produced by clogged U.S. ports, a lack of workers to move the cargo and skyrocketing shipping costs — lead to empty store shelves and higher prices on some products.

The supply chain slowdown is one of the main reasons why donations of new toys to The Toy Foundation have declined by nearly 80% in dollar value this year compared to 2019, according to Pamela Mastrota, the executive director of the group, which was formed by a toy industry trade association to act as an industry-wide charitable collective for manufacturers.

The lack of trade shows due to the COVID-19 pandemic also put a wrench in their collection efforts for the second year in a row, straining their ability to get gifts for sick, impoverished or other vulnerable children who are in need.

“It’s been a real challenge this year, and last year,” Mastrota said. “But this year especially.”

With Christmas just 8 days away, I know it’s late in the game but if you can swing it this year, consider a big donation to your local toy drive. Kids from low-income families have borne the brunt of the pandemic in America — parents/caregivers losing their jobs, erratic education, upheaval, loved ones dying of Covid, sickness and death all around. Let’s do what we can do to help give these kids a happy holiday.

But on a more long-term note (and supply chain & pandemic issues aside), programs like this should be unnecessary in a country as rich as the United States. Remember, feel-good news stories in America are often signs of societal failure and nothing is more feel-good than helping low-income kids during the holidays. Supporting programs and leaders who want to build a much stronger and more robust social safety net is essential if we want to eliminate make needless scarcity like this in America.

America Is Not Ready for Omicron

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

This piece, from Ed Yong, is not at all surprising: America Is Not Ready for Omicron.

America was not prepared for COVID-19 when it arrived. It was not prepared for last winter’s surge. It was not prepared for Delta’s arrival in the summer or its current winter assault. More than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every day, and more have died this year than last. Hospitalizations are rising in 42 states. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which entered the pandemic as arguably the best-prepared hospital in the country, recently went from 70 COVID patients to 110 in four days, leaving its staff “grasping for resolve,” the virologist John Lowe told me. And now comes Omicron.

Will the new and rapidly spreading variant overwhelm the U.S. health-care system? The question is moot because the system is already overwhelmed, in a way that is affecting all patients, COVID or otherwise. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” Lowe said.

The real unknown is what an Omicron cross will do when it follows a Delta hook. Given what scientists have learned in the three weeks since Omicron’s discovery, “some of the absolute worst-case scenarios that were possible when we saw its genome are off the table, but so are some of the most hopeful scenarios,” Dylan Morris, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. In any case, America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good — which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.

The main point:

Here, then, is the problem: People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone — vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise. The collective threat is substantially greater than the individual one. And the U.S. is ill-poised to meet it.

Also from Yong: he recently cancelled his 40th birthday party because of Omicron and wrote about how he thought through the decision.

If someone got sick, I know others could too. A week later, many of my friends will spend Christmas with their own families. At best, a cluster of infections at the birthday party would derail those plans, creating days of anxious quarantine or isolation, and forcing the people I love to spend time away from their loved ones. At worst, people might unknowingly carry the virus to their respective families, which might include elderly, immunocompromised, unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or otherwise vulnerable people. Being born eight days before Christmas creates almost the perfect conditions for one potential super-spreader event to set off many more.

As has been the case the entire pandemic, our political and public health systems are not equipped to collectively combat this virus, so it falls to individuals to make good choices for our communities. It’s a nearly impossible thing to ask to pandemic-weary folks to focus in again on making good personal choices and even harder to achieve if few are willing to do it, but goddammit we have to try.

Otherworldly Single Malt Scotch

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

For his series Vanishing Spirits: The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch, photographer Ernie Buttons photographed the creatively lit bottoms of glasses emptied of their single malt Scotch whisky. The results look like alien worlds.

These remind me a lot of Christopher Jonassen’s frying pan worlds and Nadine Schlieper’s & Robert Pufleb’s photos of pancakes that look like moons. (via moss & fog)

Humans (and Vaccines!) Vs the Microbes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

From Max Roser at Our World in Data: Our history is a battle against the microbes: we lost terribly before science, public health, and vaccines allowed us to protect ourselves.

Science is the foundation for our success. 150 years ago nobody knew where diseases came from. Or more precisely, people thought they knew, but they were wrong. The widely accepted idea at the time was the ‘Miasma’ theory of disease. Miasma, the theory held, was a form of “bad air” that causes disease. The word malaria is testament to the idea that ‘mal aria’ — ‘bad air’ in medieval Italian — is the cause of the disease.

Thanks to the work of a number of doctors and chemists in the second half of the 19th century humanity learned that not noxious air, but specific germs cause infectious diseases. The germ theory of disease was the breakthrough in the fight against the microbe. Scientists identified the pathogens that cause the different diseases and thereby laid the foundation for perhaps the most important technical innovation in our fight against them: vaccines.

Here’s what vaccines did for us, in three charts:

graphs showing marked reduction in cases and deaths for smallpox, polio, and measles

Even among those who accept and understand how good vaccines are at stopping disease, it’s difficult to truly appreciate just how incredible and transformative they have been. By one estimate, vaccines saved between 150 & 200 million lives from 1980 & 2018…and that’s just for smallpox. Covid-19 vaccines have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and the US in the first year of their availability. Truly a miraculous invention.

A Ted Lasso Animated Short: The Missing Christmas Mustache

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

Well this is a nice little holiday boost: a four-minute animated short with Ted Lasso and the gang called The Missing Christmas Mustache.

Colorful Gradient Sculpture

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

sculpture with a colorful gradient glaze

sculpture with a colorful gradient glaze

sculpture with a colorful gradient glaze

Courtesy of her distinctive glazing technique — which she uses to “express feelings of transcendental experiences” — Angel Oloshove’s sculpture shares a colorful, gradient aesthetic with contemporary digital media (including this here website). More on her Instagram.

The Dark Forest (Or, Why We Should Keep Still and Not Look for Aliens)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

Inspired by the second book in Liu Cixin’s excellent Three-Body Problem trilogy, Kurzgesagt made a video about the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

Confronted with the seemingly empty universe, humanity faces a dilemma. We desperately want to know if we are alone in the Milky Way. We want to call out and reveal ourselves to anyone watching but that could be the last thing we ever do. Because maybe the universe is not empty. Maybe it’s full of civilizations but they are hiding from each other. Maybe the civilizations that attracted attention in the past were wiped away by invisible arrows. This is the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

I have The Dark Forest on the Kindle, so I looked up how this is explained in the book (spoilers, obvs):

“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life-another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod-there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”

Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.

“But in this dark forest, there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’” Luo Ji said.

“Has anyone heard it?”

“That’s guaranteed. But those shouts alone can’t be used to determine the child’s location. Humanity has not yet transmitted information about the exact position of Earth and the Solar System into the universe. From the information that has been sent out, all that can be learned is the distance between Earth and Trisolaris, and their general heading in the Milky Way. The precise location of the two worlds is still a mystery. Since we’re located in the wilderness of the periphery of the galaxy, we’re a little safer.”

That’s the basic idea, but there’s more to it…you should watch the video or, even better, read the series — I’ve read the entire trilogy twice and this makes me want to read it again! (I loved the Drive Easter egg towards the end of the video. Well played.)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

In this movie, Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage (or “Nick Cage”) playing Nicolas Cage roles from actual Nicolas Cage movies at the behest of his biggest fan for $1 million. Ok, I’m sold! It’s like Adaptation crossed with Being John Malkovich. (This is the second movie in as many days that’s reminded me of BJM. Something in the water?)

This Is A Film About The James Webb Space Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

In this entertaining, informative, and charmingly goofy video, Dr. Kevin Hainline tells us all about the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST is a bigger and better version of the Hubble Space Telescope and will allow scientists to peer deeper into the universe and farther back in time than ever before.

Listen, science is hard! Engineering is hard! It’s difficult to figure out how to build an incredibly sensitive infrared detector that you have to cram together on the back of a giant, foldable, gold covered mirror, sitting on a delicate, tennis-court-sized parasol, that can survive a rocket launch! It’s hard stuff!

And hundreds and hundreds of people around the world have been working on it together. JWST is the single most complicated science project human beings have ever attempted. But it’s been worth it. Because we want to discover the earliest galaxies in the universe, and clouds on other planets, and baby star-forming regions, and debris disks around stars, and weird dwarf galaxies, and supermassive black holes!

It’s been in development for almost thirty years and everyone is really ready for it! The James Webb Space Telescope is about to change astronomy. Get ready for discovery!

I am ready and excited! The JWST is currently set to launch no earlier than Dec 24, 2021. You can follow the progress of the launch here.

See also Looking back in time with the James Webb Space Telescope (60 Minutes) and 29 Days on the Edge. Oh and scientists have been working on this project for 20 years and are (understandably) really nervous about what happens with the launch.

A NASA Spacecraft Has Touched the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

For the first time in human history, a spacecraft has flown through the Sun’s corona to collect data and capture samples (and, crucially, exited safely).

During the flyby, Parker Solar Probe passed into and out of the corona several times. This is proved what some had predicted — that the Alfvén critical surface isn’t shaped like a smooth ball. Rather, it has spikes and valleys that wrinkle the surface. Discovering where these protrusions line up with solar activity coming from the surface can help scientists learn how events on the Sun affect the atmosphere and solar wind.

Six panels of images taken from inside a coronal streamer. They appear grayish with white streaks showing particles in the solar wind.

At one point, as Parker Solar Probe dipped to just beneath 15 solar radii (around 6.5 million miles) from the Sun’s surface, it transited a feature in the corona called a pseudostreamer. Pseudostreamers are massive structures that rise above the Sun’s surface and can be seen from Earth during solar eclipses.

Passing through the pseudostreamer was like flying into the eye of a storm. Inside the pseudostreamer, the conditions quieted, particles slowed, and number of switchbacks dropped — a dramatic change from the busy barrage of particles the spacecraft usually encounters in the solar wind.

For the first time, the spacecraft found itself in a region where the magnetic fields were strong enough to dominate the movement of particles there. These conditions were the definitive proof the spacecraft had passed the Alfvén critical surface and entered the solar atmosphere where magnetic fields shape the movement of everything in the region.

The first passage through the corona, which lasted only a few hours, is one of many planned for the mission. Parker will continue to spiral closer to the Sun, eventually reaching as close as 8.86 solar radii (3.83 million miles) from the surface. Upcoming flybys, the next of which is happening in January 2022, will likely bring Parker Solar Probe through the corona again.

The video above provides a great overview of the origins, objectives, and motivations for the mission.

Won’t Someone Think of the Actual Children?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2021

For her Culture Study newsletter, Anne Helen Petersen listed a few themes she’d identified over the past year. The first one is something I’ve noticed people talking a lot about too:

1) Our society values parenting, not parents; it honors “work ethic,” not workers; we cherish children in the abstract, but not actual children themselves.

To me, these ideas are borne out in the contrasts between the rhetoric of who and what we value (Moms! Kids’ futures! ESSENTIAL WORKERS!) and actual policy and behaviors. I mean that in terms of Covid, of course, but also in terms of labor protections for workers, the safety nets we provide for parents (and single parents in particular) and general actions and policy in regards to the future of the planet. We don’t value people, just generally. We value capital.

The Christian nationalists — who, despite ostensible Democratic control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency, nonetheless command the vision and future of the country — dress up obsession with controlling women’s bodies and freedom in the wardrobe of “the rights of the fetus,” but then allow that fetus, once it turns into an actual child, to go hungry, to live in fear of violence in their schools, to go unhoused or deal with housing insecurity, to endure the effects of environmental racism, and to grow into an adult indelibly marked by all of those experiences.

Bingo. This is also true to varying degrees for education (not teachers), art (not artists), and the troops (not individual soldiers that we send to incur PTSD, injury, and death).

BTW, Petersen has a new book out with her partner Charlie Warzel called Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home, which relates to another of her yearly themes: “Work is miserable on so many levels — but it’s so hard to imagine a different way forward.”

Everything Everywhere All At Once

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2021

I don’t know anything about this movie and its directors (Daniels? Oh, Swiss Army Man!) but it has Michelle Yeoh kicking ass in it and I want to see it at the first possible opportunity. Getting some Jackie Chan meets Marvel multiverse meets Being John Malkovich vibes here.

Business Garden Inn & Suites & Hotel Room Inn

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2021

This pitch-perfect SNL commercial featuring Kate McKinnon & Billie Eilish advertises the bland budget business-ish hotel that can be found all across America.

Our rooms provide every comfort required by law: tiny soap in plastic, phone that blinks, Band-Aid-colored blanket, chair for suitcase, black & white photo of Ferris wheel, blow dryer that goes oooooooh, short glass wearing little hat, and small stain in place you have to touch.

And be sure to enjoy our hot tub; it’s always occupied by an eight-year-old boy in goggles staring at your breasts. He’s been in there for hours and he’s not getting out until you do.

I have stayed at this precise hotel many times in the past and I will again in the future. C+++++.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a documentary about the beloved show’s first two decades, debuts today on HBO Max. The film is based on Michael Davis’s 2009 book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.

The documentary focuses on the first two experimental and groundbreaking decades of Sesame Street, highlighting this visionary “gang” that audaciously interpreted radical changes in society and engaged children with innovative new ways to entertain and educate.

Featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with over twenty original cast members and creators, the documentary explores how the team incorporated groundbreaking puppetry, clever animation, short films, music, humor, and cultural references into each episode to keep kids and parents coming back, while never shying away from difficult conversations with children.

In a review, NY Times TV critic James Poniewozik says the film reminds us that Sesame Street was political right from the beginning:

“Sesame Street,” which premiered in 1969, was the project of Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV executive who was originally more interested in the civil rights movement than in education but came to see the connection between the two. “The people who control the system read,” she once said, “and the people who make it in the system read.” And she believed that the best way to get the kids of the 1960s to read, paradoxically, was through TV.

Her Children’s Television Workshop brought together educators and entertainers, including a puppeteer named Jim Henson and the director Jon Stone, an idealist attracted to Cooney’s idea of closing the literacy gap for inner-city Black children. “I think what drew Dad in really had to do with her political vision,” his daughter Kate Stone Lucas says in the documentary.

“I’m Black But Look White. Here Are The Horrible Things White People Feel Safe Telling Me.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

Miriam Zinter for Huffington Post:

My neighbor, the one who asked me why “Black lives matter,” is not the only one who has felt comfortable asking me such a question or making a statement rife with racism.

White people think I am white too, and therefore feel safe saying all kinds of horrible things they might not say publicly. I’ve had people tell me it “disgusts” them to see interracial couples. They’ve told me they don’t understand why Black neighborhoods look so “ghetto,” and that Black people are “animals” or “thugs.” Many of these people are educated, and hold jobs or positions that give them some form of power or influence over Black people. They are doctors, judges, lawyers, social workers and politicians. That’s frightening.

Vaccine Avoidance, The Class Divide, and the Common Good

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

This is such an interesting article on vaccine avoidance in America by a primary care doctor & sociologist who have studied the phenomenon in America and other places. As more data has come in about the pandemic and vaccination program, the main differentiator in whether someone is willing to get a vaccine or not is class.

Over the past four decades, governments have slashed budgets and privatized basic services. This has two important consequences for public health. First, people are unlikely to trust institutions that do little for them. And second, public health is no longer viewed as a collective endeavor, based on the principle of social solidarity and mutual obligation. People are conditioned to believe they’re on their own and responsible only for themselves. That means an important source of vaccine hesitancy is the erosion of the idea of a common good.

Americans began thinking about health care decisions this way only recently; during the 1950s polio campaigns, for example, most people saw vaccination as a civic duty. But as the public purse shrunk in the 1980s, politicians insisted that it’s no longer the government’s job to ensure people’s well-being; instead, Americans were to be responsible only for themselves and their own bodies. Entire industries, such as self-help and health foods, have sprung up on the principle that the key to good health lies in individuals making the right choices.

Almost more than anything else, the pandemic has shown how damaged the US is from decades of neglect of the common good and how vulnerable we are to things like disease and political coups.

Natural Forest Growth Simulator

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

The YouTube channel Two Minute Papers enthusiastically shares the findings from scientific papers about technology: computing, graphics, AI, robotics, etc. Recently they reviewed this paper on simulating the growth of large-scale plant ecosystems based on real-world forestry and botany research. From the paper’s abstract:

In this paper we describe a multi-scale method to design large-scale ecosystems with individual plants that are realistically modeled and faithfully capture biological features, such as growth, plant interactions, different types of tropism, and the competition for resources. Our approach is based on leveraging inter- and intra-plant self-similarities for efficiently modeling plant geometry. We focus on the interactive design of plant ecosystems of up to 500K plants, while adhering to biological priors known in forestry and botany research.

What that means, as they show in the video, is that you can watch these incredibly detailed time lapse videos of forests developing over time in a realistic way. So cool. This kind of thing always reminds me of favorite childhood thing, Al Jarnow’s Cosmic Clock. (via waxy)

Vanity Fair Interviews Billie Eilish for a Fifth Consecutive Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

Since Billie Eilish was 15 years old in 2017, Vanity Fair has been interviewing her every year to see what she is up to, how she is feeling, and what has changed from previous years. A key message from this year’s video, in response to “technological thing that blows your mind”:

The vaccine, dude. Hell fucking yeah. I really, really urge you — if you are not already vaccinated, please get vaccinated. It’s not just for you, you selfish bitch. It’s for everyone around you. Take care of the people around you, man. Protect your friends, protect your children, protect your grandparents, protect anyone you walk by.

If you haven’t seen this before, it’s interesting to go back to watch the interviews from 2017 & 2018, 2019, and 2020 — it’s a fascinating chronicle of a young woman getting really famous really fast and growing up in public. Like I said last year:

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.

See also R.J. Cutler’s 2021 documentary about Eilish, The World’s a Little Blurry and Mel Brooks at 95 (about a long life lived in public).

Lydia Davis on Translation and Learning Languages

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 10, 2021

Lydia Davis.jpeg

My favorite contemporary writer is probably Lydia Davis, in no small part because I don’t know if anyone takes a finer care for the language they use, as a writer and reader.

Davis also does double duty as both an original writer of fiction and essays, and a translator of other people’s writings, in multiple languages. In her new collection, Essays 2, she describes her unusual technique:

Although she learned German by immersion, Davis’s preferred method of language acquisition is quite different, and, to an outside observer, demonically challenging: She finds a book published in a language that she does not fully or even partially understand and then tries to figure out what it means.

To improve her Spanish, she digs into a copy of “Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer.” In some cases the decryption proves easy. Words like “plan” are the same in English and Spanish. In other cases she inductively reasons the meaning of a word after noticing it in different contexts. Hoja initially stumps her when it pops up in the phrase hoja de papel — “hoja of paper.” Later in the book, it occurs in the context of a tree. Finally, Huck wraps a dry hoja around something to make a cigarette, and Davis realizes that only one meaning would work as well with paper as with a tree or a cigarette: “leaf.” Of course, it would be possible to solve the hoja enigma in two seconds by plugging the word into Google, but that would destroy the fun.

I’m (re)learning Italian right now — I sort of learned it backwards the first time, starting with Dante and Petrarch and only now learning how to ask where the bathroom is (dove el gabinetto?) and the difference between coat (cappotto) and hat (cappello). But what remains exciting are the little associations you learn, the conjunctions of phrasing, the possible substitutions of one term for another, the way a question and an answer can reflect the same structure — a map of phonemic possibilities that is also a way of seeing the world. Davis’s method might be impractical for learning a second language, but for a gifted language learner, it seems to put a premium on finding those connections. Which is, indeed, a big part of the fun.

Say Yes: Mel Brooks at 95

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 10, 2021

Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.jpeg

Mel Brooks was born in 1926; he will (god willing) turn 96 in June. That’s something of a non-Newtownian age — the length of his career warps our usual generational physics.

Let’s try to put it in context. Brooks was born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth (II, don’t be cheeky), Marilyn Monroe, and John Coltrane. He’s old enough to have served in World War 2 (which he did), and that he was already in his 40s when he became a filmmaker, with The Producers. People sometimes point out that Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King Jr., and Anne Frank were born in the same year, to note how exact contemporaries can belong to such widely different time periods — yet Brooks is three years older than that trio.

Brooks was somehow a contemporary to almost everybody — I was surprised recently, reading the Tom Stoppard biography, that Brooks and Stoppard spent time together in New York City the early 60s, when Stoppard was a young theater reporter and Brooks was performing with Carl Reiner. That’s a fifth of the comic DNA of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead right there. (Yet, somehow, Brooks is eleven years older than Stoppard.)

One of my favorite clips of Brooks is a 1975 appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show where he essentially takes over the show (the YouTube video is 53 minutes long).

Brooks has a new book out, a memoir titled All About Me! My Remarkable Life In Show Business. (I have not read it, but I want to.)

He’s done a requisite (funny, thoughtful) interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air, where he shares some homespun wisdom:

I’m so grateful to be able to eat scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast and sometimes a roast beef sandwich for dinner. I’m so happy that I still have somewhat of an appetite. I’m having trouble sleeping. That’s a problem. But otherwise things are pretty good for being 95 and I’m getting around fairly well and my basic emotional attitude is still more positive than negative. I’m still looking forward to talking to people, to meeting people, to have dinner with people.

The book, too, seems to be more positive than negative; during the interview with Gross, she tries to prod him about moments of depression he mentions in his childhood, and he basically dismisses them. Alexandra Jacobs notes that Brooks “would prefer to kvell over the talents of his frequent collaborators Madeline Kahn, Gene Wilder and Carl Reiner, than linger on, or even mention, their departures from this crazy world.” In old age as in childhood, humor can be a lifeline.

It’s also a strategy. Michael Schulman touches on this in his interview with Brooks:

You have some wonderful stories of basically getting away with stuff at the studios.

I’d learned one very simple trick: say yes. Simply say yes. Like Joseph E. Levine, on “The Producers,” said, “The curly-haired guy—he’s funny looking. Fire him.” He wanted me to fire Gene Wilder. And I said, “Yes, he’s gone. I’m firing him.” I never did. But he forgot. After the screening of “Blazing Saddles,” the head of Warner Bros. threw me into the manager’s office, gave me a legal pad and a pencil, and gave me maybe twenty notes. He would have changed “Blazing Saddles” from a daring, funny, crazy picture to a stultified, dull, dusty old Western. He said, “No farting.” I said, “It’s out”… You say yes, and you never do it.

That’s great advice for life.

It is. Don’t fight them. Don’t waste your time struggling with them and trying to make sense to them. They’ll never understand.

Writing for The Guardian, Hadley Freeman has what’s probably the most comprehensive take on Brooks’s biography, and makes the best effort (although not entirely successful) to get past Brooks’s comic defense mechanisms.

Brooks’s story begins - as it did for so many American comedians of his generation, including Reiner - in a working-class Jewish family. “People say, ‘Out of the suffering of Jews, the need to laugh is critical for the survival of the race.’ But we didn’t become comics out of misery. We became comics because there are a lot of laughs in Jewish households. There’s always some wiseguy making cracks about how fat Aunt Sadie is, and it’s a need for that joy to continue that was the engine for all of us to become comics. It was fun being a little Jewish boy in a household with three older brothers and my mother; my aunt and my grandmother living next door,” he says.

Brooks also distinguishes between Jewish humor and New York humor, telling Schulman:

Yiddish comedy, or Jewish comedy, has to do with Jewish folklore. Sholem Aleichem, that kind of stuff. The mistakenly called “Jewish comedy” of the great comics—it was really New York. It was the streets of New York: the wiseguy, the sharpness that New York gives you that you can’t get anywhere else, but you can get it on the streets of Brooklyn. Jewish comedy was softer and sweeter. New York comedy was tougher and more explosive. There’s some cruelty that you find in New York humor that you wouldn’t find in Yiddish humor. In New York, you make fun of somebody who walks funny. You never find that in Sholem Aleichem. You’d feel pity. There’s no pity in New York. There’s reality and a brushstroke of brutality in it.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.jpeg

In a way, what I think Brooks is describing is the ability to blend the traditional with the contemporary. It’s a kind of Jewish humor, but it’s not old Jewish humor. This is essentially the gag behind the 2000 Year Old Man — a character who has experienced the tumults and tragedies of history, but can talk about them as if they happened to himself and his neighbors just last week:

Reiner: Did you know Jesus?

Brooks: Thin lad, right? Wore sandals? Hung around with 12 other guys? They always came into my store. Never bought anything, just asked for water.

And maybe that’s why Brooks feels both so eternal and so contemporary. It’s right there; it’s in the jokes.

The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the American Mall

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 10, 2021

A long corridor in an empty shopping mall

Lili Loofbourow on that great symbol of capitalism, now hollowed out by (mostly) private equity and (partly) changing consumer habits:

They aren’t easy to physically dispense with, malls.

It’s no surprise, then, that people are desperately trying to find new uses for them. The afterlife of a dead mall is interesting. Schools are moving into malls; some students are completing high school in a converted Macy’s in Vermont. A Dillard’s in Texas is now a radio station. Malls are becoming home to community colleges and libraries and offices. The Eastmont Town Center in Oakland, California, is home to a Center for Elders’ Independence, Social Security offices, and a lab.

These efforts are noble and good. They are also—and can’t help but be—anti-makeovers. Malls were made to be malls. This means every effort to repurpose a mall becomes a fascinating performance of architectural insufficiency, of a bespoke thing being wrenched into a different, and more practical, and less entertaining, function. It’s not that you can’t have schools in malls—or libraries, or social services. It’s that malls, being temples to consumerism, were tailor-made to be exactly what they were. Trying to square-peg another operation amid the former makeup counters beside onetime dressing rooms makes the result seem impoverished, weird, jangled. The erosion of detail is essential, but it makes the space grim.

Americans get nervous when symbols change. If the American grocery store was, among other things, deployed as an active rebuke of Soviet scarcity in the Cold War, the American department store was a serene display of endless availability. There were more kinds of makeup than anyone could possibly want, and they all had loyalists. Can we adapt to a new idea of the mall, the way old maritime warehouses turned into loft-living for gentrifiers? Should we? A stroll through these deserts finds dots of life poking through: mom and pop stores offering to repair watches or do your dry cleaning or your hair. I visited the Eastmont Town Center recently to see what it looked like in its new incarnation as a hub for seniors and Social Security and a “self-sufficiency center” where an anchor store used to be. A security guard stopped me at the entrance: Without an appointment and a specific destination in hand, she would not let me in. It puzzles me that the building is less accessible as the site of a library than it was as a mall, but I love the idea of a mall serving people in need. Still, the new configuration isn’t scratching the itch a mall did—at least according to other nostalgic mallgoers who have tried to haunt its halls. As one Yelp review reads: “Not enough stores, too many social services.”

“Americans get nervous when symbols change” — I’m going to be thinking about that for a while.

Something I think about a lot is if they remade Back to the Future today. Marty would travel back in time to 1992, and probably accidentally invent dubstep or something. But if he and Doc still met in the parking lot at the shopping mall, it would be a very different, much more haunted place. And the time machine wouldn’t suddenly crash into pine trees, but would appear near the mall’s peak in popularity. The scene from 1955 where Marty marvels at the officious gas station attendants would be replaced by one of Marty at the mall, amazed at the sheer number of people shopping, walking, letting themselves see and be seen at the outlet that in his time is now home to a plasma bank.

The Non-Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Explosions from the Attack on Pearl Harbor, shown from a Japanese plane's view

So, here’s something I didn’t really fully notice until after it was over: December 7, 2021 (Tuesday) was the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Usually, whole 10x number anniversaries of major world events are done to death. The 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor (just five years ago) certainly was, so much so that the recent Pearl Harbor-related stories of most newspapers pull up mostly stories from that date. But the 80th? Not much at all.

This is anecdotal, but, I think, indicative: in my RSS feeds, which are filtered by me but pretty comprehensive, there’s just one news story about Pearl Harbor, and it’s not really about the anniversary, but about the US military ending its efforts to fully identify the dead in the wreckage. Then there’s one (bad) op-ed from the NYT that I won’t link to, and an essay by Joyce Johnson in the New York Review of Books. That’s it. No living memory or reprise of historicization in the newspapers, no passing thoughts in the week’s political blogs. It’s like the anniversary didn’t happen.

I won’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, partly because I don’t know (you can make honest cases either way!) and partly because it’s not my job, but it seems worth noting that it is a thing that’s happening. No event, no matter how global, how deadly, or how significant in subsequent world affairs is so universally relevant that every anniversary is a platform for public memory.

Pick an event: the atom bomb detonation at Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, 9/11. I will bet you that however elaborate their 50th or even 75th anniversaries might be, the 80th will be correspondingly muted. There will then be a spike of interest around the 100th, and then it will fade into semi-obscurity until the 150th or 200th anniversaries roll around.

That just seems to be how time works: once an event no longer defines the living memory of a significant portion of the population, it becomes an item of historic interest, and/or an item of trivia. Some dates may live in infamy, but none of them will live forever.

Al Hirschfeld’s Drawings of Steven Sondheim’s Musicals

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Al Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment from Steven Sondheim's play Into the Woods

Writing for the New York Times, theater critic emeritus Ben Brantley praises caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s depictions of the late Steven Sondheim’s work:

These seemingly simple pen strokes — and the ellipsis of the white space, which your own, happily collaborative mind fills in — are anything but static. They tremble with energy, tension and, above all, character, as it is conjured in real time on a stage.

Hirschfeld always said he would rather be called a “characterist” than a caricaturist. His illustrations of Sondheim, the most complex character portraitist in the Broadway songbook, make you understand why. Caricatures are a shorthand for the physical traits that make stars distinctive: Angela Lansbury’s immense Tweety Bird eyes, for example, or Bernadette Peters’s Cupid’s bow mouth.

Hirschfeld nails such elements of physiognomy. He also endows them with the exciting emotional temperature that heats up every Sondheim song. The Lansbury he draws as the corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper of “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) and as the cannibal pie-maker Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” are recognizably the same woman.

I particularly like the great energy swirling all around the lead characters in Hirschfeld’s take on “West Side Story”:

Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment in West Side Story

The Second and a Half Dimension

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Cast

I had never heard the phrase “2.5-D fandom before, but its the subject of Japanese scholar Akiko Sugawa-Shimadas work:

The term 2.5-D was coined by anime fans in Japan in the 1980s to refer to animes voice actors, but in the 2000s it began to refer to some cultural practices exercised in a space between 2-D fiction and 3-D reality. Thus, the 2.5-D culture is cultural practices which produce the fictional space of contemporary popular cultural products (such as manga, anime, and videogames) along with the fans interplay between the real and fictional spaces. Its examples are: 2.5-D theaters (theatrical adaptation of anime, manga, and videogames), cosplay, contents tourism (pop-culture-induced tourism), character/voice actor concerts (ex. concerts of Love Live! and Ensemble Stars, etc.), enjoei (a cheer-a-long style of movie screening), and V-tubers (virtual YouTubers). What matters in these cultural products are active interactions between the reality of characters of anime/manga/videogames and the virtuality of the human bodies of practitioners (actors and fans). As in Henry Jenkinss convergence culture,” 2.5-D culture is generated across multiple transmedia platforms, cooperation of multiple media industries, and fans migratory behaviors. Fans actively migrate among the fictional, cyber, and physical worlds.”

If Ive got it, its a kind of cosplay slash Rocky Horror-style performance theater, but raised to the level of a pop musical industry.

The first successful manga-based musical production was The Rose of Versailles in 1974 by the Takarazuka Revue. At the time, these plays were simply known as “musicals” or “anime musicals.” Around the 1990s, a number of musicals and small stage skits produced were based on anime and manga series aimed at elementary school girls, such as Sailor Moon, Akazukin Chacha, and Hime-chan’s Ribbon, which performed moderately well, but were not popular and were known as “musicals for elementary school girls” (, joji mono). However, in 2000, Hunter x Hunter was considered revolutionary for the time because the voice cast for the original anime series had also played the characters onstage.

Having only seen YouTube clips of these plays, I guess I wonder mostly about the name why 2.5-dimensional? Obviously these are plays that try to split the difference between an original two-dimensional work and a three-dimensional performance, and fidelity to the original is considered a primary virtue, thus keeping the performances somewhat two-dimensional, but I wonder if there is something more than this, something in the staging or craft of the theater that intentionally either restricts or enhances the dimensionality of the experience. At any rate, it has my attention.

A Year In Another Part of the Internet

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

i downloaded all 10.000 of those ugly lazy lions nfts and turned them into a mosaic of a person right-clicking

I confess I haven’t kept up with my Mastodon account in some time, but I’m happy that weird, decentralized, variation of social media is still out there, fighting the good fight and helping people connect with each other. And I was delighted to see this roundup of the year’s top Mastodon posts — like a glimpse into another internet.

For example, Guillem Leon writes:

I have encountered more image descriptions on Mastodon in 24 hours than I have in Twitter in a couple of years. Seriously. I’m not exaggerating.

As a blind person, this means a lot to me. If you read this and you describe your images, thank you so, so, so much on behalf of all of us. If you don’t, now you know you’ll be helping random Internet strangers make sense of your posts by typing in a few more words than usual.

With 607 (now 726) reblogs, this was perhaps the most-seen post on Mastodon this year.

The Worst Michelin-Starred Meal Ever

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

Four people laughing and befuddled at a terrible meal

Geraldine DeRuiter, aka The Everywhereist, documents a high-concept fine-dining meal that, for reasons yet unexplained, went all kinds of wrong.

It’s as though someone had read about food and restaurants, but had never experienced either, and this was their attempt to recreate it.

What followed was a 27-course meal (note that “course” and “meal” and “27” are being used liberally here) which spanned 4.5 hours and made me feel like I was a character in a Dickensian novel. Because — I cannot impart this enough — there was nothing even close to an actual meal served. Some “courses” were slivers of edible paper. Some were shot glasses of vinegar. Everything tasted like fish, even the non-fish courses. And nearly everything, including these noodles, which was by far the most substantial dish we had, was served cold.

Even forearmed with this overall description, some of the individual moments in the meal play like (bad) theatrical surprises:

“These are made with rancid ricotta,” the server said, a tiny fried cheese ball in front of each of us.

“I’m… I’m sorry, did you say rancid? You mean… fermented? Aged?”

“No. Rancid.”

“Okay,” I said in Italian. “But I think that something might be lost in translation. Because it can’t be—”

Rancido,” he clarified.

Another course — a citrus foam — was served in a plaster cast of the chef’s mouth. Absent utensils, we were told to lick it out of the chef’s mouth in a scene that I’m pretty sure was stolen from an eastern European horror film.

Not just bad. Memorably bad. Award-winningly bad. Which is, as DeRuiter writes, something of an achievement in itself.

Update: You can scroll down to the end of this piece to read a “Declaration by Chef Floriano Pellegrino” that responds to DeRuiter’s review.

Being able to draw a man on a horse does not make you an artist

Update: DeRuiter wrote about her post going viral and the response from Pellegrino.

But a restaurant is not a museum, or an art gallery. If anything, the stakes are even higher, because you aren’t simply creating, you are creating something for someone. Every meal that comes out of the kitchen at Bros. is for a paying customer. It is for someone who has a minimum expectation of what a meal should be. A meal might be innovative, or cutting edge, or require a great deal of technical skill (and indeed, many of the dishes at Bros. were). But if it is insubstantial, or contains something that the customer is allergic to, or it simply doesn’t taste good, then what the hell does it matter if the chef thinks that he’s created art? He’s still failed at being a chef.

But beyond that, it’s a baffling sort of gatekeeping, to tell someone that the reason they didn’t enjoy a meal is that they didn’t understand art. That the reason the meal was awful was because we don’t appreciate the avant garde. It’s a sort of culinary gaslighting.

I have been lucky enough to have eaten at a few restaurants whose food & dining experience could be considered art and the one thing they all had in common was that they were able to ask tough questions of the diner and deliver some of the most surprising & delicious food I have ever tasted.

Ghost Signs of London

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

London Ghost Signs.jpeg

From Bloomberg’s CityLab:

Study the buildings flanking London’s older streets closely and you’ll see one soon enough: an old painted sign that, once bright and eye-catching, is now faded into the masonry, the name of the business or product it promoted flaking and faint.

Such “ghost signs” are fixtures of older neighborhoods in many cities around the world, but the U.K. capital, which bustled with competing commercial enterprises in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is unusually well-supplied with them. Ghost signs aren’t always easy to spot, but for sharp-eyed passersby and enthusiasts of urban history, they add an extra dimension to London’s appearance, their florid Victorian or cheerful art deco script and images a spectral reminder that once, not that long ago, these were somebody else’s streets.

London’s ghost signs are merely a fraction of the signage that used to greet 19th city dwellers, an era when cheap paper and a movement towards universal literacy made cities unusually alive with letters. But they are the special project of a new book by Sam Roberts and Roy Reed. From the book’s website:

Ghost signs are fascinating pieces of urban archaeology. Imposing yet hidden in plain sight, these faded advertisements are London’s history written on to the contemporary cityscape. They reveal fascinating stories of everyday life in the capital and each sign has its own tale to tell - not just of the business it represents and the people behind it, but of its own improbably survival.

A feast of history, typography and the urban environment, Ghost Signs: A London Story showcases London’s most impressive and historically significant faded painted signs, located, photographed and presented with archival andother contextual images.

Introduced by Wayne Hemingway MBE, the opening section shares insights into topics such as production techniques, economics and preservation. The themed chapters take on subjects including building, clothing, entertaining, branding and, ultimately, burying the city.

Flowers for Greg Tate

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

Greg-Tate.jpeg

Greg Tate, the legendary music and culture critic who wrote for many years at the Village Voice, died this week. A few laudatory notes follow.

Rolling Stone, one of Tate’s post-Voice outlets, published both a notice and a quickly-written tribute by Rob Sheffield. From the first:

Tate joined the staff of The Village Voice in 1987 and quickly established himself as a challenging, encyclopedic, and brilliantly witty voice on everything from hip-hop to hardcore and free jazz. (His first cover story was on Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé.) “Being a 25-year-old music freelancer for the Voice meant your number-one goal in life — free passes to any show at any venue in the city — was answered,” Tate wrote in a 2017 remembrance of his early days there. “But it also gave you street cred you didn’t even know you had among a wide swath of characters — club bouncers, burly Latino locksmiths from the Bronx who took your check and proclaimed themselves fans of your byline, label execs, musical icons, and rising rap stars.”

And the second:

“Hip-hop is ancestor worship,” Greg Tate wrote in The Village Voice in the fall of 1988. He always chronicled music with that fiercely worshipful spirit of sacred ritual. Reading Tate was a revelation, then or now, because he was a writer who celebrated all kinds of music, from every era — an Afrofuturist rebel without a pause. That’s why the news of his death hits so hard today. To sum up his voice, you have to go back to the words he wrote about Chaka Khan back in 1992: “She is to singing what Jimi Hendrix is to guitar playing: the only wail that matters, the roar and the resonance against which all contenders are judged.”

That was Greg Tate. He was a giant of a cultural critic, hugely inspiring and influential to the heads taking music seriously, making you hear the connections between hip-hop, jazz, rock, the blues, every cry of love under the sun. He treated criticism as an art in itself, and in his hands, it was, because he knew how to do justice to the raptures of listening.

From NPR:

Greg Tate was born on Oct. 15, 1957. He spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., where he first got interested in music. Upon moving to New York City, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, which existed to push back against stereotypes of Black artists. He also founded Burnt Sugar, a sprawling avant-garde orchestra that melded elements of free jazz and fusion, R&B, funk and contemporary classical music through conduction, a system of real-time arranging pioneered by improvising conductor Butch Morris. The ensemble issued its most recent recording, the EP Angels Over Oakanda, in September.

Maiysha Kai at The Root:

“I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you,” wrote Greg Tate in his landmark 1991 article for the Village Voice “BLACK LIKE WHO? Love and the Enemy, “who gathers in your name after you’re gone, what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return.”

From Jon Caramanica in the New York Times:

It doesn’t matter which page you open to in his crucial 1992 anthology “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” — just open it. Eruptions of style — of pure intellectual vigor and unhurried swagger — are everywhere.

Page 123, leading into a review of Public Enemy: “Granted, Charlie Parker died laughing. Choked chicken wing perched over ’50s MTV. So? No way in hell did Bird, believing there was no competition in music, will his legacy to some second-generation be-boppers to rattle over the heads of the hip-hop nation like a rusty sabre.”

Page 221, on Don DeLillo: “DeLillo’s books are inward surveys of the white supremacist soul — on the run from mounting evidence that its days are (as the latest in Black militant button-wear loves to inform us) numbered.”

“When you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible,” Tate said in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. “I was trying to literally approximate music on the page.”

In Artforum:

In 1986, Tate penned the essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” for the Voice’s literary supplement. This landmark work of cultural criticism limned the artificial divide imposed by white supremacist culture between Black intellectuals, expected to be repressed cultural nationalists, and Black artists, expected to be “freaky” and unhinged purveyors of exotica. “Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life,” wrote Tate in its opening lines, “I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism—accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture.” Tate would go on to provide exactly that for the next three decades and beyond, as the Voice the following year hired him as a staff writer. The paper was “the only place in journalism where you weren’t expected to specialize,” Tate wrote in these pages in 2018, “where you could go off in your own cherry-picked vernacular about whatever form of aesthetic glory or political fuckery got your typing trigger finger ready to rumble on fish wrap.” He stayed there until 2005.

From Pitchfork:

Tate’s life began in Dayton, Ohio in 1957, and his family relocated to Washington, D.C. in his early teen years. Tate remained there through his years at Howard University, but after publishing work for The Voice via Robert Christgau, he left for New York in 1982 to follow the city’s busy, up-and-coming hip-hop scene more closely. “It was like writing war dispatches right there on the ground. There was all this incendiary work coming out. It was unprecedented. It didn’t sound like anything that had come before. There was a lot to talk about,” he recalled to Pitchfork in 2018.

From Questlove:

Greg was the first person who validated the art that I loved and made it intellectually viable. I never heard anyone speak of hip-hop in those terms before him. I had never heard of Afro-futurism. I had never encountered a writer who made the case that Public Enemy was just as important as the Beatles, and who made it with such intelligence. This was during a time when my dad and I were really at odds about culture for the first time. My dad was a person who made binge record shopping (something I do to this day) an event. Music was our thing!! Now we are at odds. My dad was turning into a grumpy cynic and I didn’t like it. So there was a 10 year gap in which I had noone to bounce ideas off of like I did with my dad in the 70s. Enter Greg. To see a Black person write so eloquently about this music—hip hop, but not just hip hop—gave me confidence and clarity. It saved me. He made the music high art with pieces that were high art by themselves. I didn’t even know that he was a musician yet but I knew that his best instrument was his pen.

The New Yorker dug up Hua Hsu’s homage to Tate from 2016:

For a generation of critics, Tate’s career has served as a reminder that diversity isn’t just about a splash of color in the group photo; it’s about the different ways that people see, feel, and move within the world. These differences can be imperceptible, depending on where your eye lingers as you scan the newsroom. What made Tate’s criticism special was his ability to theorize outward from his encounters with genius and his brushes with banality—to telescope between moments of artistic inspiration and the giant structures within which those moments were produced. “Flyboy 2,” published earlier this month by Duke University Press, largely consists, like its predecessor, of critical essays, interviews, profiles, and short riffs. But, a quarter of a century on, the question animating his work has come into sharper focus. What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something “less quantifiable,” as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is “the way Black people ‘think,’ mentally, emotionally, physically,” and “how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.”

Meanwhile, Crack Magazine curated a list of six seminal Tate essays (some of which are already linked above), covering everything from Bad Brains to Basquiat.

For those new to Tate’s work, it’s as good a place to start as any; for longtime fans, it’s a chance to both mourn a voice that’s been lost and celebrate one that could sing so brilliantly.

A Short History (and Future) of Choir Music in Movies

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

a sound designer at a mixing board scoring a film

Adrian Daub has noticed something unusual about choir music in movies: usually, we can’t understand the lyrics. For some reason, it’s important to have human voices rather than an instrument or orchestra carrying the musical load, but the linguistic content, whether it’s in pseudo-Latin, a made up Tolkien language, or Sanskrit translations of Welsh, usually might as well be empty.

This dates from the 1930s, when sound in movies got sophisticated enough to handle simultaneous polyvocal sound, the era of movie musicals and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

And then there was Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). The film concerns the discovery of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, and when we finally get to the fabled land the soundtrack accompanies the matte-painted wonderland with a chorus singing in… well, in a language that isn’t English and doesn’t seem to be Tibetan either. And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

The film’s producers tried to claim that the choral music from Lost Horizon was rooted in Tibetan folk traditions, but this, Daub writes persuasively, is plainly nonsense, and nonsense about nonsense to boot. What matters isn’t the sense, but the feeling, not the authenticity, but the cinematic je-ne-sais-quoi (literally, je ne sais rien) of the music.

What’s more, music choirs (even the nonsensical, polyglot ones) have gone digital and programmable:

The EastWest Symphonic Choirs software allows you to make a virtual choir sing in just about any style imaginable. Want your ooos and aaas to sound like a whisper? More Broadway or more classical? All of that’s in the package.

But there’s more: Due to a system called WordBuilder, you can have this choir sing pretty much anything — you can type in text in English, in phonetics, or a proprietary alphabet called Votox, and the software will assemble it out of a massive databank of vowels and consonants…

All the professional singers I spoke to were keenly aware of products like EastWest Symphonic Choirs and the sample libraries — because more likely than not they’re in them. If you’re in the business of singing on film, these days you won’t always be asked to sing for an actual score, but instead you might get booked to record samples. There’s a scary possibility that these artists are slowly eroding the industry’s need for their labor — that the fruits of their one day of paid work will perform for the studios in perpetuity and with no extra residuals.

At the moment, though, singers come pretty cheap — and in many cases, even a union shop in a city like London (a favorite of movie music producers for just this reason) might insist only on a set rate without residuals. They’re even good at singing their way around nonsense:

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.”

But the thing is, many of us have some experience being sung at in Latin we don’t understand — it’s the Catholic mass. And as Daub writes, the emotional content of the mass (and the accompanying tradition of Latin choral music) has never depended on its intelligibility — in fact, it’s often benefitted from the fact that few if any of the audience could understand what is being said word for word.

Whether they’re after a feeling of evil (as in The Omen), magic (Harry Potter), exotic African-ness (the misplaced Swahili of The Lion King), or familiarity (Black Widow’s callback to the theme from The Avengers), movie producers are literally counting on familiar human voices being misunderstood.

The Ethical Aside

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

parentheses, em dashes, commas

Stylistic tics are often shorthands for forms of thinking, or too often for ways of not thinking through a particular problem or set of circumstances. In “Aside Effects,” Lauren Michele Jackson looks at how the rhetorical aside, whether in commas or parentheses, gives the appearance of covering all bases while actually relegating the cases that matter to the status of a special footnote.

An article on loitering, say, will take care to mention that Black and Brown folks are often penalized by anti-loitering laws, but such an aside leaves out the fact that the Brown loiterer is not one example but the prototype. The ethics of the thing protest too much. It’s “women and people of color.” It’s “women and femmes.” Jules Gill-Peterson, in her essay on trans pessimism, asks after the misty “trans woman of color” whose life in print is only an enhancement for other things, a summoning that suppresses whatever lives happen behind the rumor. An aside to be cast aside. “The trans woman of color whose life is invoked is always putative,” Gill-Peterson writes. “She’s no fact. Who is she? How do you know her? I know why Chase Bank, or Sephora[,] pretends to know her. But you? What’s your excuse?”

The ethical aside is an interruption—the beat before everyone gets on with their lives. Journalists signal that they have done their due diligence in reaching out to all parties with the inclusion of “(X declined to comment for this article)” in reported investigations; the ethical aside, likewise, says that the author has indeed thought of and considered the conditions of those excluded by their primary interests. There’s someone else out there, it acknowledges, even as the story as written depends on their disavowed existence.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, a proclamation that footnotes, parentheticals, and the like are inherently bad, and Jackson takes time to look through cases (including some splendid literary examples from Frederick Douglass and Vladmir Nabokov) where the aside has the opposite effect. But it does point to a very real problem not just in style but with habits of thinking. What if we valued the actually thoughtful more than the appearance of conscientiousness? I don’t know what that world would look like, but I bet it would be a more interesting one.

The Courtroom Sketch Artist

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

ghislaine-maxwell-court-sketch.jpeg

Choire Sicha’s interview with Jane Rosenberg, the courtroom sketch artist currently working on the Ghislaine Maxwell trial in New York, is delightful.

Do you and other courtroom artists ever fight?
Oh, sure. You don’t want to hear all that.


All I want to hear is that!
Oh, no, no. I’m not starting. I get along professionally with most artists. There are some who are just really a problem. It’s not normal, what I put up with from the other ones. I used to have a story every day — they cursed me out! They knocked my pastels over! They’re sly as a fox, they do it when no one’s around, but all the court officers know who they are. They’re not in this trial.

Jeez. It’s much nicer among the reporters!
We compete, also! There’s issues of competition for certain clients. Some of us have our set clients, and there’s stealing going on, all kinds of backstabbing going on. It’s not all roses. I’m okay with who’s here, and we do what we have to do.

(Rosenberg has been drawing defendants since 1980.)

Math on Screen

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

Simpsons - Homer Simpson writes mathematical equations (some of them wrong) on a blackboard

Mathematics isn’t the most obviously cinematic academic discipline out there, but it is one that the movies (and to a lesser extent television) have repeatedly tried to understand, or in some cases, used to goose up a vaguely science-y story. Unsurprisingly, mathematicians often become sticklers for detail in such high-profile depictions of what they do, and a good or bad portrayal can become famous or infamous.

My friend Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also an expert in translating math to popular audiences, in his books and sometimes on screen. In this video, he takes a look at some popular representations of math in TV and the movies, and tries to explain what’s going on, including what the filmmakers do well or not so well.

Good Will Hunting’s use of math is famously bad, and Ellenberg unsurprisingly agrees (although, surprisingly, he had never before seen the movie or even the math scenes in question). Portrayals that get a perhaps-surprisingly high score include The Simpsons (which includes several former mathematicians among its writers) and Jurassic Park — Jeff Goldblum pulls off a passable explanation of chaos theory while also eerily accurately capturing the slightly-creepy vibe of a neurotic academic asked to describe what he studies to a layperson. “He was the one who I most felt might have spent a long time studying mathematicians and truly trying to give off a mathematician vibe,” says Ellenberg.

One thing I love is Ellenberg’s attention to how each of the on-screen mathematicians write (if they do any writing themselves at all, rather than ponder something that’s already been written by a character offscreen) — the connection between math and writing is so powerful, and math is one of the great remaining repositories of manuscript culture (even as it’s also taken on computers and machines, like everything else).

Ellenberg also adds that the most important thing a movie about mathematics can do is to convey to the audience that being a mathematician is something real, ordinary people still do, rather than being just a bunch of old dead men wearing robes.

A Short History of the Week

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

calendar-dates-week.jpeg

Years, days, seasons, even months correspond to natural divisions of time in most parts of the Earth. We split those into hours, minutes, seconds, pretty cleanly if you’re a post-Sumerian who loves the number 60. But weeks? You can talk about phases of the moon, but for the most part, weeks are our most arbitrary (and mathematically awkward) imposition on the experience of time. (Not everybody observes a seven-day week, even today.)

So how did we make the week a thing?

Although taboos and cosmologies in several different cultures attached significance to seven-day cycles much earlier, there is no clear evidence of any society using such cycles to track time in the form of a common calendar before the end of the 1st century CE. As the scholars Ilaria Bultrighini and Sacha Stern have recently documented, it was in the context of the Roman Empire that a standardised weekly calendar emerged out of a combination and conflation of Jewish Sabbath counts and Roman planetary cycles. The weekly calendar, from the moment of its effective invention, reflected a union of very different ways of counting days. This fact alone ought to discourage us from assuming that weeks have just one obvious technological application.

Along with charting the stars and setting aside time for the sacred, weeks, David Henkin argues, serve as mnemonic devices, divide work from non-work days, allow us to distinguish one cycle of days from the next, and offer a regular opportunity to take stock.

Starting around the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States, the division of time into weeks (which correspondingly creates a repeating order of days) also allowed for a new, industrial-bureaucratic conditioning to take place: we created schedules.

Increasingly and pervasively, Americans were applying the technology of the seven-day count to the project of scheduling. Some of these schedules emerged in work settings, specifically schools and housekeeping. As daily school attendance became a normative activity outside the southern US in the early 19th century, masses of schoolchildren learned early and often to expect certain regular activities (examinations, early recesses, special classes) to take place on the same day of the week. And as new norms of hygiene and respectability took hold in middle-class households, domestic manuals began prescribing weekly schedules for core housekeeping tasks: washing on Mondays, ironing on Tuesdays, baking on Wednesdays.

Offices and workplaces were soon to follow. Eventually, the week provided such a regular structure to our days and activities that when any disruption happens (be it mild and passing like a holiday, or more deeply deranging, like a pandemic), it throws us into disorientation. We made the week, but now we can’t live without it.

Why Can’t I Hear The Movie?

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

boom-mic-and-movie-camera.png

In theory, this should be a golden age for movie sound. There’s better digital recording and mixing equipment than ever, theaters are incentivized to offer a premiere experience, and home theater equipment is more expensive, elaborate, and ubiquitous.

But many viewers report that even simple intelligibility of movie sound is worse than ever. In “Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand (And Three Ways To Fix It)”, Slashfilm’s Ben Pearson tried to break down the various causes of the problem and propose some solutions. It’s a thorough (and quite enjoyable) read.

Some of the sound problems just have to do with plain incorrigibility of the people involved: directors (Christopher Nolan is singled out) and actors who pride themselves on arty unintelligibility. There’s also some incompetence: movie houses who’ve let go of skilled projectionists and play the movie back too low (often if someone complained it was too loud), or filmmakers who rush through a shoot or a mix counting on the fact that they’ll be able to pick up the sound later. And sure, we’re probably overromanticizing our youth, when everything was pure and clear (but really made by the same kind of hacks still in charge of the movie business).

The more interesting problems, however, really are structural. For instance, remixing a movie for streaming (when you can afford to do a proper second mix), often bumps up against not just digital compression, but the fact that competing streaming services have no single standard for sound quality and mixes:

Compression is inescapable when streaming is involved, but it turns out not all streaming platforms are created equal. Craig Mann tells me something he says “is not well-known” outside the sound community: different streamers have different specifications when it comes to their audio mixes. “Netflix has excellent specs in terms of dialogue norm and overall levels,” he reveals. “They need a particular level in order to pass quality control, and the level is essentially based on the dialogue level throughout the length of the program.”

But since there’s no industry standard in how to measure audio for streaming, other platforms base their levels on other parts of the sound mix. Case in point: Mann recently worked on Joe Carnahan’s “Boss Level,” which was originally meant to be a theatrical release. “For a variety of reasons, it ended up at Hulu, and when we got a look at that spec, they require it to be based on the overall [volume] of the film, not on the dialogue level of the film. Consequently, that’s a big action movie with shooting and cars and big music, and the result of that is that you have a much more squashed up, un-impactful mix … there are only a couple different ways of measuring these things these days, and I can only imagine that it’s somebody just not understanding the reason why it should be this and not that.”

As for downmixing the streaming service for stereo, well, as Pearson writes:

For audio mixers, the theatrical mix comes first, followed by a streaming mix. Then, a stereo mix will often be created, funneling the full scope of the sound mix through just two simple speakers in a process Donald Sylvester likens to “taking a beautiful steak and dragging it through the dirt.”

As for solving the problem of unintelligibility and bad sound experiences, it mostly boils down to having more respect for and a better understanding of sound, from preproduction to the algorithms that serve up a mix to your TV set or headset. No easy fixes, just time and craftmanship. (In other words, don’t hold your breath.)

Victorian Condoms (Possibly)

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

You find the strangest things in the pages of old books, and the folks at the Bodleian Archives at Oxford are no stranger to the eccentric bits of paratext one picks up here and there. But this is indeed something of a mystery:

Folded Tissue with Ribbon.jpeg

The tissue was folded in half, lengthwise. When I unfolded it, it was immediately clear: not a glove, not unless you wanted to cover only one (very long!) finger at a time.

Instead there were four, individual, 8 inch/20cm-long tubes. For each, one end has been skillfully shaped, cut and sealed into a three dimensional dome, like a fingertip on a glove. The other end of each tube is fully open, and a pale blue ribbon drawstring is neatly tucked into a narrow hem around the circumference of each opening.

The archivist’s best guess? A small pack of condoms, quite possibly made from an animal casing, which would have been soft and supple when new (now quite brittle). And to be honest, a book is a perfectly good place to keep such supplies — unlikely to get lost in laundry or wardrobe changes, the closest thing a man of that era might carry to a bag or purse.

The Logistics of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Montgomery_Bus_Boycott_1955.jpeg

The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama began on Monday, December 5th, 1955 and ended on December 20, 1956 — 381 days during which a huge population had to commute to work, shop, socialize, and run errands without using the city’s public transit system. Obviously, not all of them had cars of their own or could rely solely on their feet or bicycles. They needed organized transport.

The bus boycott produced well-known heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation on public transit, but it also was a product of grassroots organization, an exercise in logistical planning as well as party discipline. How did they do it?

Blogger Samantha Shain has gathered a few threads from books at her site The Data Are All Right (I found Samantha’s post via a tweet by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.) Here are some highlights:

At least 29 women worked as regular carpool drivers or dispatchers. Ann Smith Pratt, a hairdresser, was the chief dispatcher. She worked the ham radio directing taxi drivers and the church station wagon crew to urgent pickups at 32 designated sites. (At the Dark End of the Street, p. 120, by Danielle McGuire)
[Rev. Benjamin J Simms] set up three repair shops, designated official gas stations, instituted a uniform pay scale for drivers and a system for keeping track of them, oversaw dispatchers working around the clock, and demanded meticulous record keeping. (Daybreak of Freedom, p. 13, by Stewart Burns)

Dr. King wrote about some of these logistical difficulties in the local papers; they were made even more difficult through the counter-organization of the boycott’s opponents.

The newest and most recent of the attempts to end the protest has been effected through insurance companies, which for some strange reason have cancelled the insurance policies on all but seven of the 24 church station wagons. Whether pressure has been put upon the companies to force the cancellation, no one knows, but on Saturday Spetember 8, the automobile insurance companies annoucned that they “could nott take the risk” and cancelled the policies. Thus, seventeen station wagons have been out of operation since then. Efforts are being made to find “companies which will take the risk,” so that these carriers can resume operations. (quoted in Daybreak of Freedom, p. 395.)

Ann Smith Pratt and Reverend Simms are examples of the other heroes of the Bus Boycott, the ones who never became national names but without whom it simply would have failed.

Infrastructure doesn’t just happen; it is a manifestation of how a community takes care of itself, or (too often), how it cares for some but not others. As my friend Deb Chachra persuasively writes, infrastructure is care at scale.

The Vinyl Boom

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Bar chart titled The Huge Resurgence of Vinyl Records; vinyl records projected to break 30m units (LPs) sold in 2021

About five years ago, a funny thing happened: for birthdays and holidays, instead of LEGO sets or basketball jerseys, my son started asking me to buy him vinyl records. I happily complied: it was fun to mix new and old records together, track down semi-rare albums, and then listen to the music together, plus talk about music all the time.

It turns out my teen wasn’t an outlier: younger people are buying vinyl at a rate not seen in over a generation, not just as collectors or as an affectation, but as a first-line way to enjoy music, new and old. What’s more, the revenue from vinyl sales was a small but substantial lifeline to artists squeezed by streaming’s stingy royalty rates.

At The Hustle, Zachary Crockett does the math:

For modern-day indie artists, it’s a welcome boom. A vinyl record costs ~$7 to manufacture, and a band typically sells it directly to fans for $25, good for $18 in profit. By contrast, streaming services only pay out a fraction of a penny for each listen. A band would have to amass 450k streams on Spotify to match the profit of 100 vinyl sales.

There are also moments where the streaming and vinyl economy come together. Bandcamp has a vinyl pressing service, and some of the most popular music videos on YouTube are needle drop recordings of a fan playing a vinyl record.

There are some bottlenecks, though. First, streaming is a much bigger ocean than vinyl. Second, vinyl’s manufacturing capacity is greatly reduced from its heyday, making it more arduous and fragile to make, manufacture, and distribute a vinyl record. Finally, the environmental impacts of vinyl manufacturing aren’t great.

But the aesthetics — oh, the sweet joy of a needle on a record — the aesthetics can’t be beat.

Update: Crockett’s arithmetic above is a little hasty. For one thing, it doesn’t include shipping costs, which can either make a record much more expensive or cut into the profit margin. It’s definitely a better profit margin than streaming music royalties, but it is one where costs are at a premium.

Sounding the Sumburgh Foghorn

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

Built in 1905 and recently restored to working order, the Sumburgh Foghorn is perhaps the last functioning foghorn in Scotland. This two-minute film, which is simply but beautifully shot, documents the surprisingly elaborate process of sounding the horn.

Out of use since 1987, the foghorn was painstakingly restored by Brian Johnson. Shown in the video is the annual Foghorn sounding at Sumburgh Lighthouse, Shetland, Scotland. Brian starts up the 1951 Kelvin K-Series Diesel 44hp Engines. The engines power the Alley and MacLellan compressors, which in turn, power the foghorn.

Just so’s you know, the horn was originally much louder at the end, but YouTube’s audio algorithm turned the volume down. I tried several versions but it wasn’t having it.

I wish we could experience the true loudness of the horn through the video — it was so powerful that it could be heard at a range of 20 miles on foggy days. (thx, mick)

How to Build the Perfect Medieval Castle

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

Castles across Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages were all pretty different, but by looking at the trends over a period of several centuries, you can determine how to build the perfect castle.

We trace the origins of the castle in the feudal system that emerged in France c.900 CE, and look at the early motte-and-bailey castle, used by the Normans to subjugate England and Wales in the 11th century. We then look at how castle’s became stronger and more sophisticated, with the addition of stone curtain walls, massive keeps, towers (square, round and D-shaped), as well as powerful gatehouses, barbicans, machicolations and moats.

(FYI: The sponsorship in this video for a medieval role-playing game is a little annoying but easily skippable and ultimately doesn’t detract from how interesting & educational the video is.)

The Hunt for Nazi War Criminal Adolf Eichmann

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

This animated documentary about how Israeli Mossad agent Zvi Aharoni tracked down and captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina 15 years after WWII ended is really fantastic.

The rare film to win festival prizes as both a documentary & as an animation, Randall Christopher’s The Driver is Red is a stunning showcase for his minimalist pen and ink art and for his grand aim to increase public awareness of WWII history (which he perceives to be rapidly fading from the consciousness of younger generations). Should he succeed in that noble aim however, the reason will be that he has taken a potentially dry historical record and transformed it into an imaginative and unabashedly cracking spy thriller.

Told through the experience of Israeli Mossad agent Zvi Aharoni, the film documents the discovery and capture of Adolf Eichmann, the senior Nazi official largely responsible for organizing and executing the Holocaust. Hidden for 15 years half a world away, and living under an assumed identity, Eichmann is tracked down by Aharoni and the agent, with a small team in tow, must design and execute a strategy for Eichmann’s capture and extradition.

You can read much more about Eichmann and his crimes, capture, trial, and death in a massive five-part series Hannah Arendt wrote for the New Yorker in 1963 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), later collected in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (via open culture)

Beneath the Bird Feeder

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

a red bird with its wings flared in the snow

a gray/brown bird in the snow

a squirrel on snowy ground

Last winter, Carla Rhodes captured some scenes of the animal life underneath her bird feeder. Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer, so the photos are good and she made certain to do the right thing with her feeder:

Ethical considerations were at the forefront of this project. This included hanging the feeder in a tree away from house windows. If not cared for properly, bird feeders can be a vector for diseases, such as salmonella. To avoid this issue I regularly raked beneath the bird feeder (and turned the soil below), rotated the feeder to different branches, occasionally allowed the feeder to be empty, and regularly disinfected the feeder with dish soap and dilute bleach solution.

(via colossal)

Designing a Lego Car to Cross Gaps

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

In the second video by Brick Experiment Channel I’ve posted here in the past week, a Lego car is repeatedly adapted to cross larger and larger gaps, until it can cross a massive gap just a little narrower than the length of the car. As I said before about their climbing car video, watching the iterative process of improving a simple car performing an increasingly difficult task using familiar design objects is such an accessible way to observe how the process of engineering works.

One of the things you get to witness is when a particular design tactic dead ends, i.e. when something that worked across a shorter gap is completely ineffective crossing a wider distance. No amount of tinkering with that same design will make it work…you have to find a whole new way to do it.

Extreme Macro Photography of Eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

I have featured Suren Manvelyan’s ultra-macro photos of human eyes on the site before, but since I think about them all the time, here they are again. I just wish the images were bigger. Manvelyan has also shot a bunch of animal eyes at close range — this is a llama eye:

closeup photo of a llama eye

Vintage Photos of Venus & Serena Playing Tennis as Kids (1991)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids playing tennis

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is home to a collection of photographs taken by Rod Lyons in 1991 of Venus and Serena Williams practicing tennis at the ages of 12 and 10 on a tennis court near their home in Compton. Their father Richard is in the photos as well, coaching his daughters. Patrick Sauer talked to Lyons about the photos for Smithsonian Magazine:

“Where I was sent to shoot an up-and-coming tennis player was interesting because [the sport’s] ’70s [to] ’80s boom was over, so [tennis] wasn’t that popular overall, and you certainly didn’t see Black people in Compton out there playing. But other than that it was no big deal,” Lyons recalls. “I got there and started taking pictures of two young sisters named Venus and Serena, 12 and 10, taking lessons from their father, Richard. The practice session was disciplined and intense. Richard was really coaching ‘em up that day, but he wasn’t dictatorial, and [he] treated his daughters with kindness and respect.”

There’s another photo of the sisters from 1991 in this NPR piece, as well as some stories from locals about the Williams family:

Barbee was a 21-year-old limo driver and part-time tennis coach when Richard Williams invited him to train with his daughters.

“Tennis was a passion,” he says.

Barbee was a tennis prodigy himself, so when he faced Venus and Serena on the court, he had finally met his match.

“Man, it was unbelievable,” Barbee says. “Never seen nobody that good. It was something I’d never seen before in my life.”

Venus wasn’t even a teenager yet.

Training meant hitting hundreds of balls with enough force to break the strings on their racquets.

“Every other day, I was restringing my racquets,” he says. “My shoes, once a week. A hole right in my foot of my shoe. Used to tape them up.”

Here are still more photos from 1991 and you can find a photo of the sisters posing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at Sports Illustrated.

King Richard, a biopic of Richard Williams produced by his daughters, takes place during this period of time, is now out in theaters and on HBO Max, and is getting great reviews.

Dogs That Look Like Celebrities

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Compiled by Joaquim Campa, here are several dogs that look like celebrities. There’s Harrison Ford:

a dog that looks like Harrison Ford

William H. Macy:

a dog that looks like William H. Macy

Snoop Dogg:

a dog that looks like Snoop Dogg

And from the comments on that post, Patrick Stewart:

a dog that looks like Patrick Stewart

Also from the comments, Martin Scorsese:

a dog that looks like Martin Scorsese

This is not my usual thing, but this caught me at the right moment and I needed to get my annual pet post in so…

What Movies Can Teach Us About Mozart’s Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Typically, we think of music in movies in terms of what the music adds to the visuals. Music often tells us how to feel about what we’re seeing — it sets the mood and provides an emotional context. But, as Evan Puschak details in this video, you can also learn something about music (Mozart, in this case) from the way in which talented directors and music producers deploy it in movies, particularly when they use it unconventionally.

[These films and TV shows] teach us something about the Lacrimosa. They open up doors in the music that maybe even Mozart didn’t see. This is what’s so cool about movies — they bring art forms together and, in these collisions, it’s possible to see some really beautiful sparks.

“52 Things I Learned in 2021”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Tom Whitwell’s list of 52 things he learned during the past year is always worth a read. Here are some of my favorites from the list:

4. 10% of US electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads. [Geoff Brumfiel]

10. Short afternoon naps at the workplace lead to significant increases in productivity, psychological well-being and cognition. In contrast, an extra 30 minutes sleep at night shows no similar improvements. [Pedro Bessone]

21. Women’s relative earnings increase 4% when their manager becomes the father of a daughter, rather than a son. This daughter effect was found in 25 years of Danish small-business data. [Maddalena Ronchi]

35. Clean rooms used to make semiconductors have to be 1,000x cleaner than a surgical operating theatre, because a single transistor is now much smaller than a virus. [Ian King]

37. The notion of a personal ‘Carbon Footprint’ was invented by Ogilvy & Mather for BP in the early 2000s. [Mark Kaufman]

47. The entire global cosmetic Botox industry is supported by an annual production of just a few milligrams of botulism toxin. Pure toxin would cost ~$100 trillion per kilogram. [Anthony Warner]

Inspired by Whitwell, I have been sporadically compiling my own list throughout the year. I’m going to review it soon and see if there’s anything in there worth publishing. Of course, the 1300+ Quick Links I’ve posted in 2021 work as their own giant list of things I’ve learned this year.

A Collection of Airline Seatback Safety Cards

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Seatback Safety is home to a collection of dozens of seatback safety cards from airlines like Pan Am, United, Continental, Emirates, British Airways, JetBlue, and Air France.

seatback safety card for Pan Am

seatback safety card for British Airways

seatback safety card for Hawaiian Airlines

seatback safety card for Emirates

Here’s the rationale for the site:

As a professional designer, it can be valuable to contemplate how practitioners solved the same problem over time with different fashions and different tools.

Seatback Safety cards have been used since the dawn of commercial flight. While their pamphlet form has remained largely the same for a century, they have significantly evolved in ways that reflected broader social and technological trends.

P.S. Did you remember that Hooters had an airline? (It only lasted three years.)

seatback safety card for Hooters Air

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