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All Good Things…

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 19, 2018

The Awl and The Hairpin announced they would be closing up shop at the end of the month, after almost nine years of danged good blogging. Several writers and editors wrote about their favorite pieces; many of them agreed with Jason that Willy Staley’s A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage was a high-water mark.

Very little in pop culture, especially if it doesn’t live very long, is multi-generational. The Awl and The Hairpin managed to pull it off, straddling the seam of Millennials and Gen X with an air of uncaring desperation. It was the writers who lost their jobs in the financial crisis of 2008-2009 staring at the kids who couldn’t get real jobs after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, making a solemn vow to write whatever they thought was smart, or funny, or necessary for the moment.

Eventually, the jobs came calling — for many of the site’s best writers, but not for all — because they badly needed what The Awl had. And advertising: well, what are you going to do? Working on a shoestring may be romantic, but it sure ain’t no fun.

The Awl should have been the model for a new generation of sites that all outlived it. It wasn’t. We would mourn it less if there were more new blogs, staffed by hands young and old, rising to succeed it, jockeying to become required reading. Right now, there aren’t.

But who knows? There is still plenty of time.

This is an excerpt from the third installment of Noticing, a still-new and all-free kottke.org newsletter. We hope you’ll subscribe.

John Williams conducting the opening fanfare for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2018

Director Rian Johnson has posted a short clip of the legendary John Williams conducting the opening fanfare (aka the Star Wars theme) for The Last Jedi. It is difficult to think of the Star Wars films without Williams’ music.

LeBron James and the Philly Beard Theory

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 22, 2017

LeBron James Beard.jpg

LeBron James, as a basketball player, is arguably better now than he’s ever been. More importantly, LeBron James’s beard is inarguably better now than it’s ever been.

Look at that fullness, that thickness, that beautiful roundness! That, my friend, is the beard of a man with a dietician, a dermatologist, and a barber on retainer.

It is the beard of a dad and a daddy both.

It is a beard fully realized. It is a Philly beard.

Here I need to explain. I was born in Detroit, but lived for many years in Philadelphia. The men of Philadelphia, and particularly the black men of Philadelphia, are known for their lustrous beards. Some of it is the influence of Islam; some of it may just be needing to be outdoors in cold weather. But it’s a source of civic pride and power.

This was the first video I ever saw on the Philly beard, made by the now-defunct Phillybeard.com in 2009:

The local PBS station made its own version, emphasizing some of the qualities needed for a proper Philly beard:

Even Al-Jazeera America got in on the action, with this excellent essay on the Philly beard by Hisham Aidi, tying to the city’s hip hop and jazz traditions as well as Islam:


But overseas the moustacheless, bushy beard is not so identifiably hip-hop and has caused considerable controversy, with security officials in Europe and the Middle East mistaking the Philly for a jihadi beard. In February 2014, for instance, Lebanese police arrested Hussein Sharaffedine (aka Double A the Preacherman), 32, a Shia rapper and frontman for a local funk band. Internal Security Forces mistook him for a Salafi militant and handcuffed and detained him for 24 hours. In Europe hip-hop heads such as French rapper Medine — a Black Powerite who wears a fierce beard that he calls “the Afro beneath my jaw” — complain of police harassment. French fashion magazines joke now crudely about “hipsterrorisme.” European journalists are descending on Philadelphia to trace the roots of what they call la barbe sunnah and Salafi hipsterism.

But just as not everyone who rocks a Sunnah is Sunni, it’s a mistake to conflate the moustacheless Sunnah with the Philly beard as such. For instance, check out Questlove and Black Thought, two classic examples of the Philly beard, avec une moustache:

roots-questlove-black-thought.jpg

These, I think, are the key criteria for a Philly beard:


  1. A full beard, trimmed only at the edges of the cheek and the neck;
  2. A trimmed moustache. The lips should be visible;
  3. That roundness. A Sunni muslim might grow out their beard long, so it gets that verticality. The Philly beard is round — as Medine says, it is an “afro beneath the jaw”;
  4. It has to be well-cared for. A Philly beard is not unshaven; a Philly beard is deliberate.

Even though LeBron James does not live in Philadelphia, nor has ever lived in Philadelphia, nor had anything to do with Philadelphia other than beating the Sixers and occasionally saying nice things about our rookie Ben Simmons, if I had to point to an example of a Philly beard, after the guys from The Roots? I would point to LeBron James.

This of course, leads to the obvious question: is LeBron, who has never before worn a beard quite like this, announcing without announcing, hiding in plain sight, via the medium of his face, his preferred free-agency destination in 2018?

The answer, for any fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, is clearly yes.

Naysayers, like my brother, would say the beard’s meaning is ambiguous. Perhaps it signals his intention to join James Harden with the Houston Rockets. But James Harden’s beard is not a Philly beard. Harden has to wear that thick moustache on top to hide his baby face. Harden’s beard is not round, but rectangular. It’s an impressive beard. But it is not the beard LeBron James is wearing. LeBron’s is a Philly beard.

Harden beard.jpg

Look: suppose you had to choose between playing in Los Angeles with Lonzo Ball (no beard, no hope of one), Brandon Ingram (sick, scraggly beard), Kyle Kuzma (my guy is from Flint, represent, but still), and maybe Paul George (who plays your position already) — OR you could play with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, and MAYBE JJ Redick, for an equally storied franchise, but one that hasn’t won a title since 1983, AND you can stay in the Eastern conference and stick it to Dan Gilbert and Kyrie Irving forever — why would you not sign with the Sixers? Play in a city that would love you, love your children, is just a few hours away from home in Akron, and would love the hell out of that beard?

I think the choice is obvious. LeBron will be a Sixer in 2018. He’ll teach Simmons how to shoot, Embiid how to become indestructible, and be Magic Johnson and Dr. J rolled into one. I’ll make this promise now, with the web as my witness: I will move back to Philadelphia if this happens. And I will love every second of these young talents filling in around LeBron’s dad-game.

Trust the process; believe the beard.

LeBron James - Hat and Beard.png

The surprisingly great mashup of Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and Footloose by Kenny Loggins

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

If you were to name a pair of songs that would absolutely not sound good mixed together, Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and Footloose by Kenny Loggins would be a good place to start. But as DJ Cummerbund’s mashup Jereloose, the two songs actually go surprisingly well together.

But what’s actually blowing my mind is that Footloose and Jeremy were released only 7 years apart. Maybe it’s because I went from 5th grade to my first year of college in that span, but the cultural distance between the two seems much greater than just 7 years.

Brexit Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

After British MP Andrea Leadsom called for the Royal Mail to issue a postage stamp commemorating Brexit, some people who are not entirely in favor of leaving the EU have posted their best efforts at a stamp design on Twitter under the #brexitstamps hashtag. A few of my favorites:

Brexit Stamps

Brexit Stamps

Brexit Stamps

How to tame a wild horse

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2018

In a clip from a BBC nature documentary series on Patagonia, watch as a gaucho tames a wild horse he’s just caught. The entire process takes three hours, so this is just a tiny bit of it, but it’s interesting to watch people who are very good at what they do.

Each gaucho has his own style of taming. “What you have to do is catch the attention of the horse. I shoo it away a few times until it realizes that when it’s looking at me there will be calm, but if it looks somewhere else, I’ll scare it.”

(via digg)

Slowly shredding some pow to classical music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

Glide along with this snowboarder as he surfs his way through a powdery forest to the strains of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune. I’ve watched this twice now; it’s super relaxing. A fine antidote to the typical extreme sports video. (via the kid should see this)

Noticing, a new weekly newsletter from kottke.org

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2018

As kottke.org enters its 21st calendar year of activity (!!!!), it’s time for something new. And old. Email was invented in 1972, the year before I was born, but is still going strong. The email newsletter has re-emerged in recent years as a unique way to connect with readers, distinct from social media or publishing on the web. So Tim Carmody and I have teamed up to launch Noticing, a free email newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Written by Tim Carmody and published by me every Friday, Noticing will contain a curated roundup of the week’s posts from kottke.org as well as some extra stuff that we’ll be introducing in the weeks to come. It most definitely won’t be a replacement for kottke.org…more like something to read alongside it.

Initial funding for the newsletter comes from two sources: the bulk of it from kottke.org (made possible through the support of members) but also from Tim’s supporters on Patreon. Noticing is an experiment in unlocking the commons.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.

P.S. A quick note on the name. I thought of it while listening to the last part of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook on the drive home from NYC last week. One of Isaacson’s main points in the book was that Leonardo’s accomplishments were due in no small part to his extraordinary powers of observation. By observing things closely and from all possible angles, he was able to make connections and find details that other people didn’t and express them in his work. Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

I also thought about one of my favorite scenes from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. From A.O. Scott’s review:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

I agree. Drawing honest & straightforward attention to things I love is much of what I do here on kottke.org, so I thought Noticing was a natural name for its newsletter extension.

P.P.S. An additional programming note. In addition to doing the newsletter, Tim is also taking over the posting duties on kottke.org most Fridays. This will free me up to work on other site-related things that I haven’t been able to tackle due to the daily scramble. Again, thanks to member support for making this possible!

Photos from the Curiosity rover’s 2000 days on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Mars Curiosity Photos

Mars Curiosity Photos

Mars Curiosity Photos

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on Mars for more than 2000 days now, and it has sent back over 460,000 images of the planet. Looking at them, it still boggles the mind that we can see the surface of another planet with such clarity, like we’re looking out the window at our front yard. Alan Taylor has collected a bunch of Curiosity’s photos from its mission, many of which look like holiday snapshots from the rover’s trip to the American Southwest.

Ten new principles for good design

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

In the 1970s, legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams formulated his now-famous ten principles for good design.

5. Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Suzanne LaBarre of Co.Design has come up with an update of Rams’ list for 2018: 10 New Principles Of Good Design.

Good design is slow. For the past 20 years, tech has embraced a “move fast and break things” mantra. That was fine when software had a relatively small impact on the world. But today, it shapes nearly every aspect of our lives, from what we read to whom we date to how we spend money-and it’s largely optimized to benefit corporations, not users. The stakes have changed, the methods haven’t.

Good design is good writing. In his “2017 Design in Tech Report,” author John Maeda anointed writing as design’s newest unicorn skill. It’s easy to see why. With the rise of chatbots and conversational UI, writing is often the primary interface through which users interact with a product or service. (Siri’s dad jokes had to be written by someone.) But even designers who don’t work on interface copy should be able to articulate themselves clearly. The better their writing, the better their chances of selling an idea.

See also the tongue-in-cheek list of design principles updated for the tech industry, e.g. “Good design is pleasing your shareholders”.

What would you save from a fire?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2017

Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes due to the Thomas Fire in Southern California. The Nib asked some of them what they grabbed from their homes on the way out the door. Here are illustrations of some of their answers.

Thomas Fire Evac

Thomas Fire Evac

What would you grab? I just wandered around my house, and I’d probably reach for the art and drawings my kids have done as well as the first books I remember reading with them…some of which were mine when I was a kid. Oh, and a quilt I’ve had since I was 4 or 5. The rest is replaceable…which makes me think I have too much stuff.

The best kottke.org posts and links of 2017

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 02, 2018

[ As a tease for the first issue of the just-announced Noticing newsletter coming up on Friday, here is last week’s newsletter that we previewed for kottke.org members. It’s a review of the best kottke.org posts and links from 2017. You can sign up for Noticing if you find this kind of thing appealing. Ok, I’ll let Tim take it from here. -jason ]

 
2017 Through the Lens of Kottke.org

If 2016 was chaos, then 2017 was catastrophe. In the middle of an ongoing disaster, the world reckoned with bills long overdue. Kottke.org has never been a terribly political blog, but it’s always been one that’s grappled with history, the problems of art and media, self-reflection, and the long trajectory into the future. The site couldn’t help but reflect that catastrophe back to its readers. At the same time, it continued to offer some small oasis by selecting and presenting the best of the World Wide Web.

 
Messages in Bottles

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me was when I asked Kottke.org readers to help me build a time capsule for the World Wide Web. It felt particularly important this year to try to save the best parts of the things we loved. We had to have something to show the future, despite all this destruction and heartache, that we were still capable of making things that surprised and delighted.

The entire “best of the web” series paid homage to the 20th century technologies that have defined so much of the 21st. It also showcased the deep knowledge and generosity of Kottke readers, who contributed and helped curate all of the entries. If you missed it, or are looking to refresh yourself, the web’s best hidden gems and the web’s funniest stories are good places to start.

Jason on Halt and Catch Fire

Jason as gas station patron on Halt and Catch Fire. Photo courtesy of AMC.

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me on Jason’s behalf was his appearance on Halt and Catch Fire. Jason wrote this wonderful love letter to the show and the moment it tries to capture:

When I was a kid, there was nothing I was more interested in than computers. My dad bought one of the first available IBM PC-compatibles on the market. I’ve read and watched a ton about the PC revolution. I used online services like Prodigy. And the web, well, I’ve gotten to experience that up close and personal. One of the reasons I love Halt and Catch Fire so much is that it so lovingly and accurately depicts this world that I’ve been keenly interested in for the past 35 years of my life. Someone made a TV show about my thing and it was great, a successor to Mad Men great. Getting to be a microscopically tiny part of that? Hell yeah, it was worth it.

Recently, I saw The Farthest, a wonderful documentary about the Voyager missions. In it, Timothy Ferris, producer of the famous Golden Record, laments the fact that so much wonderful music was left off, but says something like, “who would want to live in a civilization that only ever produced 90 minutes of great music?” It made me feel better about leaving off so many wonderful parts of the web in my time capsule; who would want to honor a technology whose entire set of great achievements could be documented in a week of blog posts?

 
In Search of Deep Time

In 2014, it was easier to believe in the future. For The Future Library, an art project by Katie Paterson, a thousand trees were planted. In a century, the trees will become part of an anthology of books, written by Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, among others.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Deep Time, conceptualized in the eighteenth century but coined in the twentieth by John McPhee, is bigger than centuries; it’s really about time on the geologic scale. Even the time of human civilizations (Stone, Bronze, Iron, etc.) is too small. Deep time is deep.

Something like “The Earth’s five energy revolutions” gets us closer to it: all life on earth begins with geochemical energy, then augmented by sunlight, and finally, oxygen, flesh, and fire. The life and death of entire forests of trees, of entire species and kingdoms, is dwarfed by the history of an entire planet and all the life that’s ever been on it. This point of view has always been a powerful perspective, but in 2017, the cosmic telescope of time was almost a comfort. Even if nations fall and species fail, this too will pass.

Coleman's Cafe in Greensboro, Ala.

Coleman’s Cafe in Greensboro, Ala., in 1971. By William Christenberry

But deep time has its own human counterparts. Consider Teju Cole’s essay “The Image of Time,” on photographer William Christenberry. Christenberry photographed buildings in small towns in the American south over time: seemingly the same photograph, of the same object, from the same distance, with the same framing, shows the object’s subtle or radical transformations, its non-identity.

Time is photography’s illusion. Almost every photograph appears instantaneous. But of course, there’s no such thing as “instantaneous”: All fragments of time have a length. In a photograph, the time during which the light is refracted by the lens, enters the aperture and is allowed to rest on the photosensitive surface could be 1/125th of a second, one-eighth of a second, half a second, a whole minute, much more or much less. What is intriguing about a practice like Christenberry’s is that it employs time elsewhere in the photograph too: as a source of narrative.

Or look at Jon Bois’s magnificent “17776: What Football Will Look Like in the Future,” which dives right into the familiar — maps, calendars, printer readouts — and estranges it, exactly to make the reader experience time. (I can’t even blockquote or screenshot it. It’s one piece you have to read for yourself.)

 
Time Collapsed

In 17776, the angel of history is a far-flung space probe that’s absorbed all of human culture, emotions, and sports statistics through radio transmissions. For Walter Benjamin in 1940, the Angel of History was a thought-experiment to try to understand all of history as an ongoing catastrophe.

These are chaotic times. But to the angel of history, it’s not a sudden eruption of chaos, but a manifestation of an ongoing vortex of chaos that stretches back indefinitely, without any unique origin. When we’re thrust into danger, in a flash we get a more truthful glimpse of history than the simple narratives that suffice in moments of safety. As Benjamin puts it, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

For James Baldwin, there were no angels, and no robots; only fallen, imperfect beings who’d likewise absorbed the surrounding culture, but hadn’t necessarily been humanized by it. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” writes Baldwin, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Baldwin and Benjamin were the two writers that best helped me understand this year, because they’d already seen how fascism and Jim Crow could fold time over on itself. Had he not been murdered, Emmett Till would have turned 76 in 2017; instead, a new book revealed what was long known, that he died because of a lie.

And in 2017, in a different sort of lie, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who self-identifies as black, changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. When Baldwin wrote “the world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” I don’t think this is what he was talking about.

It was not the first time that the curiously stagnant nature of time made me wonder if we were all dead and in Hell. It would not be the last.

 
The New Callousness

In 2017, knowing how to apologize properly is an essential skill. (You might even call it a new kind of liberal art.) The essential components of a genuine apology, according to Beth Polin:

1. An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
2. An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
3. An acknowledgment of responsibility.
4. A declaration of repentance.
5. An offer of repair.
6. A request for forgiveness.

Most of 2017’s public apologies whiffed on one or more of these. It was a year filled with soul-searching, but also much rejection of any real contrition. We might remember individual acts of selflessness, but the year was fueled by selfishness.

This photo by Kristi McCluer of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest became a metaphor for the summer, and the whole year.

Summer 2017 Fire

A man golfs with a wildfire raging behind him. One of the defining images of 2017.

The New Callousness, swept into power in the United States and elsewhere, led to widespread physical and political fatigue: Kayla Chadwick’s “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People” reflects the prevailing mood of exhausted incredulity.

It is probably fair to say that in every direction, 2017 involved a lot of human beings writing off other human beings. But pushing back against this were great technologist-humanists like the legendary Ellen Ullman, explaining why hackers need the humanities:

Algorithms surround us, determining how we get mortgages or apartment rentals, or whether we get hired. It is crucial that we open up those algorithms and take them apart, and then either put them back together or scrap and rewrite them. Algorithms may run our lives, but I really believe people make the future.

 
Sharp as Possible

Trying to figure out how to live through this year, I often thought about Thelonious Monk’s advice on how to play a gig:

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Don’t play the piano part. I’m playing that.

Don’t play everything (or every time). Let some things go by.

Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!

I also tried to remember Richard Feynman’s advice that if you can’t explain something simply, you probably don’t really understand it. I admire complexity, but whenever it’s possible, simplicity is better.

The best of all things may be to be able to ratchet the explanation’s complexity up or down depending on who your audience is: neuroscientist Bobby Kashturi explaining a connectome to a five-year-old, teenager, college student, grad student, and scholarly peer is a great example of that.

It all builds from the foundation. As Richard Hamming observed, knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. You grow from work you put in over time, simple things repeated until they become (or appear to become) complex. Learning effects, network effects, path dependence — over time, they all roll up, and who you’re becoming overtakes who you are.

 
The Great Eclipse

In August, after a jab step into Nebraska, Jason drove to Rayville, Missouri to witness and photograph the solar eclipse.

As totality approached, the sky got darker, our shadows sharpened, insects started making noise, and disoriented birds quieted. The air cooled and it even started to get a little foggy because of the rapid temperature change.

We saw the Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect… When the Moon finally slipped completely in front of the Sun and the sky went dark, I don’t even know how to describe it. The world stopped and time with it. During totality, Mouser took the photo at the top of the page. I’d seen photos like that before but had assumed that the beautifully wispy corona had been enhanced with filters in Photoshop. But no…that is actually what it looks like in the sky when viewing it with the naked eye (albeit smaller). Hands down, it was the most incredible natural event I’ve ever seen.

Eclipse 2017 by Mouser

A view of the eclipse from Rayville, MO. Photo by Mouser.

Jason also collected the best photos and videos of the eclipse, this NASA map showing the eclipse’s path across the continental United States. and eclipse maps of the United States from 2000 BC until 2117 AD. Even for those of us who just sat under a tree and watched the shadows turn into scallops, it was a special experience this year.

 
Did Someone Say Maps?

Talk about visualizing deep time! Here we go:

A Tapestry of Time and Terrain shows the ages of rock in different parts of the continental US.

Another map shows the hometown of nearly all of the warriors from Homer’s The Iliad.

This map of the Roman Empire c. 125 AD shows the major Roman roads as if they were London’s tube.

A collection of miniature metro maps shows world cities with smaller systems, from Bangalore to Tblisi.

There’s a timeline map of US immigration since 1820, a set of hand-drawn infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University, auto-generated maps of fantasy worlds, a topographical map of Venus (with geographic features named for historical and mythological women), and even an interactive map of personal debt.

There’s also The Atlas for the End of the World, which looks at critically endangered bioregions worldwide, and NASA’s striking nighttime map of the world, complete with a patch of void separating China from South Korea; the one nation, that, light-wise, may as well be open ocean.

 
So What Was Good?

There were so many essays and features and pop-up op-eds and shameless resistance grifters and rust belt whisperers that all tried to explain what was really happening in 2017. Almost always reporting either from a small red-state town or the comforts of one’s own imagination. And almost always thoroughly ignoring what was happening in the wider world in favor of warmed-over anecdotes and armchair realpolitik. All that noise nearly drowned out a few moments genuine insight. That’s always the case, but it all felt sharper this year.

I’ve already listed a lot of what I loved about this year — and everything I’ve mentioned appeared as a blog post or a Quick Link on Kottke.org. But two pieces of documentary art stand out for having a different set of ambitions, in search of a different kind of truth about 2017.

Flamingos in Planet Earth II

A flock of flamingos in Planet Earth II.

The first is Planet Earth 2. We already know that when the BBC breaks out Sir David Attenborough, they deliver the goods: a respite from our overweening humanity, with cutting-edge photography and cogent commentary. But PE2 went further, because it was just so goddamned beautiful.

The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. - but this is really some next-level shit.

The second is Whitman, Alabama. Jennifer Crandall’s serial documentary benefits enormously from the fact that it didn’t set out to explain what happened politically in 2016 or 2017. The filmmaking began much earlier as a meditation on the longstanding problems of democracy and diversity in America.

It’s a very different kind of film from Planet Earth 2. It’s not state of the art. It’s relentlessly human. It manifests the spirit of Walt Whitman: his generosity, his capaciousness, his gentle but insistent concern on the public and private lives of his fellow Americans.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Somewhere between those two, between the whole planet and just one town, between the deep time of the age of fire and the quickfire moments of the post-web internet, between the human and the indifference to humans, is where we are. It’s where we’ve been in 2017 and will be again in 2018, no matter what comes. It’s where we’ve always been, careening between catastrophe and epiphany, callousness and generosity, the divine and the mundane. With luck, we will not destroy ourselves. With luck, and grace, and hope, and because we have no choice, we will find a way to make it through.

My recent media diet, special Star Wars edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I’ve been busy with work, so leisure reading time has been hard to come by…but I’m still working my way through Why Buddhism is True. Lots of great TV and movies though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been watching Star Wars for almost 40 years, and I can’t tell if any of the movies are any good anymore. At this point, Star Wars just is. Even so, I really enjoyed seeing this and will try to catch it again in a week or two. This is a favorite review that mirrors many of my feelings. (A-)

Wormwood. Errol Morris is almost 70 years old, and this 6-part Netflix series is perhaps his most ambitious creation yet: is it a true crime documentary or a historical drama? Or both? Stylistically and thematically fascinating. See also Morris’s interview with Matt Zoller Seitz. (A)

Flipflop Solitaire. Oh man, this game sucked me waaaaay in. My best time for single suit so far is 1:25. (B+)

The Hateful Eight. I liked this way more than I expected based on the reviews, but it lacks the mastery of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino at his self-indulgent best though. (B+)

Our Ex-Life podcast. A divorced couple, who live almost next door to each other in a small town, talks about the good old days, the bad old days, and co-parenting their three kids. (B+)

Paths of the Soul. A documentary about a group of Tibetan villagers who undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa that has a genre-bending scripted feel to it. I’ve been thinking about this film since watching it…it’s full of incredible little moments. What do I believe in enough to undertake such a journey? Anything? (A)

Stranger Things 2. The plot of this show is fairly straight-forward, but the 80s vibe, soundtrack, and the young actors elevate it. (B+)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. As I was saying… (A-)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Huge Errol Morris fan (see above), but I was a bit bored by this. (C+)

The Crown, season two. This is one of my favorite new shows. I know she’s not the actual Queen, but I still want to have Claire Foy ‘round for tea. (A)

Blue Planet II. Just as good as Planet Earth II. Incredible stories and visuals. Premiering in the US in January. (A+)

The Moon 1968-1972. A charming little book of snapshots taken by astronauts on the Moon. (B+)

Donnie Darko. This one maybe hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps my commitment to Sparkle Motion is wavering? (B)

Part-Time Genius: Was Mister Rogers the Best Neighbor Ever? Yes, he was. (B+)

The Circle. This hit way way way way too close to home, and I couldn’t finish it. Also, not the best acting. (C)

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Really interesting, but I stopped listening to the audiobook because I wasn’t in the mood. (B)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know, for the kids. (B)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Charming, perhaps my favorite holiday short. (B+)

xXx. An un-ironic favorite. Sometimes, dumb fun is just the thing. (B)

Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Tim’s recent post about smell reminded me of this book, which is a masterclass in criticism. (A-)

Young Frankenstein. I’d only seen this once before, but I wasn’t feeling it this time around. (B-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

The year in photos 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2018

Photos 2017

Photos 2017

Photos 2017

Photos 2017

Photos 2017

Photos 2017

One of my favorite things to do at the end of the year is look back on the best and most newsworthy photos of the year. As I wrote last year:

Professional photographers and the agencies & publications that employ them are essential in bearing witness to the atrocities and injustices and triumphs and breakthroughs of the world and helping us understand what’s happening out there. It’s worth seeking out what they saw this year.

Indeed. I’ve selected six of my favorites culled from lists published by the following media outlets:

The Atlantic: Top 25 News Photos of 2017, 2017 in Photos, Hopeful Images From 2017
The New York Times: The Year in Pictures 2017
National Geographic: Best Photos of 2017
Agence France-Presse: Pictures of the Year 2017 (part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)
Reuters: Pictures of the Year 2017
Associated Press: The Year in Photos 2017
Time magazine: Top 100 Photos of 2017
CNN: 2017: The Year in Pictures
Petapixel: The Top 15 Photos on Flickr in 2017

Photos by Matthew Pillsbury, Joseph Eid, Ricardo Arduengo, Ariana Cubillos, Mohammad Ismail, and NASA (Cassini spacecraft).

Ask Dr. Time: Orality and Literacy from Homer to Twitter

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 05, 2018

DOCTOR TIME.png

Dr. Time is a nickname some friends gave me within the last couple of years. Its origin is silly, as nicknames’ often are: “Tim” autocorrects to “Time,” so hasty typing in a private Slack turns into a pseudo-persona. I also like that it’s a slant rhyme on Doctor Doom, my favorite supervillain. And in case you haven’t noticed, I have a pretty strong interest in time.

When Jason and I started talking about different ways we could collaborate on the site, the wildest was his suggestion that I write an advice column called “Ask Dr. Time.” I laughed out loud. The proposition was absurd. I don’t want to wade into the disaster that is my life, but the idea that anyone would ask me for personal advice, and that I would be foolish enough to give it, was laughable. Let’s just say I’ve made some poor choices and had some sad circumstances, and leave it at that.

One of those poor choices, however, was spending a lot of time studying philosophy, literature, mathematics, history, and metaphysics. Jason eventually got me to see that “Ask Dr. Time” didn’t have to be an advice column in a conventional sense. What if readers had problems that didn’t require common sense or finely honed interpersonal skills, but an ability to make sense of abstruse reasoning? What if they didn’t need a fancy Watson but an armchair Wittgenstein? What if kottke.org hosted the first metaphysical advice columnist? That proposition is still absurd, but it’s absurd in an interesting way. And “absurd in an interesting way” is what Dr. Time is all about. Not practical solutions, but philosophical entanglements and disentanglings. That I could do.

So on Fridays, from time to time. Dr. Time is going to appear, to answer reader questions that admit of no answer — sometimes here on Kottke.org, and sometimes at the Kottke newsletter I write, Noticing. For this particular entry, the blog seemed more appropriate — and besides, the newsletter was full.

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Our first question actually comes from Jason, who, like many of us, is enjoying Emily Wilson’s magnificent contemporary translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Jason was struck by this passage in the introduction, on the oral roots and possible oral composition of the Homeric epics:

The state of Homeric scholarship changed radically and permanently in the early 1930s, when a young American classicist named Milman Parry traveled to the then-Yugoslavia with recording equipment and began to study the living oral tradition of illiterate and semiliterate Serbo-Croat bards, who told poetic folk tales about the mythical and semihistorical events of the Serbian past. Parry died at the age of thirty-three from an accidental gunshot, and research was further interrupted by the Second World War. But Parry’s student Albert Lord continued his work on Homer, and published his findings in 1960, under the title The Singer of Tales. Lord and Parry proved definitively that the Homeric poems show the mark of oral composition.

The “Parry-Lord hypothesis” was that oral poetry, from every culture where it exists, has certain distinctive features, and that we can see these features in the Homeric poems—specifically, in the use of formulae, which enable the oral poet to compose at the speed of speech. A writer can pause for as long as she or he wants, to ponder the most fitting adjective for a particular scene; she can also go back and change it afterwards, on further reflection—as in the famous anecdote about Oscar Wilde, who labored all morning to add a comma, and worked all afternoon taking it out. Oral performers do not use commas, and do not have the luxury of time to ponder their choice of words. They need to be able to maintain fluency, and formulaic features make this possible.

Subsequent studies, building on the work of Parry and Lord, have shown that there are marked differences in the ways that oral and literate cultures think about memory, originality, and repetition. In highly literate cultures, there is a tendency to dismiss repetitive or formulaic discourse as cliche; we think of it as boring or lazy writing. In primarily oral cultures, repetition tends to be much more highly valued. Repeated phrases, stories, or tropes can be preserved to some extent over many generations without the use of writing, allowing people in an oral culture to remember their own past. In Greek mythology, Memory (Mnemosyne) is said to be the mother of the Muses, because poetry, music, and storytelling are all imagined as modes by which people remember the times before they were born.

Wilson goes on to consider the implications of the poem’s origins in orality for trying to figure out if there really was an historical Homer, a single author of the great poems — and if so, whether and how we could tell. She also rightly gives some of the Homeric critics a shot in the ribs for their assumptions about oral cultures, which tended not to be drawn from very many historical sources: if Parry had visited with Somali bards rather than singers from the Balkans, he may have come away with very different conclusions.

Orality, even primary orality, before any writing whatsoever, exists in rich and wide varieties. And Homeric orality was probably not so primary as all that: it’s exciting and accessible to us exactly because it’s on that seam between a dominant oral culture and an emerging written one.

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Jason’s question is a little bit different. Since I don’t quite remember what he originally asked, I’ll do a very oral-to-literate thing and paraphrase. What do we make of digital media forms like Twitter that are highly interactive and speechlike? Is this a kind of return to orality? Is there a little bit of the Homeric world in our smartphones, where we both “chat” with our mouths and our thumbs?

The answer to this last question is Yes — but in a different way from how it might first appear. We’re a little Homeric because we’re also on the cusp of multiple media regimes, making a great transformation of great civilizations. However, with some exceptions, we’re not especially oral. We’re exceedingly literate. We’re making written language and literacy do things even our grandparents, raised in the age of industrial print, wouldn’t quite recognize.

I used the phrase “primary orality” earlier, and it’s one I borrow from Walter Ong. Ong was a Jesuit priest and influential scholar of language and literature. He was very much in this Milman Parry tradition of thinking about the relationship of orality and literacy to forms of thought and shared culture. You can draw a line from Parry to Eric Havelock, who wrote the influential Preface to Plato, and to communications scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, and from there to Ong, Hugh Kenner, Northrop Frye, and a number of the more dominant media thinkers of the twentieth century in the English language.

What Ong helped conceptualize and popularize, especially in his book Orality and Literacy, was that in cultures with no tradition of literacy, orality had a fundamentally different character from those where literacy was dominant. It’s different again in cultures where literacy is known but scarce.

For instance, we tend to associate writing with official culture. We ask for papers, and papers are official. An official record has an official written form that unofficial forms of writing or any form of speech are considered less proper. Literacy and paper are also widespread enough that we expect everyone to have some paper.

A nonliterate culture, for obvious reasons, doesn’t work that way. You need an entirely different system of conventions to differentiate formal from informal, permanent from ephemeral — those concepts might not have even hold the same relationships to each other. One of those conventions, so common that it even exists outside the species, is song. And the songs we attribute to Homer are, for us, who exist in their shadow, the best songs ever written.

In the Romantic version of the Parry-Lord thesis, the oral world of Homer is a lost paradise, and our post-literate one, a fallen world of lesser creatures. This probably borrows too much from how Homeric poets feigned to feel about themselves relative to the Mycenaean civilizations that preceded them, and how the classical Greeks appeared to feel about Homer. It’s all representation of lost paradises all the way down.

Ong dodges more of this nostalgia than he’s usually given credit for, but there’s still an element of it, one that he sometimes seems to regret. (Regret for Nostalgia would make a good biography title for Ong.) In his case, it’s conflated with a methodological problem — how do we talk about primary orality (the orality of cultures with no knowledge of writing) in a culture that’s saturated with writing, whose entire intellectual edifice is premised on writing? In fact, oral culture never goes away: it persists in its own logic and suborns the existence of writing to its own ends.

Ong’s great example is classical and medieval rhetoric, which used books, book-based scholarly culture, and book-based modes of training to elevate oral argument to exquisite sophistication. You might also look at hip-hop, which seamlessly blends freestyle vocals, dance, graffiti, and turntable manipulation to create new forms of recording and improvisation. It’s never an either-or, but a constant restructuring.

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So, as to the original question: are Twitter and texting new forms of orality? I have a simple answer and a complex one, but they’re both really the same.

The first answer is so lucid and common-sense, you can hardly believe that it’s coming from Dr. Time: if it’s written, it ain’t oral. Orality requires speech, or song, or sound. Writing is visual. If it’s visual and only visual, it’s not oral.

The only form of genuine speech that’s genuinely visual and not auditory is sign language. And sign language is speech-like in pretty much every way imaginable: it’s ephemeral, it’s interactive, there’s no record, the signs are fluid. But even most sign language is at least in part chirographic, i.e., dependent on writing and written symbols. At least, the sign languages we use today: although our spoken/vocal languages are pretty chirographic too.

Writing, especially writing in a hyperliterate society, involves a transformation of the sensorium that privileges vision at the expense of hearing, and privileges reading (especially alphabetic reading) over other forms of visual interpretation and experience. It makes it possible to take in huge troves of information in a limited amount of time. We can read teleprompters and ticker-tape, street signs and medicine bottles, tweets and texts. We can read things without even being aware we’re reading them. We read language on the move all day long: social media is not all that different.

Now, for a more complicated explanation of that same idea, we go back to Father Ong himself. For Ong, there’s a primary orality and a secondary orality. The primary orality, we’ve covered; secondary orality is a little more complicated. It’s not just the oral culture of people who’ve got lots of experience with writing, but of people who’ve developed technologies that allow them to create new forms of oral communication that are enabled by writing.

The great media forms of secondary orality are the movies, television, radio, and the telephone. All of these are oral, but they’re also modern media, which means the media reshapes it in its own image: they squeeze your toothpaste through its tube. But they’re also transformative forms of media in a world that’s dominated by writing and print, because they make it possible to get information in new ways, according to new conventions, and along different sensory channels.

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Walter Ong died in 2003, so he never got to see social media at its full flower, but he definitely was able to see where electronic communications was headed. Even in the 1990s, people were beginning to wonder whether interactive chats on computers fell under Ong’s heading of “secondary orality.” He gave an interview where he tried to explain how he saw things — as far as I know, relatively few people have paid attention to it (and the original online source has sadly linkrotted away)1:

“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’

I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).

So tweets and text messages aren’t oral. They’re secondarily literate. Wait, that sounds horrible! How’s this: they’re artifacts and examples of secondary literacy. They’re what literacy looks like after television, the telephone, and the application of computing technologies to those communication forms. Just as orality isn’t the same after you’ve introduced writing, and manuscript isn’t the same after you’ve produced print, literacy isn’t the same once you have networked orality. In this sense, Twitter is the necessary byproduct of television.

Now, where this gets really complicated is with stuff like Siri and Alexa, and other AI-driven, natural-language computing interfaces. This is almost a tertiary orality, voice after texting, and certainly voice after interactive search. I’d be inclined to lump it in with secondary orality in that broader sense of technologically-mediated orality. But it really does depend how transformative you think client- and cloud-side computing, up to and including AI, really are. I’m inclined to say that they are, and that Alexa is doing something pretty different from what the radio did in the 1920s and 30s.

But we have to remember that we’re always much more able to make fine distinctions about technology deployed in our own lifetime, rather than what develops over epochs of human culture. Compared to that collision of oral and literate cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean that gave us poetry, philosophy, drama, and rhetoric in the classical period, or the nexus of troubadours, scholastics, printers, scientific meddlers and explorers that gave us the Renaissance, our own collision of multiple media cultures is probably quite small.

But it is genuinely transformative, and it is ours. And some days it’s as charming to think about all the ways in which our heirs will find us completely unintelligible as it is to imagine the complex legacy we’re bequeathing them.

  1. Thank the Internet Archive for the save! See also here.

Every commercial during the Super Bowl last night was an advertisement for Tide

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2018

The “It’s a Tide ad” commercials that aired during the Super Bowl is the best ad campaign I’ve seen in forever. With the lovable David Harbour winking at the camera, they effectively turned every commercial into a Tide ad, just like they said they would.

It’s not necessarily that you were looking at everyone’s clothes and wondering if they’d been washed with Tide, but you were constantly on the lookout for Harbour, wondering when he was going to pop out with a knowing smirk and say, “gotcha, it’s a Tide ad”. Even during the trailer for Solo, you weren’t entirely sure it wasn’t some cross-promotional thing that ended with Harbour picking a piece of lint off of Lando’s impeccably laundered outfit, looking straight into the camera, and saying, with a tilt of his head, “Tide ad” while Chewy softly bawls offscreen.

I kinda hate myself for loving these ads, but dammit they’re super clever. They used the energy of their opponents against them, like in ju-jitsu. Even the third-quarter ad for another laundry detergent (whose brand name I can’t even remember) seemed like a Tide ad. (Is life a Tide ad? ARRRHGHGGhh)

Wired’s (Slightly Belabored) Guide to Star Wars

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2018

Suppose you were an alien, from a galaxy long ago and far away, who otherwise completely resembled a modern human, and you arrived on Earth with the mission of completely understanding its major forms of entertainment, but in a hurry. Plot summaries and casting and merchandising are equally important. Like, you don’t know anything, but you only really have time to skim.

You, my extraterrestrial friend, are the perfect reader of The Wired Guide to Star Wars. It’s not bad, per se. It’s just unclear to me who it’s for.

My favorite bits come at the beginning and the end, when there’s almost room for some critical analysis. First, on the genesis of the story and the weird bits of genre fiction that cling to it like iron filings to a magnet:

Lucas kept the swords, the magic, and the knights [of mythic hero stories]. Then—and this was, perhaps, his greatest innovation—Lucas kept everything else, too. Wizards, dragons, princesses, horses, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, ships, ray guns, teddy bears, his family dog, pirates, car chases, Nazis, gangsters, samurai, dogfights, gunfights, swordfights, fist fights, gladiators, spies, castles, and robots. In space, traveling at hyperspeed.

And last, on the curious persistence of that overpacked universe, knitted together from so many fictions that it somehow became real:

The particular strength of the Star Wars shared universe—as opposed to, say, the Marvel shared universes, the DC Comics-based shared universe at Warner Brothers (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc.), or the ones that other brands have tried to spin up—is its depth. Possibly because of the nostalgia Lucas built into his very first movie for the days before the dark times of the Empire, the Star Wars universe feels like it exists even when you’re not looking at it. In the language of psychology, Star Wars is a paracosm, a complete world populated with autonomous characters. That’s why it’s possible for young-adult books about teenagers training to be Rebel pilots to coexist with half-billion-dollar movies about Rey and Kylo Ren, comic books about Darth Vader, augmented-reality apps that let you insert Stormtroopers into Instagrams, and Barbie-like fashion-play dolls of Jyn Erso, the hero of the Disney-era prequel Rogue One.

That paracosm is so vivid, so enduring, that Kennedy and Lucasfilm can continue to pursue an aggressive release schedule, one movie a year, for … well, forever, actually.

It’s almost a better thought exercise: instead of imagining what comes next in the Star Wars universe, try to imagine what earthly force could stop it.

Flyover video of Jupiter’s Europa

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2018

NASA engineer Kevin Gill stitched together images from two 1998 observations of Europa by the Galileo spacecraft to create this super smooth flyover video of the icy Jovian moon. The details:

Processed using low resolution color images (IR, Green, Violet) from March 29 1998 overlaying higher resolution unfiltered images taken September 26 1998. Map projected to Mercator, scale is approximately 225.7 meters per pixel, representing a span of about 1,500 kilometers.

Visualizing things that happen every second around the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2017

Every Second Mcdonalds

Every Second is a site that keeps track of various things that happen around the world by the second. For instance:

McDonald’s sells ~75 burgers, serves 810 customers, and makes about $800 every second of the day.

On Facebook, each second brings 52,000 new likes, 8500 new comments, and $261 in profit.

Apple sells 6.5 iPhones and handles 460,000 iMessages every second.

In 2016, Taylor Swift earned about $5 every second of the year. (via @daveg)

A visit to an American factory that’s been producing pencils since 1889

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2018

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

What a marvelous little photo essay by Christopher Payne and Sam Anderson about General Pencil, one of the last remaining pencil factories in America.

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

You can see many more of Payne’s photos of General Pencil on his website. Here’s Maria, her shirt and nails red to match the color of the pastel cores. There are also a couple of videos of the General Pencil factory:

And this older one that shows much more of the pencil-making process. Neither video includes a shot of the belt sander sharpening system…you can see that in action here.

See also I, Pencil, which details the construction of the humble pencil as a triumph of the free market, a history of pencil lead and how pencils are made, and how crayons are made, with videos from both Mister Rogers and Sesame Street. Oh, and you can buy some of General Pencil’s #2 Cedar Pointes right here.

My recent media diet for January 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I worked so much in January, mostly on getting the Noticing newsletter launched, that by the time the evening rolled around, all I wanted to do was collapse and watch a little TV or maybe go to a movie (I’ve seen all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year). But I still managed to read a couple books and am currently working my way through two more: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield at ICP Museum. A retrospective of Greenfield’s photographic survey of wealth. Also available in book form. (A-)

Lady Bird. This one’s been growing on me since I saw it. (B+/A-)

The Post. My main problem with this movie is that Streep, while otherwise excellent, does not properly sell the transformation of her character at the end. (A-)

The Farthest - Voyager in Space. I had no idea about many of the amazing things about the Voyager program. If I’d seen this as a kid, I might work for NASA right now. (A-)

Black Mirror season four. Perhaps not as strong as some of the previous seasons, but USS Callister is one of the best episodes of the series. (B+)

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. A compelling argument that Buddhists figured out thousands of years ago how to route around a human brain designed to delude us, a tendency that neuroscientists and psychologists have only learned of more recently. (B+)

Call Me By Your Name. A touching love story. One of the best movies of the year. (A)

Jane. Jane Goodall is a remarkable person, one of the best scientific researchers of our time. The footage in this movie of her early career is stunning, like it was filmed specifically for the documentary. (A-)

Jane soundtrack. Philip Glass. What more needs to be said? (A-)

Darkest Hour. Churchill is over-acted by Oldman, like an SNL character. I much prefer Lithgow’s take in The Crown. (C+)

The Shape of Water. This was ok, I suppose. (B)

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: interview with Errol Morris. I could listen to Errol Morris talk about film and truth all day. (A-)

Phantom Thread. One of those movies that gets better once you read about it afterwards. (B+)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand is amazing in this. I’m also unconvinced of the straightforward reading of the movie as the redemption of a racist cop. (B+)

Slow Burn. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. (A)

The New York Times For Kids. The rest of the paper should be more like this. (A-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

How to fold a circle into an ellipse

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 12, 2018

Believe it or not, I used to be a mathematician. And stupidly, I didn’t apply myself to applied math, stuff that uses computers and makes money. I was interested in 1) formal logic 2) the history of mathematics 3) the foundations of geometry, all of which quickly routed me into philosophy, i.e., obscurity.

But it does mean that I remain stupidly interested in things like ruler-and-compass constructions, axioms for foldable geometries, and the difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean spaces. Folding is especially interesting because it’s tactile, it doesn’t require tools, and it sort of requires you to mentally balance the idea of the paper as representative of the geometric plane AND paper as the tool you use to inscribe that plane… oh, forget it. Let me just show you this cool GIF:

I’m not sure how this fits into foldable geometries exactly since it imagines an infinite procedure, and geometric constructions are typically constrained to be finite. But still. It’s really cool to look at, play with, and think about.

A guide to the musical leitmotifs in Star Wars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2018

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross points to Frank Lehman’s Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII, which has been updated to include The Last Jedi. Ross goes on to note that composer John Williams did some of his strongest work for the film, deftly employing musical themes called leitmotifs to supplement (and sometimes subvert) the on-screen action. (Spoilers, ho!)

In early scenes set at a remote, ruined Jedi temple, we keep hearing an attenuated, beclouded version of the Force motto: this evokes Luke’s embittered renunciation of the Jedi project. As the young heroine Rey begins to coax him out of his funk, the Force stretches out and is unfurled at length. Sometimes, the music does all of the work of explaining what is going on. In one scene, Leia, Luke’s Force-capable sister, communicates telepathically with her son Kylo Ren, who has gone over to the dark side and is training his guns on her vessel. Leia’s theme is briefly heard against a dissonant cluster chord. Earlier in the saga, we might have been subjected to dialogue along the lines of “Don’t do this! I’m your mother!” Williams’s musical paraphrase is more elegant.

If you’re looking for a primer/refresher for the use of leitmotif in film, Evan Puschak’s video on Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings films is a good place to start. (via anil dash)

The Most 2017 Photos of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2017

Summer 2017 Fire

So 2017

So 2017

So 2017

I’m hoping to do my annual roundup of the photos of the year soon, but I wanted to separately highlight Alan Taylor’s list of The Most 2017 Photos Ever, “a collection of photographs that are just so 2017”. There’s distracted boyfriend, wildfires, fidget spinners, protestors, predatory men, the eclipse, kneeling, praying, shooting, and many photos of Trump looking dumb, bewildered, or both. Yeah, that about sums it up.

I am a little surprised though that the photo of the guy mowing his lawn with a tornado in the background didn’t make the cut…perhaps a little too metaphorically similar to the golfing photo above.

Man Mowing Lawn Tornado

The White Darkness, A Journey Across Antarctica

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Henry Wolsey

After a long hiatus during which he wrote The Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann is back in the pages of the New Yorker with The White Darkness, a piece about modern-day polar explorer Henry Worsley, who attempted to cross Antartica in 2015, solo and unaided.

By the middle of January, 2016, he had travelled more than eight hundred miles, and virtually every part of him was in agony. His arms and legs throbbed. His back ached. His feet were blistered and his toenails were discolored. His fingers had started to become numb with frostbite. In his diary, he wrote, “Am worried about my fingers — one tip of little finger already gone and all others very sore.” One of his front teeth had broken off, and the wind whistled through the gap. He had lost some forty pounds, and he became fixated on his favorite foods, listing them for his broadcast listeners: “Fish pie, brown bread, double cream, steaks and chips, more chips, smoked salmon, baked potato, eggs, rice pudding, Dairy Milk chocolate, tomatoes, bananas, apples, anchovies, Shredded Wheat, Weetabix, brown sugar, peanut butter, honey, toast, pasta, pizza and pizza. Ahhhhh!”

He was on the verge of collapse. Yet he was never one to give up, and adhered to the S.A.S.’s unofficial motto, “Always a little further” — a line from James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” The motto was painted on the front of Worsley’s sled, and he murmured it to himself like a mantra: “Always a little further … a little further.”

This was the same trip attempted by Ben Saunders a few months ago. It’s also worth noting the Snow Fall aesthetic of the piece. What is it about winter that inspires this sort of multimedia package? Is it the white space?

First clip from the upcoming Mister Rogers documentary

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary film about Mister Rogers, is premiering at the Sundance film festival tomorrow. This short clip is the first look we’ve gotten at the movie:

Love is at the root of everything — all learning, all parenting, all relationships — love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.

Love is the root of all learning. That has been a real theme around here lately. In my introduction to Noticing, I noted this recap by A.O. Scott of a favorite scene in Lady Bird:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

Oh, I can’t wait for this movie! (thx, katharine)

The art and science of carnival games and how to win them

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2017

Mark Rober and some friends staked out the carnival games at a local fair for the day in order to find the scams and the ones you can win…if you know how. Armed with info from their observations, Rober hit the fair with a Mets player who could dominate all the throwing games and cleaned them out.

I spent some time at a county fair this past summer and, if you’re with little kids, the carnies will sometimes show you how to win the games that are winnable (like the basket toss). But even after he was shown, my son still couldn’t get that damned wiffle ball in the basket on the two-out-of-three times needed to win a prize.

A short film about a one-of-a-kind collection of letterpress plates for printing film advertisements

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2018

In 1999, two friends went into a Nebraska antique shop and found a massive collection of letterpress blocks and plates that were used to make advertisements for movies in newspapers. They bought the whole shebang for $2000 and have spent the last 17 years cataloging and cleaning the 60,000 plates & blocks (here is just a partial inventory). The collection, which spans nearly the entire history of the film industry from the silent era to 1984, was recently appraised at ~$10 million and is available for acquisition.

The short film embedded above is a must-see for design/movie nerds…my jaw hit the floor when these pristine posters for movies that were 50, 60, 70 years old started rolling off of the letterpress. I mean, look at this stuff!

Movie Letterpress

Movie Letterpress

Movie Letterpress

Note: I flipped the images of the plates so they would be readable. The actual plates are mirror images of the printed advertisements. Here’s what a print made from a plate looks like:

Movie Letterpress

How 90s WWII nostalgia turned the US response to 9/11 into The Good War

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2018

The Good War is a comic (graphic novella?) by Mike Dawson and Chris Hayes that argues that 90s nostalgia for World War II — Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation — led the US to wrongly associate 9/11 with Pearl Harbor and the “War on Terror” with WWII, leading to all kinds of disastrous consequences.

Good War Comic

The comic is based on The Good War on Terror, a piece Hayes wrote in 2006.

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” He wasn’t alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.

Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert—first in rhetoric, later in fact—a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.

As Hayes hints at in the essay, the Vietnam War might have been a better model for how Americas should have reacted to 9/11. (via daring fireball)

Ursula K. Le Guin and “gender ghetto” of the Golden Age of science fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2018

Science fiction great Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday at age 88. Le Guin was the subject of this long New Yorker piece from a couple of years back, but I’d like to also direct your attention to a short piece Le Guin wrote for the magazine in 2012. In it, she describes how her editor submitted a short story of hers to Playboy under the name of U.K. Le Guin and then informed them after it was accepted that the writer was a woman. Playboy then requested to run the article under her initials so as not to frighten their male readership.

Unwilling to terrify these vulnerable people, I told Virginia to tell them sure, that’s fine. Playboy thanked us with touching gratitude. Then, after a couple of weeks, they asked for an author biography.

At once, I saw the whole panorama of U.K.’s life as a gaucho in Patagonia, a stevedore in Marseilles, a safari leader in Kenya, a light-heavyweight prizefighter in Chicago, and the abbot of a Coptic monastery in Algeria.

We’d tricked them slightly, though, and I didn’t want to continue the trickery. But what could I say? “He is a housewife and the mother of three children”?

I wrote, “It is commonly suspected that the writings of U.K. Le Guin are not actually written by U.K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.”

Game to the last, Playboy printed that. And my husband and I bought a red VW bus, cash down, with the check.

Yessss. BTW, if you’re wondering where to start with Le Guin, both the NYPL and Jo Walton at Tor recommend A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, the description of which reads:

A lone human ambassador is sent to Winter, an alien world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants can change their gender whenever they choose. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…

The invention of the bendy straw

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

In September of 1937, Joseph Friedman was awarded a U.S. Patent for a “drinking tube” with a flexible neck, aka the bendy straw.

Bendy Straw Patent

My invention provides a flexible portion in the straw positioned near one end so that a bend may be made at a point above the rim or lip of the container and the upper, or mouthpiece end of the straw may then be angularly directed to enter the mouth readily without the customer assuming an awkward position.

Derek Thompson describes the moment of inspiration and subsequent experimentation that led to the bendy straw’s invention:

Half a century after Marvin Chester Stone found grass in his julep, Joseph B. Friedman was sitting at his brother’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop, in the 1930s, watching his little daughter Judith fuss over a milkshake. She was drinking out of a paper straw, so we can be assured that the milkshake did not taste like grass. But since Stone’s paper straw was designed to be straight, little Judith was struggling to drink it up.

Friedman had an idea. As the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center explains, he brought a straw to his home, where he liked to tinker with inventions like “lighted pencils” and other newfangled writing equipment. The straw would be a simple tinker. A screw and some string would do.

Friedman inserted a screw into the straw toward the top (see image). Then he wrapped dental floss around the paper, tracing grooves made by the inserted screw. Finally, he removed the screw, leaving a accordion-like ridge in the middle of the once-straight straw. Voila! he had created a straw that could bend around its grooves to reach a child’s face over the edge of a glass.

Both straws and corrugated tubing had long existed, but no one thought to put them together until Friedman’s malt shop eureka.

Verena, an iOS app to help protect people in abusive situations

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2018

Verena

Verena is an iOS app designed to protect and help guide you through situations like “domestic violence, hate crimes, abuse, and bullying”. The app was developed with the LGBTQ+ community in mind, but can be used by anyone facing abuse or harassment.

Create an account, and develop a network of emergency contacts, who can be alerted without leaving a trace on your phone.

Use the emergency feature to be guided through your problem, giving you the resources you need to get out of the emergency safely.

Create incident logs to keep track of abuse, hate crimes, or bullying for reference and later reportation.

Select the preferences that match your situation, such as using incognito mode to hide the app behind a math user interface, shutdown which can permanently disable the app if found by an abuser, and emergency access which allows you to alert all of your contacts with the press of a button.

Open resources to find and get routed to hospitals, shelters, and police stations near you.

Use timer to set a specified amount of time. If the timer isn’t canceled, Verena will send an emergency alert to all contacts with your last known location.

Select location to see your current location, the distance between you and your different contacts, and get routed to them as well.

Verena was built by Amanda Southworth, a 16-year-old iOS developer who created the app to help her LGBTQ+ friends in the aftermath of the election of a known abuser to the White House in 2016:

Seeing her friends — many of whom are part of the LGBT community — worry the day after the presidential election in November 2016 inspired her to create the app. “That day I saw all of my friends crying and it was really upsetting, you know, when people you love are scared,” she says. “So I decided, I’m going to make something so that I know they’re safe.”

Verena, which takes its name from a German name that means “protector,” allows users to find police stations, hospitals, shelters, and other places of refuge in times of need. They can also designate a list of contacts to be alerted via the app in an emergency.

Southworth, whose first iOS app was a “mental health toolkit” called anxietyhelper, attended Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this past summer and wrote about it for Teen Vogue. She also gave a TEDx talk about “how her struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts inspired her start coding”.

The imagined decaying storefronts of Facebook, Google, and Instagram

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

Social Decay

Social Decay

Social Decay

For a project called Social Decay, Andrei Lacatusu imagines what it would look like if big social media companies were brick & mortar and went the way of Blockbuster, Woolworth’s, and strip malls across America. These are really well done…check out the close-up views on Behance.

An appreciation of the emergent beauty of Tetris

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Martin Hollis has fallen in love with Tetris. In this series of tweets, he explains that “Tetris is good because of the emergent things that arise from simple rules”.

In the beginning, you gather heuristics like ‘try to keep the surface flat and without overhangs, and without holes’. These rules of thumbs are emergent.

As you learn more, you realize that every one of your heuristics is wrong, and in the right circumstances a hole can be built and destroyed in two moves, or in more, or in less, to your considerable advantage.

Ultimately, everything becomes dynamic, and the rules of best play turn out to be baroque. The complexity seems to me to be large compared to any other video game.

Hollis also rightly notes that like other great games, sports, and human endeavors, Tetris boils down to a battle with the self, which I’ve previously stated, perhaps absurdly, is “the true struggle in life”.

Tetris produces narrative, or narrative emerges from the shape and flow of the surface, your hopes and needs, and the wax and wane of your doom.

You come to believe you are in control of your fate and that as the board stacks up, that is a monument to your mistakes.

A reversal feels like a release from a crushing end, or an angel’s redemption. You snatch a victory from death. You put a twist in your story.

Tetris is about you. That is its simple power. (via ben pieratt)

Synchronized basketball

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2018

Early on in a Suns/Trail Blazers game in October, a Trail Blazers pass was stolen and, as if in a ballet performance, all five Phoenix Suns players turned at the same time and began running up the court. I dare you to watch this fewer than five times:

You couldn’t have choreographed that any better. In the New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham writes about other such moments in the NBA, like this one and these:

Bodies and minds as amazing as these are made similar by training. The smallest stimulus — an obviously fishy pass, an off-kilter jump shot, an unexpected whistle — fires thousands of responses, all honed by hours of practice and study. You get hit lots of times and you learn how to fall. Every so often, instinct kicks in and only one option seems possible: plant a foot, turn around, and run. Style is great, but sometimes it’s nice to watch it fall away.

What if Chewbacca sounded like Pee-wee Herman?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2018

This is probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever posted and I love it.

Time lapse video of a man building a log cabin from scratch

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

Over the course of several month, Shawn James built a log cabin all by himself in the wilderness of Canada.

Once on site, I spent a month reassembling the cabin on a foundation of sand and gravel. Once the log walls were up, I again used hand tools to shape every log, board and timber to erect the gable ends, the wood roof, the porch, the outhouse and a seemingly endless number of woodworking projects.

For the roof, I used an ancient primitive technology to waterproof and preserve the wood - shou sugi ban, a fire hardening wood preservation technique unique to Japan and other areas in northern climates.

See also the Primitive Technology guy, who recently bought a new property and is starting from scratch building on it.

My picks for the 2018 Oscars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2018

It’s been yeaaars since I watched or even paid much attention to the Oscars, but this year I’ve somehow managed to watch all nine movies nominated for Best Picture, along with most of the films featured in the other main categories (actor, actress, director, cinematography). Here’s my completely subjective ranking for Best Picture:

1. Dunkirk
2. Call Me by Your Name
3. The Post
4. Lady Bird
5. Phantom Thread
6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
7. Get Out
8. The Shape of Water
9. Darkest Hour

Dunkirk and Call Me By Your Name are my definite 1 & 2 (same as David Ehrlich, just reversed), but the next three could be in any order…putting Phantom Thread in the fifth spot doesn’t do it justice. Three Billboards, The Post, and Phantom Thread all share the same problem — a significant shift in a main character’s behavior/character without the onscreen action properly selling it — but there were other things to recommend them. I don’t know why I didn’t like Get Out or The Shape of Water more, but they just didn’t do it for me. I don’t get the love for Darkest Hour…Oldman as Churchill shamelessly chews scenery and The Crown & Dunkirk were much better recent takes on Churchillian times. I don’t expect Dunkirk to actually win — nor perhaps should it — but it was my favorite.

For Best Lead Actress, I have not seen I, Tonya yet, but it would be difficult to top Frances McDormand in Three Billboards. For Best Lead Actor, I haven’t seen Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. but among the others I would go with Timothée Chalamet. For Best Director, Jordan Peele should get the nod for somehow creating a coherent socially conscious horror satire documentary, although I would happily cheer either Greta Gerwig or PT Anderson winning. And for Best Cinematography, I have not seen Mudbound, for which Rachel Morrison is the first ever woman to be nominated in this category, but Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049 are two of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in the past few years; I would give it to Hoyte van Hoytema in an upset over Roger Deakins, who inexplicably has never won this category.

The best of my media diet for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2018

EOY Media 2017

In 2017, I kept track of almost everything I read, listened to, watched, and experienced. I don’t know about “the best”, but as the year draws to a close, these are the things that I thought about the most, that made me see things in a slightly different way, or taught me a little something about myself. I marked my very favorites with a (*). (Above, my #bestnine images of 2017 from Instagram.)

Books. I don’t know how many books I read this year, but it was fewer than I wanted. My work demands a lot of reading online, so when I’ve finished with that most days, reading for leisure or enrichment is often not enticing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann were perhaps the best books I read…you’ll hardly find anyone who speaks ill of either one.

Wonderland by Steven Johnson pulls together technology, culture, and science in a way that I aspire to.

I enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem when I read it early on in 2017 but it grew in my esteem as the year went on. Crazy, but I might reread soon?

The Devil in the White City. A masterful dual tale of two men who seized the opportunity due to cultural and technological changes in late 1800s America, told through the events of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

I reread Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote…no recent book has helped me more in figuring out a path forward in life.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 2 blew my doors off. I have never felt so uncannily like a writer has been rummaging around in my brain. *

Television. What even is television anymore? To paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And I saw a lot of it this year. And much of it was excellent.

The Crown (season two). I kept expecting this to falter as it went on, but it never did. A keen portrait of changing times and a dying empire.

Mad Men. Rewatched it all the way through for the first time since it aired. One of the all-time great TV shows.

Halt and Catch Fire (season four). Very strong finish to a great series. I kind of want a season five in about 5 or 6 years that’s set in 2002. Still can’t believe I got to be on the show for like 2 seconds.

The Vietnam War. I feel like this didn’t get the attention it deserved. Along with OJ: Made in America, one of the best documentaries of recent years in terms of understanding the United States culturally and politically.

Wormwood. What the hell is even a documentary anyway? Errol Morris is at the top of his game with this one.

The Handmaid’s Tale. My favorite drama series of the year. So hard to watch but also essential and so well done. *

Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Incredible. Aside from the eclipse, these are the best things on this list. *

Honorable mentions: I anticipated Game of Thrones more than anything each week, but I’ve already forgotten most of what happened. There were dragons? Big Little Lies was very solid and enjoyable, but the last episode was some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Zoom out a little, and The Defiant Ones was actually about creativity, collaboration, and management.

Movies: Though I haven’t seen many of the end-of-the-year movies yet, I felt like this was a strong-ish movie year. But only four films stuck with me.

The Handmaiden. I don’t even know how to classify this film, but I wish they’d make more like it.

Maybe Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t great, but I saw it twice and have thought about it often since. Amazing visual experience.

Paths of the Soul. A window into the lives of people very unlike mine. Underscores how much living “the simple life” in wealthy countries is made possible by good infrastructure, social safety nets, and privilege. The simple life in most of the world is neither a choice nor easy.

Dunkirk. Absolutely thrilling. My favorite movie of the year. *

Music. Let’s be honest, Lemonade was probably the album of the year. But I guess some good music came out in 2017 as well. Oh, and I’m old so I still listen to albums.

Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples got the most airplay in my car this summer and fall. Early fave track was Crabs in a Bucket but BagBak came on strong later in the year.

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. Probably my favorite album of the year…every track hits the mark. *

4:44 by Jay-Z. The contrast between his last album (lazy, full of swagger) and this one (introspective, urgent) could not be more stark. This wasn’t the best or even my favorite album of the year, but I thought about it more than any of the others I listened to this year. Worth noting this album was only possible because of Beyonce’s superior Lemonade…imagine the hypothetical Jay-Z album had she not slammed him to the wall with that.

Experiences, etc. As I said on Instagram, I prioritized experiences over things this year. But because things like books, movies, and TV shows are easier to summarize and review, I kept most of the experiences for myself. You have to hold some things back or you lose your edges.

Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists and I’m grateful I got to spend a few hours witnessing how his career came together and his life fell apart. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to.

D3 Traveller. I travelled quite a bit this year, and it would have been more difficult without this bag. Worth the huge splurge.

Sainte-Chapelle. I am not religious at all, but you can’t help but feel something in this wonderful building.

iPhone X. A remarkable machine.

Rijksmuseum. I keep going back to two works I saw here: Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (I spent a good 15 minutes with this one) and this early self-portrait by Rembrandt (the lighting! the curls!).

The total solar eclipse. By far the best thing that I witnessed this year…or maybe in my life. It still gives me chills just thinking about it. *

Custom minifigs of Star Trek: The Next Generation characters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

Star Trek Minifigs

Oh these are cool: custom-made minifigs of all your favorite Star Trek:TNG characters. The Wesley Crusher one is kinda funny, but Wil Wheaton makes a good case as to why it’s unfair to the character. And it turns out, you can get custom minifigs for just about everything, from LeBron James to Game of Thrones to yourself. (via io9)

What time isn’t the Super Bowl?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Superb Owl

This year’s Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots will not take place before Sunday, February 4th at 6:30 pm ET or after ~10:15 pm ET that same day. So, if you’d like to not watch the Super Bowl or Justin Timberlake’s halftime musical performance live from Minneapolis, Minnesota, just don’t turn on NBC or the NBC Sports Live stream between 6:30 and 10:15 that evening.

(Superb Owl photo by Brad Wilson.)

A choir imitates a thunderstorm

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2018

Before they start to sing Toto’s Africa, the Angel City Chorale perfectly imitates a thunderstorm by rubbing their hands together, snapping, and stomping their feet. You might want some headphones for this one. What a cool effect.

Update: This performance is likely a reference to a 2008 performance of Africa by Perpetuum Jazzile, a vocal group from Slovenia.

Their thunder is definitely better. (thx, scott)

Update: Ok, this appears to be the original choir thunderstorm by the Kearsney College Choir.

As Rion said when she sent me this link, “I’d never run into them before but now I can’t believe how many Toto/rainstorm videos there are on YouTube”. (thx, rion)

Candide Thovex skis the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2018

In a video for Audi, Candide Thovex skis in locations around the world without any snow. He skis in the jungle, on water, on volcanic ash, down sand dunes, and across the Great Wall of China. The sand dunes in particular look incredibly fun. I wonder how many pairs of skis he ripped up making this?

See also Thovex’s past videos: a fun run down the mountain, more creative freeskiing hijinks from Candide Thovex, and his previous commercial for Audi (love the ending).

Pixelized 16-bit portrait of Ben Franklin from the 1840s

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2018

Pixel Ben Franklin

Ok, that’s not actually a screenshot from the hit Sega Genesis game Benjamin Franklin’s Polymath Academy. It’s a scan of an embroidery pattern from the 1840s or 1850s based on this engraving. Here’s a closer view:

Pixel Ben Franklin

The scan is part of an ongoing project by the Library of Congress to scan their entire Popular Graphic Arts collection, a wonderful trove of prints, advertisements, and other printed documents from circa 1700 to 1900. (via @john_overholt)

Black superheroes and the secret history of a genre

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 29, 2017

blade-pop.jpg

In Februrary, BAMcinematek in Brooklyn will host a film series of black superheroes, ending with the opening of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.

It’s an eclectic mix: Blade and Blade 2 are there (but not Blade 3) as well as Catwoman and Robert Townsend’s Meteor Man, but also Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet, the alien invasion film Attack the Block and the alien cop story Men In Black.

Even Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Forrest Whitaker) and Strange Days are, in some sense, superhero films. More importantly, they’re part of the context for Black Panther just as much as Thor: Ragnarok or Iron Man 3, even if it’s along a different axis.

Hollywood is making enough “straight” superhero films that they’re metastasizing into the broader film culture. They’re not as readily a definable genre as they were from the Richard Donner Superman, through the Tim Burton Batman and Sam Raimi Spider-Man. Even the Blade movies, which really kicked off the current wave of superhero films, were coming at the genre from a different angle, in no small part because the protagonist and multiple leads were black.

Genre lines are always more imaginary than real. Samurai movies borrowed from westerns, who borrowed right back; our favorite space operas borrowed from adventure serials and swashbuckler epics. Now we have superhero thrillers, superhero love stories, superhero tween dramas, and superhero westerns. And other movies are borrowing pieces from superhero films in turn. So, too, our histories of those genres are getting scrambled all over again.

Black Panther is likely to push the genre boundaries further, into sci-fi, fantasy, and a thriving tradition of black superhero film. It’s just going to be bigger and better than all of them, is all. (Can you tell I’m excited about this movie?)

How Haiti became poor

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 12, 2018

haiti.jpg

In case you missed it, the President of the United States called Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries “shitholes,” then pretended like he didn’t say it, but basically said it all over again.

This matters not just because it’s racist (the President is racist, in fact, he is professionally racist), because it’s vulgar (“shithole,” one of the all-time great swear words, is forever sullied by this), and because it’s catastrophically bad for foreign and domestic relations. It matters in part because of the history of Haiti, and the history of racist discourse about Haiti.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor of education and scholar who’s closely studied these narratives, writes:

The reason why White nationalists like 45 always name Haiti because the Haitian nation & people are unique. Haiti defeated Napoleon, threw off the chains of slavery, and exposed the lie of White supremacy & European imperialism. So there’s no end to their hatred for Haiti.

Jonathan Katz, a journalist and former AP correspondent in Haiti who wrote The Big Truck That Went By about Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed, has a longer thread spelling out how these narratives about Haiti were generated and how they work. Here’s a thick excerpt:

In order to do a victory lap around the GDP difference between, say, Norway and Haiti, you have to know nothing about the history of the world. That includes, especially, knowing nothing real about the history of the United States… You’d have to not know that the French colony that became Haiti provided the wealth that fueled the French Empire — and 2/3 of the sugar and 3/4 of the coffee that Europe consumed…

You’d have to not realize that Haiti was founded in a revolution against that system, and that European countries and the United States punished them for their temerity by refusing to recognize or trade with them for decades. You’d have to not know that Haiti got recognition by agreeing to pay 150 million gold francs to French landowners in compensation for their own freedom. You’d have to not know that Haiti paid it, and that it took them almost all of the 19th century to do so.

You’d then have to not know that Haiti was forced to borrow some money to pay back that ridiculous debt, some of it from banks in the United States. And you’d have to not know that in 1914 those banks got President Wilson to send the US Marines to empty the Haitian gold reserve… [You’d] have to not know about the rest of the 20th century either—the systematic theft and oppression, US support for dictators and coups, the US invasions of Haiti in 1994-95 and 2004…

In short, you’d have to know nothing about WHY Haiti is poor (or El Salvador in kind), and WHY the United States (and Norway) are wealthy. But far worse than that, you’d have to not even be interested in asking the question. And that’s where they really tell on themselves… Because what they are showing is that they ASSUME that Haiti is just naturally poor, that it’s an inherent state borne of the corruption of the people there, in all senses of the word.

And let’s just say out loud why that is: It’s because Haitians are black.

Racists have needed Haiti to be poor since it was founded. They pushed for its poverty. They have celebrated its poverty. They have tried to profit from its poverty. They wanted it to be a shithole. And they still do.

If Haiti is a shithole, then they can say that black freedom and sovereignty are bad. They can hold it up as proof that white countries—and what’s whiter than Norway—are better, because white people are better. They wanted that in 1804, and in 1915, and they want it now.

The history of Haiti is weird because it is absurdly well-documented, yet totally poorly known. It’s hard not to attribute that to ideology. We don’t teach the Haitian Revolution the way we teach the American, or the French, or the Mexican, because it’s a complicated story. Kids are more likely to hear variations of “Haiti formed a pact with the devil to defeat Napoleon” (this is real thing, I swear) than Toussaint Louverture’s or Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s names.

Also, while Haiti’s revolution was an early, signature event in world history-the first time a European power would be overthrown by an indigenous army (but not the last)-the causes of Haiti’s poverty are basically identical with those of almost every poor nation around the world: a history of exploitation, bad debt, bad geopolitics, and bad people profiting off of that poverty (almost all of them living elsewhere). And this is basically true about poverty in American cities as well (with all the same attendant racist myths).

Some recommended reading:

Supercut of cliched Instagram travel photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Now that leisure travel is widely accesible, the internet connects everyone, and most people have connected cameras on them 24/7, one of the side effects is that everyone’s vacation snaps look pretty much the same. Oliver KMIA collected hundreds of travel photos from Instagram, grouped them together by subject — passport shot, Mona Lisa, side mirror selfie, Leaning Tower, ramen bowl — and assembled them into this two-minute video of our collective homogenized travel experience. And it’s not just travel…vast swaths of Instagram are just variations on a theme:

Of course, my Instagram feed has no such cliches*ahem*. (via @choitotheworld)

Update: In his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain De Botton talks about the difficulty with cliches.

We may ask why Proust objected to phrases that had been used too often. After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have been proved rightly popular?

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject. Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

In other words, taking a photo of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or jumping in the middle of the road in Utah are really good ideas — that’s why lots of people do it — but each successive photo of the same thing doesn’t tell us anything new about those places, experiences, or people. (via mark larson)

Sesame Street puppeteers explain how they play their characters

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2017

If you grew up watching Sesame Street but are now old enough to realize that Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar aren’t actually real, this behind-the-scenes video about how the puppets are controlled is a must-see. What struck me most was that the puppeteers do both the movement and the voice for these characters…the guy inside the Snuffleupagus suit is actually speaking the lines. It would be so easy to separate the two activities with voiceovers added later, but I bet the final result wouldn’t be as good as using the on-set full-body performance.

See also Four things about Mr. Snuffleupagus, including the unusual reason his existence was finally revealed to the grownups on the show. (via @simplebits)

Nintendo introduces Labo, DIY interactive cardboard toys for the Switch

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

Nintendo has introduced a new product category that harkens all the way back to Duck Hunt, Robbie the Robot, and papercraft models the company produced in the 70s. Labo is a suite of cardboard peripherals for the Switch that you construct yourself and then play using the Switch console screen and controllers. Pianos, fishing rods, car accelerator pedals. Just watch the video…this really blew my mind.

Caine’s Arcade anyone? I love that Nintendo is making DIY cardboard toys. Love it. I think I may have to get a Switch now. You can preorder the Labo Robot Kit (a wearable robot suit) and the Labo Variety Kit (cars, bike, house, piano, fishing rod) on Amazon…they come out on April 20.

Ask Dr. Time: Explaining Mathematics

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2018

DOCTOR TIME.png

Today’s question is surprisingly tricky, as even the letter writer acknowledges:

My question is one I’m fumbling to articulate. I’m a math teacher and writer. (I’m a writer in the sense that I write, not in the sense that I get published or paid for writing.) I write a lot about teaching, but I’ve also been trying to get a handle on how I can write about math.

Here’s the question: is it possible to write about math in a deep and accessible way?

This is a question that sends me off on a lot of different questions. What does it mean to understand math? What does it mean to understand a metaphor? Are there are great literary works that are also mathematical?

Ultimately, though, I don’t know how to think about this yet. I’m hoping to eventually figure this out by learning math and writing about it…but that’s slow, so maybe Dr. Time can offer advice?

The obvious answer to this question is yes, of course it’s possible to write about math in a deep and accessible way. Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Godel, Escher, Bach is a 777-page doorstop that’s also a beloved bestseller. If you’re looking to satisfy an existence requirement, that book has your back. I’ll even stipulate that for every intellectual subject, not just mathematics, there exists a work that satisfies this deep-but-accessible requirement. It’s just like how there’s always a bigger prime number. It’s out there; we just have to find it.

On the other hand, math seems hard. And I think it seems hard for Reasons. Here’s a big one: mathematicians and popularizers of mathematics are perhaps understandably obsessed with understanding mathematics as such. The want to explain the totality of mathematics, or the essence, rather than finer problems like distinguishing between totalities and essences.

If you look at the other sciences, they don’t do this. It’s only very rarely that you get a Newton, Darwin, or Einstein who sets out to grab his or her entire subject with both hands and rethink our fundamental understanding of its foundations. Imagine a biologist who wants to explain life, in its essence and totality, at the micro and macro level. They’d be understandably stumped. Even physicists, when they want to explain something big and weird to the public, stick to things like a subatomic particle they’re hoping to discover or the behavior of one of Saturn’s moons. They don’t try to explain physics. They explain a problem in physics.

When mathematicians do that, they’re usually pretty successful. The Konigsberg Bridge Problem is charming as hell. Russell’s and Godel’s paradoxes have whole books written about them, but can also be told in the form of jokes. Even Fourier Transforms can be broken down and made beautiful with a little bit of technical help.

So I think the key, in part, is to resist that mathematicians’ tendency to abstract away individual problems into general solutions or categories of solutions or entire subfields, and spend some time with the specific problems that mathematicians are or have been interested in. But it also helps a lot if, in that specific problem, you get that mathematical move of discarding whatever doesn’t matter to the structure of the problem. After all, that’s a big part of what you’re trying to teach: how to think like a mathematician. You just to have to unlearn what a mathematician already assumes first.

A pair of oil paintings algorithmically pixelized into treemaps of color

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2018

Dimitris Ladopoulos

Dimitris Ladopoulos

Greek visual designer Dimitris Ladopoulos took two of his favorite oil paintings, one by Rembrandt and the other (confusingly) by Rembrandt Peale, and used a piece of 3D modeling software called Houdini and pixelized them into treemaps of color. They look great in 2D (above), but he also rendered them in 3D with a worn texture:

Dimitris Ladopoulos

Those worn plastic rectangles with the beveled edges are reminding me of something in particular, like a piece of electronics. Something from Sony maybe? Anyone? (via colossal)

Lost in Light: how light pollution obscures our view of the night sky

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2017

Because of light pollution from urban areas, many people around the world don’t know what the night sky actually looks like. Sriram Murali made a video to illustrate light pollution levels by shooting the familiar constellation of Orion in locations around the US with different amounts of light pollution, from bright San Francisco to a state park in Utah with barely any light at all. In SF, about all you can see are the handful of stars that make up Orion’s belt, arms, and legs. But as the locations get darker, the sky explodes in detail and Orion is lost among the thousands of visible stars (and satellites if you look closely).

This video is a followup to one Murali made of the Milky Way in increasingly dark locations, which is even more dramatic:

But he did the second video with Orion as a reference because many people had no concept of what the Milky Way actually looks like because they’ve never seen it before. Murali explains why he thinks light pollution is a problem:

The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings — more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be.

The measurement scale for sky darkness is called the Bortle scale, as explained by David Owen in his wonderful piece in the New Yorker:

In Galileo’s time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9, at the other extreme of the scale, and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is not the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, a hundred and seventy-five miles away. To see skies truly comparable to those which Galileo knew, you would have to travel to such places as the Australian outback and the mountains of Peru.

Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Paul Bogard, author of a book on darkness about light pollution and the Bortle scale:

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing — the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

If you’d like to find a place near you with less light pollution, check out The Light Pollution Map. I’m lucky enough to live in a place with a Bortle class of 3 and I’ve visited class 2 locations before…visiting one of the class 1 parks out west is definitely on my bucket list.

The delight and challenge of true solitude

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

Many of us feel alone from time to time or spend a day or two holed away working or worrying without seeing another person. But true solitude is difficult to come by these days. For the past 19 years, Alexandra de Steiguer has been the off-season caretaker for the Oceanic Hotel, located 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire. During the winter months, she’s the only person on the island. Brian Bolster’s meditative short film looks at de Steiguer’s life on the island and her embrace of solitude.

Winter’s Watch explores de Steiguer’s relationship to extreme isolation. Its meditative imagery contemplates the beauty of absence, while de Steiguer reflects on the unique challenges and rewards of solitude. “There are no other distractions,” she says. “You have to decide how to fill your days….and yet it is peaceful, and I can use my imagination.”

The hulking-and possibly haunted-hotel bears a striking resemblance to The Shining, but de Steiguer maintains that “if there are ghosts out here, they are being extremely kind to me.” Rather, she has embraced what she calls “the great waiting of winter.”

See also how to be alone. (via @ifyoucantwell)

Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key is an upbeat pop-punk song

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2018

This bent my brain a little: if you re-tune Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in a major key, it sounds like an upbeat pop-punk song. Like, Kurt Cobain actually sounds happy when he says “oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile” and the pre-chorus — “Hello, hello, hello, how low” — is downright joyous. Although I guess it shouldn’t be super surprising…in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain admits that the song was meant to be poppy.

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.

“Teen Spirit” was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or “Louie, Louie.” When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, “That is so ridiculous.” I made the band play it for an hour and a half.

Like me, if you don’t know a whole lot about music, here’s the difference between major and minor chords & scales.

The difference between major and minor chords and scales boils down to a difference of one essential note — the third. The third is what gives major-sounding scales and chords their brighter, cheerier sound, and what gives minor scales and chords their darker, sadder sound.

You can also listen to the song on Soundcloud.

See also this falling shovel sounds exactly like Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Update: I heard from a few people that the changes made to the song aren’t as straightforward as shifting from minor to major. See this series of tweets by Jesse Appelman.

This is fun and well-executed, but it’s not just Smells Like Teen Spirit transposed as-is from minor to major. They changed the chord progression (from 1-IV-bIII-bVI to I-V-vi-IV) and altered the melody to better fit the chords…

If they had just switched all the minor stuff to major it would sound, well, pretty hilarious but less like a radio-ready pop song. This is not to take away from the joy of this clever reimagining…

…but it’s not quite as simple and miraculous as “change from minor to major and voila!” It’s more like “write new changes and melody while preserving the rhythmic phrasing and general contours/directionality of the original.” Still great stuff and sorry if I un-blew your mind.

And to appreciate the difference between major and minor keys, this six-minute video of Chilly Gonzalez is highly entertaining and worth your time. (via @karolzyk)

Update: On his YouTube channel, Oleg Berg has reworked dozens of songs from major-to-minor or from minor-to-major, including Don’t Worry, Be Happy in a minor key, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World in a minor key, and the Game of Thrones theme in a major key. Surprisingly, the comments of the GoT theme are pretty good:

Meet Brienne, the beautiful maid of Tarth. Meet Jon, the legitimate son of Ned Stark. Meet Cersei, the queen of hearts. All these characters meet at the Blue Wedding and vow eternal friendship.

Spring is coming

If the plot ran backwards, this would be the theme.

You know everything, Jon Snow.

(via @volapuk)

The Most Beautiful Flowers

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2017

Beautiful Flowers

Beautiful Flowers

Beautiful Flowers

Photographer Kenji Toma makes these hyperrealistic images of flowers that are so detailed that they almost look fake because every part of each flower is in sharp focus. Johnny of Spoon & Tamago explains:

To create photographs, which both hyper-realistic to the point of looking artificial, Toma utilized a process called focus-bracket shooting. It’s a method of photography often employed to shoot close-up, macro photos in which the final photograph is a composite of several images of the subject with each element in full focus. “Hyper-realism allows him to capture the specimen’s idealized beauty, creating a work that is deeply modern, yet in harmony with a rich Japanese history and tradition.”

Toma’s images are available in a book called The Most Beautiful Flowers.

Watch the Falcon Heavy launch live at 2:20pm ET today

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2018

SpaceX is scheduled to launch their massive new rocket for the first time today. You can catch a live stream of the launch here:

When Falcon Heavy lifts off, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb) — a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel — Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost. Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9.

As part of the launch, the three engine cores will land back on Earth, as they have been doing for years now with their other rockets. You can watch an animation of how they hope the launch will go:

The payload for this rocket test is SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster. No, really. If all goes as planned, the Roadster and its passenger (a dummy wearing a SpaceX suit) will be put into an orbit around the Sun somewhere in the vicinity of Mars, driving around the solar system for a billion years. SpaceX isn’t saying exactly where the Roadster might end up, but engineer Max Fagin has a guess about its eventual orbit:

You can read more about the launch from Phil Plait and on PBS NewsHour.

Update: The new time for the launch is 2:20pm ET. The launch window lasts until 4pm ET.

Pope Francis’s definition of ‘fake news’

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 26, 2018

“Fake news” is kind of a catch-all family-resemblance concept that’s abused as often as it’s used with real insight. But I was impressed by Pope Francis’s clear definition, given as part of an official message by the Vatican to mark World Communication Day:

While President Donald Trump has often dismissed news outlets and stories as “fake news,” Francis defined it as “the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”

He added, “Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”

Francis’s main example of fake news? The serpent’s message to Eve and Adam about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This example shows that “there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”

Maybe along with Bishop of Rome and father of the Church, the Pope would make a good public editor.

DNA evidence is changing the understanding of how the Americas were settled

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

DNA analysis of remains found at archaeological sites is changing the story of how humans populated the Americas. Analysis of a pair of infants found in Alaska suggests that only one wave of humans settled the Americas around 20,900 years ago.

Genetic evidence published today in Nature is the first to show that all Native Americans can trace their ancestry back to a single migration event that happened at the tail-end of the last Ice Age. The evidence — gleaned from the full genomic profile of the six-week-old girl and the partial genomic remains of another infant — suggests the continent’s first settlers arrived in a single migratory wave around 20,900 years ago. But this population then split into two groups — one group that would go on to become the ancestors of all Native North Americans, and another that would venture no further than Alaska — a previously unknown population of ancient North Americans now dubbed the “Ancient Beringians.”

(via clive thompson)

The original US patent drawing for the Lego brick, filed 60 years ago

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2018

Lego Patent

This is one of two drawings that accompanied Godtfred Kirk Christiansen’s US patent application for the Lego toy building brick. The application was submitted 60 years ago yesterday on Jan 28, 1958, an occasion that is celebrated annually as International LEGO Day. (thx, david)

21st Century Landscapes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

21c Landscapes

21c Landscapes

21c Landscapes

The turn of the century doesn’t seem all that long ago, but here we are starting our 18th year of the 21st century already.1 The pace of human activity since the Renaissance is itself increasing. For instance, David Wallace-Wells pointed out:

Whatever you may think about the pace of climate change, it is happening mind-bendingly fast, almost in real time. It is not just that December wildfires were unheard of just three decades ago. We have now emitted more carbon into the atmosphere since Al Gore wrote his first book on climate than in the entire preceding history of humanity, which means that we have engineered most of the climate chaos that now terrifies us in that brief span.

Likewise, the pace at which humans have visibly altered the Earth has been growing as well. Planet Labs has collected a bunch of satellite photos of landscapes that have been transformed by humans in this century.

  1. Numbered decades, centuries, and millennia all start on years ending in “1”. This is because the first century AD starts on Jan 1, 1…there was no year 0. So, the first day of the 21st century is Jan 1, 2001, not Jan 1, 2000 like the article states. This is confusing because the 1800s and the 19th century are almost, but not exactly, the same thing.