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The tension between creativity and productivity

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

Cory Doctorow was an early adopter of the lifehacking lifestyle and toolkit, including David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

Allen’s book is a fantastic and inspiring read. The core of his philosophy is to recognize that there are more things in the world that you want to do than you could do, and that, in the absence of a deliberate approach to this conundrum, you are likely to default to doing things that are easy to scratch off your to-do list, which are also the most trivial. After a lifetime of this, you’ll have accomplished a lot of very little.

Allen counsels deliberate, mindful prioritization of this list, jettisoning things on the basis that they are less satisfying or important than the other things you’d like to do - even if those other things are harder, more time consuming and less likely to result in a satisfying chance to scratch an item off the list.

After living and working this way for more than a decade, Doctorow reports that there’s a conflict between the optimization of your time via getting things done and the sort of experimental playtime you often need to do creative work.

The corollary of this is that it gets much, much harder to winnow out activities over time. Anything I remove from the Jenga stack of my day disturbs the whole tower.

And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification.

Quinn Norton wrote an essay called Against Productivity in which she moves to Puerto Rico to focus on working productively but ends up goofing off and discovering a new career & life path in the process.

I visited with new friends, and tooled around on the net (albeit always at 2G speeds). I watched rain fall. I cooked. I considered the shape of the buildings a lot, and looked after cats periodically. I walked to old forts and lookouts. At one point I took pictures of doors for no reason I could discern. I berated myself for being unproductive, for wasting this precious time I’d set aside to put my professional life together. I spent hours anxious to craft my time to be quantitatively better for writing. Then it all collapsed, and the only habit I fell into was depressive empty afternoons when I was alone with the cats and the rain. But I also, and wholly by accident, thought the thoughts that would take my career and life in a new and unimagined direction.

I was chatting with a friend on the phone today about a talk we’re doing together in a couple weeks and she brought up the same issue, unprompted. She’s a naturally productive person who finds herself with some free time, yet she’s finding it difficult to not stay busy, even though she knows she needs the mind-wandering time to replenish her creative reserves. I struggle with the same thing. I get more done in less time than I ever have, but sometimes I feel like there’s nothing creative about my work anymore. Sure, I make the doughnuts every day but am not inventing the cronut. How do you accomplish your work but also leave ample time for letting your creative mind off the leash?

A Tapestry of Time and Terrain

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

Tapestry Time Terrain

A Tapestry of Time and Terrain is a map from the USGS that shows the topology and ages of rock underneath the surface of the United States. The age scale on the right is difficult to read unless you download the full 45Mb PDF version, but it goes from Precambrian (2.6 billion years ago) at the bottom to more-or-less the present day at the top.

Through computer processing and enhancement, we have brought together two existing images of the lower 48 states of the United States (U.S.) into a single digital tapestry. Woven into the fabric of this new map are data from previous U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps that depict the topography and geology of the United States in separate formats. The resulting composite is the most detailed and accurate portrait of the U.S. land surface and the ages of its underlying rock formations yet displayed in the same image. The new map resembles traditional 3-D perspective drawings of landscapes with the addition of a fourth dimension, geologic time, which is shown in color. This union of topographic texture with the patterns defined by units of geologic time creates a visual synthesis that has escaped most prior attempts to combine shaded relief with a second characteristic shown by color, commonly height above sea level (already implicit in the shaded relief). In mutually enhancing the landscape and its underlying temporal structure, this digital tapestry outlines the geologic story of continental collision and break-up, mountain-building, river erosion and deposition, ice-cap glaciation, volcanism, and other events and processes that have shaped the region over the last 2.6 billion years.

(via @robgmacfarlane)

Biomimicry: turning birds into bullet trains

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

Nature has amassed 3.8 billion years of R&D on how to engineer and design things and systems. So when designers are looking at how to solve problems, they should pay closer attention to how the evolutionary process dealt with similar situations. For example, an engineer working on a redesign of the Japanese bullet train used his birdwatching knowledge to borrow design elements from birds like a kingfisher, an owl, and a penguin.

Japan’s Shinkansen doesn’t look like your typical train. With its long and pointed nose, it can reach top speeds up to 150-200 miles per hour.

It didn’t always look like this. Earlier models were rounder and louder, often suffering from the phenomenon of “tunnel boom,” where deafening compressed air would rush out of a tunnel after a train rushed in. But a moment of inspiration from engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu led the system to be redesigned based on the aerodynamics of three species of birds.

I love the idea of the Shinkansen as a chimerical creature constructed from the bodies of three very different types of birds. (via the kid should see this)

How to make an Extremely Large Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

The Giant Magellan Telescope, currently under construction at the University of Arizona’s Mirror Lab, will be one of the first of a new class of telescopes called Extremely Large Telescopes. The process involved in fashioning the telescope’s seven massive mirrors is fascinating. This is one of those articles littered with mind-boggling statements at every turn. Such as:

“We want the telescope to be limited by fundamental physics — the wavelength of light and the diameter of the mirror — not the irregularities on the mirror’s surface,” says optical scientist Buddy Martin, who oversees the lab’s grinding and polishing operations. By “irregularities,” he’s talking about defects bigger than 20 nanometers — about the size of a small virus. But when the mirror comes out of the mold, its imperfections can measure a millimeter or more.

Precision of 20 nanometers on something more than 27 feet in diameter and weighing 17 tons? That’s almost unbelievable. In this video, Dr. Wendy Freedman, former chair of the board of directors for the GMT project, puts it this way:

The surface of this mirror is so smooth that if we took this 27-foot mirror and then spread it out, from coast-to-coast in the United States, east to west coast, the height of the tallest mountain on that mirror would be about 1/2 an inch. That’s how smooth this mirror is.

You need that level of smoothness if you’re going to achieve better vision than the Hubble:

With a resolving power 10 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope, the GMT is designed to capture and focus photons emanating from galaxies and black holes at the fringes of the universe, study the formation of stars and the worlds that orbit them, and search for traces of life in the atmospheres of habitable-zone planets.

The telescope has a price tag of $1 billion and should be operational within the the next five years in Chile.

Increasing human healthspans

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Kurzgesagt takes a look at three possible areas of research that may help people live longer and healthier: senescent cells, NAD+, and stem cells. The distinction articulated early on in the video between optimizing for human lifespan versus increasing human healthspan seems particularly important in this search for a cure for aging.

Cancer survival rates have increased dramatically over the past 35 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Cancer Survival Rates

According to a study published in March 2017 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, cancer death rates continue to fall across most cancer types. From 2010 to 2014 (the most recent year that statistical data is available), overall death rates decreased by 1.8%.

Overall cancer death rates from 2010 to 2014 decreased by 1.8% (95% confidence interval [CI] = -1.8% to -1.8%) per year in men, by 1.4% (95% CI = -1.4% to -1.3%) per year in women, and by 1.6% (95% CI = -2.0% to -1.3%) per year in children. Death rates decreased for 11 of the 16 most common cancer types in men and for 13 of the 18 most common cancer types in women, including lung, colorectal, female breast, and prostate, whereas death rates increased for liver (men and women), pancreas (men), brain (men), and uterine cancers.

But the trends are much clearer when you look at progress over a longer time period. As this graph from Axios shows, the five-year survival rates for most common types of cancer have increased quite significantly in the past 30-40 years. Survival rates from all cancers increased by 16% and jumped 26% and almost 29% for non-Hodkin lymphoma and leukemia respectively. If you have prostate or thyroid cancer, you’re almost guaranteed to survive 5 years at this point and the female breast cancer survival rate is up to almost 91%. (via @Atul_Gawande)

The Post

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post is a historical drama about The Washington Post’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Steven Spielberg directs Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in The Post, a thrilling drama about the unlikely partnership between The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham (Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), as they race to catch up with The New York Times to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. Presidents. The two must overcome their differences as they risk their careers — and their very freedom — to help bring long-buried truths to light.

The Post marks the first time Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have collaborated on a project.

The film comes out in December.

Ben Saunders embarks on Trans-Antarctic Solo expedition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Ben Saunders Antarctic Solo

In 2013, polar adventurer Ben Saunders, along with his partner Tarka L’Herpiniere, set out from the coast of Antarctica to ski to the South Pole and back again, unsupported (meaning they carried all their food and supplies with them). They completed the 1800-mile journey in just over three months, but fell short of doing it unsupported.

This year, Saunders is back in Antarctica by himself, attempting the first solo, unsupported, unassisted crossing of the continent in the Trans-Antarctic Solo expedition. The really cool part: he’s blogging the whole trip. He’s already completed day one of the 1,024-mile journey, consisting of a short little 45-minute jaunt to set up his tent before hitting it in earnest on day two. Good luck, Ben! I’ll be following along on the blog, via Twitter & Instagram, and tracking your progress on this map.

Gorgeous computer-generated animation of a nebula

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

Designed by Teun van der Zalm, Nebulae is a computer generated nebula set to atmospheric music by Lee Rosevere. Worth seeking out a large screen for viewing. Several of van der Zalm’s other videos are equally beautiful variations on the same theme.

Alongside mass extinction, humans are also the cause of “a great flourishing of life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

In her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert warns that we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction of life, this time caused by humans.

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

This is a mainstream view of humanity’s effect on the Earth flora and fauna…for evidence, you don’t need to look any further than all of the large mammal species that have gone extinct or are endangered because of human activity.

A more controversial take is offered by Chris Thomas in his recent book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. Thomas allows that there’s a “mini mass extinction” happening, but he also argues that the extreme evolutionary pressure brought by our increasing dominance of our planet’s ecosystems will result in a “sixth mass genesis”, a dramatic increase in the Earth’s biodiversity.

Human cities and mass agriculture have created new places for enterprising animals and plants to live, and our activities have stimulated evolutionary change in virtually every population of living species. Most remarkably, Thomas shows, humans may well have raised the rate at which new species are formed to the highest level in the history of our planet.

Drawing on the success stories of diverse species, from the ochre-colored comma butterfly to the New Zealand pukeko, Thomas overturns the accepted story of declining biodiversity on Earth. In so doing, he questions why we resist new forms of life, and why we see ourselves as unnatural. Ultimately, he suggests that if life on Earth can recover from the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, it can survive the onslaughts of the technological age.

Vox’s Ferris Jabr recently interviewed Thomas about his views. When asked about the “sixth mass genesis”, Thomas answered:

The history of life on Earth is a history of extinctions and ecological failures, but it is also a story of formation of new forms and spread of those new forms around the world. The net result has been a gain in diversity. In the human era we are seeing great losses, but we are also seeing all these biological gains of new animals and plants spreading around the world, new hybrids coming into existence. I am not saying there is yet a balance between the two. I accept the losses, but it is also scientifically, and in terms of our human attitudes to nature, extremely interesting to contemplate the gains simultaneously.

If the processes that are going on at the moment continue for a very long time, it is my expectation that the number of species on Earth will grow enormously. We are moving species of existing animals and plants back and forth across the world, so that they are all arriving in new geographic regions. We know when species have done this in the ancient past, they have turned into new species in those different regions. If you fast-forward a million years or a few million years, all of these introduced species that leave surviving descendants will have turned into new species. And that is going to generate many more species. We have effectively created a massive species generator.

That certainly does put an interesting spin on extinction and invasive species.

Something is wrong on the internet

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

Writer and artist James Bridle has noticed that something is wrong on the internet. Specifically, algorithmically chosen and produced content is taking over more and more of the internet, including what your young children are watching on YouTube.

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.

By his own admission, there doesn’t seem to be anything egregiously wrong or upsetting about many of the examples Bridle uses. I mean, have you read Grimm’s fairy tales? Some of them are really dark and/or weird, like Black Mirror for children. But the effect in the aggregate is huge, resulting in what he asserts is a system of abuse in which Google is complicit, a technology fueled by advertising and weaponized against its users:

The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay. The asides I’ve kept in parentheses throughout, if expanded upon, would allow one with minimal effort to rewrite everything I’ve said, with very little effort, to be not about child abuse, but about white nationalism, about violent religious ideologies, about fake news, about climate denialism, about 9/11 conspiracies.

On the origin of time travel in fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

Drawing from David Wittenberg’s book, Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, as a guide, Evan Puschak goes in search of the origins of time travel in fiction. Along the way, he connects Charles Darwin’s work on evolution to the largely forgotten genre of utopian romance novels to the depiction of time travel in modern sci-fi.

P.S. While I was in France, I met up with Evan for lunch (we happened to be in Paris at the same time). We’d never met before, and it was really strange hearing the voice of one of my favorite YouTube channels coming out of an actual person.

The Crown, season two

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

Netflix has released the trailer for season two of The Crown, a historical drama about the rule of Queen Elizabeth II. The excellent Claire Foy returns as Elizabeth. The release date is December 8th. The Crown was TV’s most pleasant surprise last year. I watched with the expectation of another Downton Abbey (which would have been fine) but was rewarded with unexpectedly fine dialogue, acting, and drama…particularly the scenes featuring Elizabeth with her sister and with Churchill (played superbly by John Lithgow). Really looking forward to this second season.

The 100-megapixel Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

100 Megapixel Moon

Seán Doran used images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to create this 100-megapixel image of the Moon (full 10000x10000 pixel image here). Phil Plait explains how Doran made the image:

LRO WAC images have a resolution of about 100 meters per pixel over a swath of about 60 km of lunar surface (using what’s called the pushbroom technique, similar to how a flatbed scanner works). They are usually taken straight down, toward the spacecraft nadir (the opposite of the zenith). To get the correct perspective for the Moon as a globe, Doran took the images, along with altimeter data, and mapped them onto a sphere. That way features near the edge look foreshortened, as they really do when you look at the entire Moon. He also used Apollo images to make sure things lined up. So the image isn’t exactly scientifically rigorous, but it is certainly spectacular.

The image is also available at Gigapan for easier exploration.

The First Lady of ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

This short documentary from The Atlantic features Tania Georgelas, who was in Syria with her husband (the highest-ranking American member of ISIS) until she began to fear for the safety of her children and her husband left her.

Just a few years ago, Tania Georgelas was living in Syria and married to John Georgelas, who would become the most influential American member of ISIS. Together, they traveled the globe, befriending jihadis and grooming their children to become “assassins.” But after ten years of living on the run, Tania began to fear for her family’s safety. That’s when she says her husband abandoned her “to become the next Osama bin Laden.”

What a fascinating situation. I had many complicated and conflicting feelings watching it. I imagine it might make some feel angry & disgusted and make others feel hopeful…and everything in-between.

Update: Abigail Pesta wrote a long piece for Texas Monthly about Georgelas (who now goes by the name “Tania Joya”).

To add to her anxiety, her husband began talking about wanting to move to Syria, where a civil war had begun. “He felt like he had to go and help Syria. It’s a Muslim’s duty to help your family. I felt for the Syrians. They are wonderful people, but I didn’t want to bring my boys to a war zone. They were children. It wasn’t their fight.” As her brawls with her husband escalated, he became physically abusive, and she wanted out. “It came to a point where I told him, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ I felt suffocated. I would say, ‘One of us is going to need to die.’ He would say, ‘I could break your neck.’” One night, she put a pillow over his head in bed. He woke up and forced her off. “I didn’t really think I’d kill him,” she said. “It was more of a cry for help.”

(thx, jesse)