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The mysteries of the supply chain

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Music and depression

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Family snapshots of ancient Earth

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Earth 240 Million Years Ago.png

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

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

This is every TED Talk

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently digitized and declassified videos of nuclear tests

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

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

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

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

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

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

1. All photographs are posed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(via austin kleon)

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

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

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

Photos above by Huapeng Zhao and Alexandre Weber.

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

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

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

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

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

“Rodney Mullen on Bath Salts”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

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

The book of wood

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

Wood Book

Wood Book

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

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

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

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

Native Lands Map

Native Lands Map

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