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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.

Did this unassuming small-town couple steal a $160 million Willem de Kooning painting?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2018

De Kooning Stolen

When Jerry and Rita Alter died, a painting was found in their bedroom in the tiny town of Cliff, NM, and then was sold to an antiques dealer along with the rest of their effects for $2000. The dealer soon discovered that the painting was an original Willem de Kooning worth in the neighborhood of $150 million. The painting had been stolen in a daring raid from a Tucson museum in 1985 and a recently discovered piece of evidence shows the Alters were in Tucson on the day before the theft.

De Kooning Stolen

The next morning, a man and a woman would walk into the museum and then leave 15 minutes later. A security guard had unlocked the museum’s front door to let a staff member into the lobby, curator Olivia Miller told NPR. The couple followed. Since the museum was about to open for the day, the guard let them in.

The man walked up to the museum’s second floor while the woman struck up a conversation with the guard. A few minutes later, he came back downstairs, and the two abruptly left, according to the NPR interview and other media reports.

Sensing that something wasn’t right, the guard walked upstairs. There, he saw an empty frame where de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” had hung.

At the time, the museum had no surveillance cameras. Police found no fingerprints. One witness described seeing a rust-color sports car drive away but didn’t get the license plate number. For 31 years, the frame remained empty.

Earlier this year, WFAA made a short documentary film about the Alters and the heist.

(If you don’t want to watch the entire video, at least check out the bit starting at 18:00 where the painting is given back to the museum and authenticated…that is something you rarely see on video as it happens.)

Adding to the mystery: the couple obviously never sold the painting but they retired early, travelled the world, and left a $1 million inheritance, all seemingly beyond their means as public school employees.

Something else doesn’t add up. Jerry and Rita Alter worked in public schools for most of their careers. Yet they somehow managed to travel to 140 countries and all seven continents, documenting their trips with tens of thousands of photos.

And yet, when they died, they had more than a million dollars in their bank account, according to the Sun News.

“I guess I figured they were very frugal,” their nephew, Ron Roseman, told WFAA.

Hmm, where did they get all that coin?

My Crane Wife

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

crane.jpg

At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in northern Virginia, a rare crane named Walnut imprinted at a young age on a human keeper. This made it impossible for her to mate with other cranes; she soon acquired a reputation for killing any males who tried to court her. Surprisingly, she instead was able to produce by courting with, mating, and bonding for life with another human zoo worker, who now dances and simulates copulation with her even when they’re not trying to reproduce. It’s a weird and amazing story.

When Crowe stopped by her yard, she would bow her head and raise her wings — motions that Crowe now recognizes as the first moves of a mating dance. “At first, I thought that she was just excited to see me,” Crowe says. “But then I’d see the other pairs doing the same things, and it kind of dawned on me.” Crowe accepted Walnut’s invitation to dance. Though he felt a little silly, he bobbed his head when Walnut bobbed hers, and raised and lowered his arms like wings. The two circled each other, and sometimes Walnut would make a loud, trumpeting call — the beginning of the white-naped crane love duet. If no one was around, Crowe would try to do the male part of the song — making a Homer Simpson-like “woo-hoo” — but Walnut never found his efforts satisfactory….

Captive cranes can live past 60 years old, which means Crowe’s commitment to Walnut could, in theory, last decades. “If she’s still here when I’m eligible for retirement, I won’t be able to leave,” he says. “I’d feel like a jerk.” Another male keeper — and Walnut clearly prefers men to women — might be able to woo her if Crowe were to disappear. But, as Crowe has seen with his other cranes, the loss of a mate is traumatic. Widowed cranes stop eating and fill the air with mournful calls, sometimes for weeks on end.

It’s unlikely that Walnut will be called on to produce more chicks, but Crowe continues to dance with her and even “mate” with her when she asks. It’s a strange job, but Crowe says he’s used to getting teased at this point. “I’ve heard every joke,” he says, and then shares his favorite: “What’s the difference between erotic and kinky? Erotic, you use a feather. Kinky, you use the whole bird.”

The whole thing reminds me of The Decemberists’ song “The Crane Wife,” and “Tsuru no Ongaeshi,” the Japanese folk tale it’s based on.

Once upon a time, there lived an elderly couple in a certain place. On a snowy day in winter, the old man was going to town to sell firewood, when he found a crane that was caught in a hunter’s trap. Feeling sorry, he released the bird from the trap. That night while the snow fell violently, a beautiful girl came to the couple’s house. According to her explanation, ever since her parents died, she had been traveling between relatives she had never met before, when she got lost and as a result would like to stay for one night. The couple heartily welcomed her into their home. The snow had not quite stopped the next day, and the day after that, as the girl remained in the house of the elderly couple. Meanwhile, the girl tirelessly took care of the couple, making them happy. One day, the girl asked the couple, instead of sending her off to meet relatives she had never met before, to please make her their daughter. The elderly couple was delighted to accept.

As she continued to help the old couple, one day she requested: “I would like to weave a cloth, so please buy me yarn”. When she was handed the purchased yarn, she stated: “Please don’t ever look in the room.” to the couple; then hid in the room, and wove for three days straight without a break. “Sell this, and buy me more yarn”, she told the couple. The cloth was very beautiful, and became the talk of the town immediately, and sold for a good price. With the new thread that was bought with the new money, their daughter wove another fabric with stunning workmanship, selling at a higher price and making the elderly couple wealthy.

However, when she confined herself to the room to weave a third piece, while the couple persevered in keeping the promise at first, they began to wonder how she wove such beautiful cloth. Unable to fight curiosity, the old lady took a peek inside. Where there should have been a girl was a crane. The crane plucked its own feathers to weave between the threads to produce a glittering cloth. Large portions of the wing had already been plucked out, leaving the crane in a pitiful state. In front of the shocked elderly couple, the daughter who finished weaving approached them, confessing that she was the crane that was saved. While she had intended to remain their daughter, she had to leave, as her true identity has been discovered. She turned back into a crane and flew into the sky, leaving behind the remorseful elderly couple.

The golden age of TV recaps

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

I have mixed feelings about The Ringer’s enormous ranking of the 100 best TV shows of the century (so far), but I’ve enjoyed some of the accompanying material. In particular, I like Alison Herman’s essay on the rise, fall, and metastasis of TV recap culture in the late 90s and early 2000s. Regardless of whether you believe the premise that time was a golden age of television, it was almost certainly the golden age of TV recaps.

Part of the reason now-classic episodes like Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias,” or The Sopranos’ finale are remembered as such is because recappers were there to register their amazement and enumerate the reasons why those hours had the power to shock and surprise. “Sopranos and Mad Men are two of the best shows to write recaps of, because they’re so dense and laden with meaning and subtext and symbolism,” [Alan] Sepinwall explains. “You get to really dive in deep with, Well, what does all that mean? What was the show trying to say?” This would prove a common theme of the rise of recapping: More was being written about TV because, in many critics’ minds, there was more to write about. As for viewers, they got the message that neither TV criticism nor TV itself was a one-way street. Television didn’t have to be talked about as an investment to be made or checked in on, but as it was actually experienced: as a regular, consistent part of our lives.

Herman’s genealogy hits some of the usual suspects (Television Without Pity, The Onion’s AV Club, Gossip Girl) while also giving time to some lesser-traveled corners of the recaposphere, like Mad Style, the Mad Men fashion recap series that helped spawn similar specialist takes on other costume-heavy shows.

But the arc in general is pretty familiar: a few pioneers (both TV shows and the people who recap them) help establish the parameters of style, before a glut of content and commentary made the form less coherent and universal. Streaming and social led to a deemphasis of the episode as a unit and the recapper as an authority. Production, distribution, and reception all fundamentally changed. (So did the blogosphere and the broader cultural media universe, which maybe gets shortchanged some in Herman’s account.)

And maybe the Recap Age was all a little too ponderous and self-serious, especially when it came to “jokes.” Some of it doesn’t age well. But it’s a time when a lot of exciting things were happening, not least on the television set, and it’s one I still miss.

The history and future of the hardware store

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 03, 2018

hardware art show.jpg

Like a lot of small-scale local retail, independent hardware stores have taken a hit from the encroachment of big box stores. But their numbers remain steady, and the stores that remain are doing quite well. That’s no accident, writes Shannon Mattern in a wise, well-observed article at Places that doubles as a history of the American general store.

Why should we care about the survival of these quotidian spaces, with their ten-cent goods, at a time of crisis when many American cities lack affordable housing and clean water? I’d argue that the hardware store is more than a “common ground.” It’s a place of exchange based on values that are evidently in short supply among our political and corporate leaders: competence, intention, utility, care, repair, and maintenance. In an era of black-boxed neural nets and disposable gadgets, hardware stores promote a material consciousness and a mechanical sensibility. They encourage civic forms of accreditation, resistant to metrics and algorithms. At some neighborhood stores, you can stop in for a couple of screws and be waved off from paying at the register.

Mattern, whose family owned a hardware store in Pennsylvania, writes about the effect the hardware store’s worldview had on her as she worked there growing up:

Everything had its place. Wires and cables, pipes and elbows, hinges, washers, nuts, and springs; screws slotted, Phillips, hex, and torx; roofing nails and framing nails and finishing nails. People, too, had their stations: mostly women at the cash registers up front, all men at the back service counter and in the yard. To me the store’s order seemed sublime: magical and scary, and always tempered by a persistent layer of dust.

Yet growing up in that environment impressed upon me that pretty much everything can be made and fixed by regular people. It helped me appreciate how the world hangs together — how a building stands up, how electricity gets to the outlet, how water gets in the kitchen sink and out of a flooded basement. Triangle offered an elegant geometry. You could buy frames and fasteners for fixing material things, and you could access a social infrastructure that gave shape to the community. The world was built from the stuff on its shelves.

All this makes me wonder — what epistemology (or epistemologies) do the common commercial spaces of the 21st century represent? What’s been gained, and what’s been lost? What’s been transformed so subtly we can barely even see it?

(Via Maryn McKenna)

A beautiful pedestrian bridge in Vietnam

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2018

Ba Na Hills Bridge

This new pedestrian bridge at the Sun World Bà Nà Hills resort near Da Nang, Vietnam is really something else. From Colossal:

The 500-foot bridge rests in two outstretched palms which have been weathered with cracks and moss to give the appearance of age. While walking along the attraction visitors can look out over the sweeping mountains at a height of nearly 4,600 feet above sea level, and take in the beauty of the bright purple Lobelia Chrysanthemum flowers which dot the structure’s perimeter.

“I have a secret. My father is Steve Jobs.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Vanity Fair has an excerpt of Small Fry, a memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the oldest daughter of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who named an early computer after her. Jobs notoriously denied paternity from the moment of Brennan-Jobs’ birth.

Then, in 1980, the district attorney of San Mateo County, California, sued my father for child-support payments. My father responded by denying paternity, swearing in a deposition that he was sterile and naming another man he said was my father.

I was required to take a DNA test. The tests were new then, and when the results came back, they gave the odds that we were related as the highest the instruments could measure at the time: 94.4 percent. The court required my father to cover welfare back payments, child-support payments of $385 per month, which he increased to $500, and medical insurance until I was 18. The case was finalized on December 8, 1980, with my father’s lawyers insistent to close. Four days later Apple went public and overnight my father was worth more than $200 million.

But before that, just after the court case was finalized, my father came to visit me once at our house in Menlo Park, where we had rented a detached studio. It was the first time I’d seen him since I’d been a newborn in Oregon.

“You know who I am?” he asked. He flipped his hair out of his eyes.

I was three years old; I didn’t.

“I’m your father.” (“Like he was Darth Vader,” my mother said later, when she told me the story.)

“I’m one of the most important people you will ever know,” he said.

10 useful foreign language words without direct English translations

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

From The Guardian, 10 of the best words in the world that don’t have direct English translations. From Spain, “sobremesa”:

Lunch — and it is more usually lunch than dinner — will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

And from Iran, “Ta’arof”:

It is an etiquette that is seen almost in all aspects of Iranian life, from hosts insisting on guests taking more food from the table, to the exchanges in the bazaar. “How much is this carpet?” asks Ms A after choosing her favourite in the shop. “It’s worthless, you can just take it,” responds the seller, quite disingenuously.

Although Ms A in reality cannot take the carpet out of the shop without paying for it, the seller might insist up to three times that she should just do that, until the amount of the price is finally mentioned.

Here’s one not from the piece that I’ve seen floating around Twitter in recent days: the Japanese word “tsundoku”, which means to purchase books but never read them, letting them pile up on shelves or nightstands.

If Beale Street Could Talk

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Director Barry Jenkins is back with his first feature film since Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar in 2016. It’s called If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of a 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin.

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions-affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

The trailer looks amazing…can’t wait to see this one.