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How IBM’s Technology Powered the Holocaust

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2019

IBM Nazi Punchcard

According to a book by human rights journalist Edwin Black, Hitler needed logistical help in carrying out the genocide of Europe’s Jewish population. IBM, an American company whose leadership was obsessed with growth and profits, was happy to provide Hitler with their punch card machines and technology. From The Nazi Party: IBM & “Death’s Calculator” (excerpted from Black’s 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust):

Solipsistic and dazzled by its own swirling universe of technical possibilities, IBM was self-gripped by a special amoral corporate mantra: if it can be done, it should be done. To the blind technocrat, the means were more important than the ends. The destruction of the Jewish people became even less important because the invigorating nature of IBM’s technical achievement was only heightened by the fantastical profits to be made at a time when bread lines stretched across the world.

So how did it work?

When Hitler came to power, a central Nazi goal was to identify and destroy Germany’s 600,000 Jews. To Nazis, Jews were not just those who practiced Judaism, but those of Jewish blood, regardless of their assimilation, intermarriage, religious activity, or even conversion to Christianity. Only after Jews were identified could they be targeted for asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and ultimately extermination. To search generations of communal, church, and governmental records all across Germany — and later throughout Europe — was a cross-indexing task so monumental, it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

When the Reich needed to mount a systematic campaign of Jewish economic disenfranchisement and later began the massive movement of European Jews out of their homes and into ghettos, once again, the task was so prodigious it called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed. When the Final Solution sought to efficiently transport Jews out of European ghettos along railroad lines and into death camps, with timing so precise the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into a waiting gas chamber, the coordination was so complex a task, this too called for a computer. But in 1933, no computer existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card sorting system — a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, made Hitler’s program of Jewish destruction a technologic mission the company pursued with chilling success. IBM Germany, using its own staff and equipment, designed, executed, and supplied the indispensable technologic assistance Hitler’s Third Reich needed to accomplish what had never been done before — the automation of human destruction. More than 2,000 such multi-machine sets were dispatched throughout Germany, and thousands more throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains cataloged with icy automation.

IBM Germany, known in those days as Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, did not simply sell the Reich machines and then walk away. IBM’s subsidiary, with the knowledge of its New York headquarters, enthusiastically custom-designed the complex devices and specialized applications as an official corporate undertaking. Dehomag’s top management was comprised of openly rabid Nazis who were arrested after the war for their Party affiliation. IBM NY always understood — from the outset in 1933 — that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelon of the Nazi Party. The company leveraged its Nazi Party connections to continuously enhance its business relationship with Hitler’s Reich, in Germany and throughout Nazi-dominated Europe.

It’s not difficult to see the relevance of this episode today. Should Microsoft-owned GitHub provide software to ICE for possible use in the agency’s state-sanctioned persecution of immigrants and asylum seekers? Should Twitter allow Donald Trump to incite terrorism on their service? Should Google provide AI to the Pentagon for the potential development of deadlier weapons? And Christ, where do you even start with Facebook? Palantir, Apple, and Amazon have also been criticized recently for allowing unethical usage of their technology and platforms. “It’s just business” and the belief in the neutrality of technology (and technology platforms) have combined to produce a shield that contemporary companies use to protect themselves from activists’ ethical criticisms. And increasingly, the customers and employees of these companies aren’t buying it because they don’t want history to repeat itself. (via marc hedlund)

Jenny’s Holzer’s VIGIL for Gun Violence Victims

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2019

This past weekend for a project called VIGIL, artist Jenny Holzer projected texts about the impact and realities of gun violence onto the buildings of Rockefeller Center.

Jenny Holzer Vigil

Employing her signature text-based practice, Holzer will project testimonies, responses, and poems by people confronting the everyday reality of gun violence onto the iconic buildings at Rockefeller Center after sundown. These hauntingly sober first-person accounts serve both as an acknowledgement of communities impacted by gun violence and an invitation for dialogue around the prevalence of this issue in the United States. Holzer will feature texts from the compilation Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, stories from Moments that Survive collected by Everytown for Gun Safety, and poems by teens who have grown up in the shadow of mass shootings.

Gothamist has a story about the project, which includes several photos of the projected texts.

Can You Draw a Perfect Circle?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 14, 2019

This maddening little web toy on vole.wtf challenges visitors to draw a perfect circle and judges them on how well they do. After dozens of tries with a mouse, I could only manage 92.9% perfection (which looks more like 80% tbh).

Perfect Circle

Then I tried it on a touchscreen and got much closer: 95.2%. Several more tries with an Apple Pencil bumped it up to 97.7%, after which I retired so as not to waste the entire rest of my afternoon on this.

And of course, here’s the classic video of Alexander Overwijk drawing a perfect freehand circle on the blackboard in about a second.

I love everything about this video — the way he swings his arm to warm up, his drying-the-blackboard flapping motion, and the ease of his perfection. 100.0%. (via sam potts)

Meet Felipe Nunes, a Skateboarder With No Legs

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 14, 2019

Pro skateboarder Felipe Nunes hails from Brazil, is 20 years old, and recently signed on to Tony Hawk’s Birdhouse team. Nunes also lost both legs when he was six. From an interview with Nunes in Thrasher:

I was six when it happened but the doctors said it was super fast. I didn’t really hesitate because I was so young. I used a wheelchair until about the age of 11. I was a kid who wanted to do everything. Regardless of not having two legs I wanted to do it all. I rode my bike, played soccer, pretty much everything out in front of my house. I was a normal kid. It didn’t even look like I was missing part of my legs. My parents were essential in my recovery because they never stopped me from doing anything. They were afraid of me getting hurt like any parents, but they never held me back. When I wanted to give up the wheelchair and ride the skateboard full time, they let me go.

You can follow Nunes on his latest exploits on Instagram. (via the morning news)

A Video Timeline of Seven Million Years of Human Evolution

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2019

From the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, an animated timeline of human evolution, from when hominins first show up in the fossil record in Africa some seven million years ago to the appearance of Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. You can see artifacts and fossil remains of many of the hominins at the museum in the Hall of Human Origins. I haven’t been there in awhile…might be time for a visit.

I got this from Open Culture, where Colin Marshall goes into more detail:

And though hominins may have walked upright, they also climbed trees, but eventually lost the grasping feet needed to do so. Later they compensated with the very human-like development of making and using stone tools. Two million years ago, the well-known Homo erectus, with their large brains, long legs, and dextrous hands, made the famous migration out of Africa.

We know that by 1.2 million years thereafter Homo erectus’ brains had grown larger still, fueled by new cooking techniques. Only about 200,000 years ago do we, Homo sapiens, enter the picture, but not long after, we interbreed with the various hominin species already in existence as we spread outward to fill “every geographic niche” of the Earth.

The last bit of the video was unexpectedly sobering:

Homo sapiens were highly adaptable, quickly filling nearly every geographic niche. Other hominins went extinct. Climate pressures and competition with Homo sapiens may have wiped them out.

If we don’t change our ways soon, one way to look at the recent history of life on Earth is that modern humans came along 200,000 years ago and systematically conquered and killed the all of the animals on the planet larger than an ant. Not such a great deal for anything but people.

700-Year-Old French Mill Still Cranking Out Handmade Paper

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2019

For their latest video, Great Big Story visits a French mill that’s been making paper for 700 years. The Richard de Bas mill has supplied paper to the likes of Picasso and Dali and is today one of the few remaining places in France where paper is still made by hand; they only produce about 2 tons of paper a year. That flower paper is incredible. My only complaint about this video is that it wasn’t 6-7 minutes longer. You can see more of the mill in this video (in French, although YT’s auto-translated captions work ok).

The mill and the associated museum in Ambert, France are open to visitors and you can buy some of their paper from the online store. A pack of dozen sheets of their floral paper is €30.

See also this 1970 short film on marbled paper, a personal favorite of mine.

America’s Unjust Regressive Tax System and How to Fix It

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2019

On Monday, I posted a link to David Leonhardt’s NY Times piece, The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes Than You.

For the first time on record, the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data. That’s a sharp change from the 1950s and 1960s, when the wealthy paid vastly higher tax rates than the middle class or poor. Since then, taxes that hit the wealthiest the hardest — like the estate tax and corporate tax — have plummeted, while tax avoidance has become more common. President Trump’s 2017 tax cut, which was largely a handout to the rich, plays a role, too. It helped push the tax rate on the 400 wealthiest households below the rates for almost everyone else.

Tax 2019 Regressive

The result is a tax system that is much less progressive than it used to be. And unjust. The economists who compiled this data, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, have written a book called The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. In this piece called How to Tax Our Way Back to Justice, the pair lay out the problem and how we can fix it to make our tax system more just for the majority of Americans.

The good news is that we can fix tax injustice, right now. There is nothing inherent in modern technology or globalization that destroys our ability to institute a highly progressive tax system. The choice is ours. We can countenance a sprawling industry that helps the affluent dodge taxation, or we can choose to regulate it. We can let multinationals pick the country where they declare their profits, or we can pick for them. We can tolerate financial opacity and the countless possibilities for tax evasion that come with it, or we can choose to measure, record and tax wealth.

If we believe most commentators, tax avoidance is a law of nature. Because politics is messy and democracy imperfect, this argument goes, the tax code is always full of “loopholes” that the rich will exploit. Tax justice has never prevailed, and it will never prevail. […] But they are mistaken.

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, David Chang’s new Netflix series

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2019

Despite some reservations (a little too bro-y for one thing), I really enjoyed David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious. So I’m happy to see that he’s got a new series coming out called Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner. The trailer:

In this one, he’s traveling the world with some non-food celebs: he hits Los Angeles with Lena Waithe, Marrakesh with Chrissy Teigen, Phnom Penh with Kate McKinnon, and Vancouver with Seth Rogen. Will watch.

What to Expect When Expecting the Displeasure of the Chinese Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

The partnership between China and Western governments & corporations has hit a rough patch recently, namely the Hong Kong protests and how the NBA, Apple, and gaming company Blizzard have handled various responses to them on their platforms. I don’t have a lot to add on the matter, but I have read some interesting takes in the past few days that you might also want to take a look at.

Ben Thompson, The Chinese Cultural Clash:

I am not particularly excited to write this article. My instinct is towards free trade, my affinity for Asia generally and Greater China specifically, my welfare enhanced by staying off China’s radar. And yet, for all that the idea of being a global citizen is an alluring concept and largely my lived experience, I find in situations like this that I am undoubtedly a child of the West. I do believe in the individual, in free speech, and in democracy, no matter how poorly practiced in the United States or elsewhere. And, in situations like this weekend, when values meet money, I worry just how many companies are capable of choosing the former?

John Gruber riffing on Thompson’s piece:

The gist of it is that 25 years ago, when the West opened trade relations with China, we expected our foundational values like freedom of speech, personal liberty, and democracy to spread to China.

Instead, the opposite is happening. China maintains strict control over what its people see on the Internet — the Great Firewall works. They ban our social networks where free speech reigns, but we accept and use their social networks, like TikTok, where content contrary to the Chinese Community Party line is suppressed.

Farhad Manjoo, Dealing With China Isn’t Worth the Moral Cost:

The People’s Republic of China is the largest, most powerful and arguably most brutal totalitarian state in the world. It denies basic human rights to all of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens. There is no freedom of speech, thought, assembly, religion, movement or any semblance of political liberty in China. Under Xi Jinping, “president for life,” the Communist Party of China has built the most technologically sophisticated repression machine the world has ever seen. In Xinjiang, in Western China, the government is using technology to mount a cultural genocide against the Muslim Uighur minority that is even more total than the one it carried out in Tibet. Human rights experts say that more than a million people are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang, two million more are in forced “re-education,” and everyone else is invasively surveilled via ubiquitous cameras, artificial intelligence and other high-tech means.

None of this is a secret.

Om Malik, Our Collective Chinese Conundrum:

We in the West should very well know what and who we are dealing with — China might be decked out in Louis Vuitton, but underneath, it is still a single-party, quasi-communist nation. Knowing the Western desperation for growth and the insatiable needs of the stock markets, China also knows it can yank anyone’s chain.

Huawei isn’t a recent problem. It was a problem a decade ago. The dynamic in this spat between the NBA and China isn’t new — China gets what China wants, not the other way around. Why are we being outraged now? The West signed up for this.

Malik quotes from Ian Bremmer’s newsletter:

in the west, the past decades have been marked by a view that china would eventually adapt to western norms, institutions, political and economic systems. but from an asian perspective, the opposite appears more likely. after all, of the last 2,000 years, china and india have led the global economy for the first 1800; europe and the united states only flipped the script for the last 200. now that’s about to change. and when it does, it’s going to happen quickly, powered by 1.4 billion increasingly urban, educated and technologically-connected chinese citizens. take the long view (and an asian perspective) and it’s a better bet that the west will adapt to the realities of chinese economic power, not the other way around.

Misremembered Landscapes and Nearly Forgotten Memories

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

Matt Jukes

Matt Jukes

Matt Jukes

Creative director and artist Matt Jukes makes these lovely prints of “misremembered landscapes and nearly forgotten memories”. To me, they look like depictions of landskein, “the weaving & braiding of horizon lines, often seen most clearly on hazy days in hill country”.

You can purchase various editions of Jukes’ work from the shop on his website or Saatchi Art. (via tmn)

2001: A Space Odyssey, The Frank Poole Epilogue

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

From Steve Begg (who I would guess is this Steve Begg, who has done VFX on the recent Bond films) comes an epilogue of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene picks up 203 years after the events of 2001, following Frank Poole’s body as it encounters a monolith.

How Flu Vaccines Are Made

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

Ten years ago, in the midst of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, I wrote about the manufacturing process for the H1N1 flu vaccine. It involves billions of chicken eggs.

The most striking feature of the H1N1 flu vaccine manufacturing process is the 1,200,000,000 chicken eggs required to make the 3 billion doses of vaccine that may be required worldwide. There are entire chicken farms in the US and around the world dedicated to producing eggs for the purpose of incubating influenza viruses for use in vaccines. No wonder it takes six months from start to finish.

The post holds up pretty well because, according to the CDC, this is still the way most flu vaccines in America are manufactured. Here’s a look at pharmaceutical company GSK’s egg-based process:

Two other techniques for making flu vaccines were approved for use in the US in 2012 and 2013 respectively, cell-based flu vaccines:

‘Cell-based’ refers to how the flu vaccine is made. Most inactivated influenza vaccines are produced by growing influenza viruses in eggs. The influenza viruses used in the cell-based vaccine are grown in cultured cells of mammalian origin instead of in hens’ eggs.

A cell-based flu vaccine was developed as an alternative to the egg-based manufacturing process. Cell culture technology is potentially more flexible than the traditional technology, which relies upon adequate supply of eggs. In addition, the cell-based flu vaccine that uses cell-based candidate vaccine viruses (CVVs) has the potential to offer better protection than traditional, egg-based flu vaccines as a result of being more similar to flu viruses in circulation.

And recombinant flu vaccines:

NIAID and its industry partners have made progress in moving from both the egg-based and cell-based flu vaccine production methods toward recombinant DNA manufacturing for flu vaccines. This method does not require an egg-grown vaccine virus and does not use chicken eggs at all in the production process. Instead, manufacturers isolate a certain protein from a naturally occurring (“wild type”) recommended flu vaccine virus. These proteins are then combined with portions of another virus that grows well in insect cells. The resulting “recombinant” vaccine virus is then mixed with insect cells and allowed to replicate. The flu surface protein called hemagglutinin is then harvested from these cells and purified.

Both of these new techniques make production quicker, thereby resulting in more effective vaccines because they are more likely to match the strains of whatever’s “going around”.

As a reminder, you should get a flu shot every year in the fall. The CDC recommends that “everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exception”, especially those “who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza”. Flu vaccines are covered by your health insurance without copay (thanks, Obama!) and are often available at drug stores without an appointment or a long wait. So go get one!

Silence Is the Presence of Everything

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

This morning, instead of crawling straight from bed to desk and diving into the internet cesspool, I went for a walk. I went because I needed the exercise, because it was a nice sunny day out, because the changing leaves are super lovely right now. (Check out my Instagram story for some of what I saw along the way.) But I also wanted to listen to this episode of On Being with Gordon Hempton called Silence and the Presence of Everything. Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who has a lot of interesting things to say about silence and natural sounds.

Oh, grass wind. Oh, that is absolutely gorgeous, grass wind and pine wind. We can go back to the writings of John Muir, which — he turned me on to the fact that the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of the needle or the blade of grass. So the shorter the needle on the pine, the higher the pitch; the longer, the lower the pitch. There are all kinds of things like that, but the two folders where I collected, I have, oh, over 100 different recordings which are actually silent from places, and you cannot discern a sense of space, but you can discern a sense of tonal quality, that there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat.

It sounds paradoxical, but I wanted to listen to this podcast in a setting with natural sounds, rather than in my car or on a plane. I had my AirPods in because they don’t block all outside sound, so I could hear the crunch of the road beneath my shoes as I walked and listened. The nature and animal sounds in the episode sounded like they were actually coming from all around me. I paused the episode for a minute or two to listen to a burbling brook I passed along the way. The whole experience was super relaxing and informative.1

You can read more about Hempton and his efforts in preserving the world’s silence places on his website The Sound Tracker or in his book, One Square Inch of Silence. Outside magazine recently profiled Hempton, who, in cruel twist of fate, has suffered dramatic hearing loss in recent years.

The problem Hempton hopes to take on is gargantuan. To understand it, try a little experiment: when you reach the period at the end of this sentence, stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, and listen.

What did you hear? The churn of the refrigerator? The racing hiss of passing traffic? Even if you’re sitting outside, chances are you heard the low hum of a plane passing overhead or an 18-wheeler’s air horn shrieking down a not-so-distant highway.

If you heard only the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees, you’re one of a lucky few. But it’s likely that quiet won’t last.

This short documentary, Sanctuaries of Silence, follows Hempton to some of the quietest places on Earth, including the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park.

I think what I like most about listening is that I disappear.

If you’d like to disappear for awhile but don’t have access to a quiet place, you should check out some of Hempton’s recordings on Spotify — I’m listening to Forest Rain right now.

Or try out the Sound Escapes podcast to check out some of his best natural soundscapes. (thx Meg, who sent along a link to the On Being episode after reading yesterday’s post on noise pollution)

  1. And it was another good example of the AirPods as an AR device.

The World’s Quiet Places Are Disappearing In a Technological Cloud of Noise

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2019

For The Atlantic, Bianca Bosker writes about the growing problem of noise pollution (because of our love of technology and hands-off governments) and why so few people take it seriously (because of our love of technology and hands-off governments).

Scientists have known for decades that noise — even at the seemingly innocuous volume of car traffic — is bad for us. “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,” former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said in 1978. In the years since, numerous studies have only underscored his assertion that noise “must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.” Say you’re trying to fall asleep. You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: Your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure and heart rate are rising, your digestion is slowing down. Your brain continues to process sounds while you snooze, and your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels-slightly louder than a purring cat.

Experts say your body does not adapt to noise. Large-scale studies show that if the din keeps up-over days, months, years-noise exposure increases your risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and heart attacks, as well as strokes, diabetes, dementia, and depression. Children suffer not only physically-18 months after a new airport opened in Munich, the blood pressure and stress-hormone levels of neighboring children soared-but also behaviorally and cognitively. A landmark study published in 1975 found that the reading scores of sixth graders whose classroom faced a clattering subway track lagged nearly a year behind those of students in quieter classrooms-a difference that disappeared once soundproofing materials were installed. Noise might also make us mean: A 1969 study suggested that test subjects exposed to noise, even the gentle fuzz of white noise, become more aggressive and more eager to zap fellow subjects with electric shocks.

Being pretty sensitive to noise, I read this piece with a great deal of interest. One of the benefits of living in the middle of nowhere in the country is that when I go outside, the sounds I hear are mostly natural: birds, streams, wind, frogs, and insects. In the winter, the quiet is sometimes so complete that you can only hear the sound of your own heart beating in your ears. But lately, some dipshit who owns a car with a deliberately loud after-market muffler has been driving through the surrounding hills, disrupting the peace. I can’t usually hear cars passing on the nearby road, but this muffler jackass you can hear literally miles away. It makes me want to smash things! I feel like a bit of a crank, but why does this person’s freedom to have a loud muffler override the freedom of the thousands of people within earshot to have quiet? (See also positive versus negative liberty and How Motorcyclists Think People React When They Drive By.)

Beading the Cosmos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2019

Margaret Nazon

Inspired by some photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Margaret Nazon began in 2009 to make beaded artworks of stars, galaxies, planets, and nebula. I love her representation of the Milky Way, pictured above. Nazon grew up in a First Nation community in Canada’s Northwest Territories and in this interview she talks about using traditional materials for her cosmic drawings.

I consider my art to be “abstract.” Aboriginal people have used animal skins, bones, seeds, quills and rocks for decoration, and I figured it would fit in my artwork. I was given buttons made of caribou bones as a gift and I decided I should try to incorporate a solid piece of bone into one of my galaxy pictures. Viewers loved that. I spent last December in Salt Spring Island B.C. One of my friends asked if I was going to incorporate B.C. rocks or shells in my work and I thought that was a great idea. I started receiving rocks and shells as inspiration. Just recently a Gwich’in friend gave me willow seeds to use. The Gwich’in people used to use willow seeds to decorate their clothing.

(via brain pickings)