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Digitally Reading 17th-Century Locked Letters

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2021

Using an x-ray technique, MIT researchers have digitally unfolded and read 17th-century letters that had been “letterlocked” by their authors to prevent them from being read in transit. Reading the letters in this way allows close study without actually unfolding and potentially damaging these letters or altering them against further study. This is a fully digital image of one of the unlocked letters:

Letterlocking

From a NY Times piece about the research:

In an interview, Jana Dambrogio, the study’s lead author and a conservator at the M.I.T. Libraries, said that learning of the trove’s existence inspired her to see if more technologically inclined colleagues could find a way to digitally open the locked letters. At the time, in 2014, scholars could read and study such letters only by cutting them open, which often damaged the documents and obscured or eliminated clues as to how they had been secured.

“We really need to keep the originals,” Ms. Dambrogio said. “You can keep learning from them, especially if you keep the locked packets closed.”

The old letters were protected from prying eyes when the sheets of writing paper were carefully folded to become their own secure enclosures.

The first step of their digital opening is to scan a target letter with an advanced X-ray machine. The resulting three-dimensional image — much like a medical scan — reveals the letter’s internal configuration. A computer then analyzes the image to undo the folds and, almost magically, turn the layers into a flat sheet, revealing handwritten text that can be read.

Here’s a contemporary example of the letterlocking technique where folds, slits, and wax are used to lock the letter and provide authentication:

Letterlocking

A letterlocking technique in action, modeled after a triangle-locked letter sent by Sir Francis Walsingham in 1587:

Whoa and this spiral-locked letter modeled on a message sent by Queen Elizabeth I to France’s Henry III in the 1570s:

And this is a list of all the letterlocking techniques and formats the researchers have identified:

Letterlocking

You can explore more about letterlocking at Letterlocking.org.

Watch NASA’s Perseverance Rover Land on Mars Live

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2021

Today is the day! NASA’s latest Mars rover is scheduled to touch down on the surface of Mars at around 3:55pm EST today1 and you can follow along online. You probably know the drill by now: what you’ll be watching isn’t actually live (it’s delayed by 11 minutes & 22 seconds, the time it takes for data to reach the Earth from Mars) and there’s no video to watch…there’s just telemetry from the rover that indicates where it is and what it’s doing. But I can say having watched the Curiosity landing in 2012, it’s still super exciting and nerve-wracking.

NASA has a number of ways to watch online, including their main stream on YouTube (embedded above), en Español, the “clean feed” from mission control without commentary, and a 360-degree stream, as well as options on Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, etc. You can also watch on NASA TV or through NASA apps on your phone, tablet, or TV. The coverage starts at 2:15pm EST (find your local time) and if all goes well, things start to get exciting at about 3:38pm EST and the landing will happen around 3:55pm EST. To get ready, you can check this page for a schedule of what happens when, watch a video about what’s gonna happen, and look at this live simulated view of where the Perseverance spacecraft is now (here too). Good luck, little rover!

  1. All times in this post (and stated by NASA in their schedules) are when we here on Earth will learn of events after the 11 minute & 22 second informational travel time from Mars is factored in. So while the Mars landing will actually occur around 3:44pm EST, we won’t know about it until 3:55pm EST.

Why Are Covid-19 Cases Declining So Quickly in the US?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2021

Over the past week or two, I’ve read a number of articles and threads about why Covid-19 cases are falling so rapidly in the US. The explanations have all been somewhat unsatisfying to me. Cases have indeed dropped off quite quickly and it happened pretty uniformly all over the country. Look at the mini state graphs on the NY Times Covid page — they all look about the same. Hospitalizations and positivity rates have dropped too, so while the number of daily tests has fallen too, this appears to be a real drop and not just an artifact of a lack of testing. Which is great news! Imagine a February and March that looked like December — a disaster compounded.

So what’s going on here? For The Atlantic, Derek Thompson lists four reasons for the decline in cases and hospitalizations that mirror the arguments I’ve seen elsewhere: “social distancing, seasonality, seroprevalence, and shots”.

The vaccine explanation is the weakest one for me: not enough people outside of healthcare workers had gotten them early enough to start bending that curve sharply downward in early January. But as Thompson notes, it could be having more of an effect on hospitalizations because the folks getting shots (and therefore immunity against severe infection) are those most likely to end up in hospitals due to infection. And obviously, vaccines are going to become the dominant factor in falling case numbers as more and more people get jabbed.

I’m also skeptical of the seasonality argument, but (again, as Thompson notes) there’s a lot we don’t know about how temperature, sunlight, humidity, and this specific coronavirus interact. Obviously Covid-19 is a seasonal thing and that’s definitely a contributing factor here, but that sharp of a drop in early January? I don’t know if it’s the primary driver here. Also, the seasonal flu typically peaks in February in the US.

The seroprevalence argument is an interesting one. Here’s Johns Hopkins infectious disease epidemiologist David Dowdy in a great Twitter thread about the US case decline:

I think the most logical explanation is one proposed initially by @mgmgomes1 and others — namely that we are seeing the effects of population immunity with heterogeneous mixing + strong behavioral effects. Take a(n overly) simple example. Assume 60% of a population has zero respiratory contacts, while the other 40% lives life as normal. If 75% of that high-mixing group has immunity (e.g., 30% population seroprevalence), you could easily see herd effects.

Basically, a large percentage of the folks at the greatest risk of getting Covid-19 in the US (i.e. folks who aren’t able or willing to keep from seeing other people and/or take proper precautions) have gotten it, resulting in a sort of localized “herd immunity” among those folks. After the massive holiday surge in cases (more on that in a sec), this hypothesis suggests, the virus started running out of people to infect and rates dropped quickly. This is the first explanation I read that really made sense to me.

Thompson leads off his piece with the behavioral explanation: “Maybe Americans finally got the hang of this mask and social-distancing thing.” I do not buy that people who previously weren’t doing so before suddenly started wearing masks (or better masks), keeping distant, spending less time indoors with others, and staying home from work started doing so in numbers large enough to cause such a sharp downturn. But you can’t consider the decline without also looking at how cases got so high in the first place. Here’s Steven Johnson on Twitter, zooming out a few months:

[It’s] not so much that people got the hang of social distancing, but rather that the holiday season compelled people to relax social distancing for in-person family gatherings. So the current decline is mostly reversion to where we were in Oct-Nov.

Yes, this. Without these holidays, we may have seen much more of a winter plateau than a spike. So here’s what seems plausible to me. As the cold weather made the coronavirus more effective at infection, people gathered for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s — each subsequent holiday building on the previous one — and it pushed cases much higher than they would have been without those major gatherings. After two months of massive infection rates, the virus burned itself out among the high-mixing group and everyone else retreated back into their homes and pods to hunker down, resulting in the steep decline we’re seeing.

Obviously, careful scientific study will be necessary to tease out how significant each of these (and other!) causes were to the holiday spike and subsequent decline. But for now, the way forward is continuing to social distance, wear (better) masks, limit close contacts, and get people vaccinated — before B.1.1.7 and the other variants hit.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2021

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World is the latest world-explaining documentary series from television journalist Adam Curtis. It’s available in the UK on BBC’s iPlayer and, unofficially as a fan upload, on YouTube; I’ve embedded the trailer and the first part above.

But what exactly is it about you might wonder, even after watching the trailer. Reading Sam Knight’s January 2021 profile of Curtis in the New Yorker might help you there:

For more than thirty years, Curtis has made hallucinatory, daring attempts to explain modern mass predicaments, such as the origins of postwar individualism, wars in the Middle East, and our relationship to reality itself. He describes his films as a combination of two sometimes contradictory elements: a stream of unusual, evocative images from the past, richly scored with pop music, that are overlaid with his own, plainly delivered, often unverifiable analysis. He seeks to summon “the complexity of the world.”

Lucy Mangan’s review for The Guardian was overwhelmingly positive:

The power dynamic, how it shifts, how it hides and how it is used to shape our world — the world in which we ordinary people must live — is Curtis’s great interest. He ranges from the literal rewriting of history by Chairman Mao’s formidable fourth wife, Jiang Qing, during the Cultural Revolution to the psychologists plumbing the depths of “the self” and trying to impose behaviours on drugged and electro-shocked subjects. He moves from the infiltration of the Black Panthers by undercover officers inciting and facilitating more violence than the movement had ever planned or been able to carry out alone, to the death of paternalism in industry and its replacement by official legislation drafted by those with hidden and vested interests. The idea that we are indeed living, as posited by various figures in the author’s landscape and (we infer from the whole) the author himself, in a world made up of strata of artifice laid down by those more or less malevolently in charge becomes increasingly persuasive.

Other reviews, particularly from those on the right, call his work incoherent and Curtis himself something of a propagandist. Admission: I haven’t seen any of Curtis’s work, save for the occasional clip here and there. I know some of you out there are big fans — should I start with this one, HyperNormalisation, Century of the Self, or….?

Simulating Church Organ Music With a Commodore 64

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2021

Linus Akesson noticed that without the benefit of the acoustical properties of massive churches, the sound that comes out of organ pipes sounds tinny, like 8-bit chiptune sounds.

Back in 2008 I had an epiphany about church organs: At least in theory, organ pipes produce very simple waveforms, much like 8-bit sound chips do-and the reason church organs don’t sound like chiptunes is primarily because of the acoustics of the church.

Thinking that process could be reversed, he remapped the keys of a Commodore 64 so he could play it like an accordion, ran it though a reverb machine, and created the sixtyforgan. The Bach piece he plays at the end of the video above (and a different Bach piece here) sounds so much like it’s being played on an organ.

See also Hear How Choral Music Sounded in the Hagia Sophia More Than 500 Years Ago (in which a filter is applied to choral music to make it sound as though it’s being sung in a cavernous church). (via @emanuelfeld)

The Otherworldly Sounds of the Long String Instrument

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2021

Here are a pair of videos of Ellen Fullman playing the Long String Instrument, an musical instrument with up to 100-foot-long strings that Fullman has developed over the past 35+ years.

These ghostly, ethereal sounds are made by Fullman rubbing the strings with rosin-coated fingers; you can read more about her process in The Guardian:

Its sound recalls Indian raga, with harmonies sliding over one another. Fullman says playing it “can be an ecstatic feeling, a floating sensation. Music is bigger than me: there are pitch relationships, shapes of notes beautiful beyond the level of human expression. I like that feeling of being a conduit. I don’t like egotistical thrashing. I like trying to give a gift.”

The strings are connected to wooden resonators that act like the body of a guitar to amplify the sound. To bring it out further, Fullman rubs her fingers with rosin, the same substance used on bows. In effect, she turns herself into a human bow. The strings are 2cm apart and she can have up to 28 on each of the two sides of the instrument: “The number is only limited by the length of my arms: 60cm.”

Best little detail about Fullman from that piece: she was “born in Memphis and kissed by Elvis as a baby”.

Aside from the videos, you can find music she’s created with the Long String Instrument on Spotify and other streaming services. I would love to see her perform in person sometime, when such things are permitted again. (via @tedgioia)

Ted Chiang: Fears of Technology Are Fears of Capitalism

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2021

Writer Ted Chiang (author of the fantastic Exhalation) was recently a guest on the Ezra Klein Show. The conversation ranged widely — I enjoyed his thoughts on superheroes — but his comments on capitalism and technology seem particularly relevant right now. From the transcript:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off. It’s not that like all technology suddenly becomes benign in this world. But it’s like, in a world where we have really strong social safety nets, then you could maybe actually evaluate sort of the pros and cons of technology as a technology, as opposed to seeing it through how capitalism is going to use it against us. How are giant corporations going to use this to increase their profits at our expense?

And so, I feel like that is kind of the unexamined assumption in a lot of discussions about the inevitability of technological change and technologically-induced unemployment. Those are fundamentally about capitalism and the fact that we are sort of unable to question capitalism. We take it as an assumption that it will always exist and that we will never escape it. And that’s sort of the background radiation that we are all having to live with. But yeah, I’d like us to be able to separate an evaluation of the merits and drawbacks of technology from the framework of capitalism.

Echoing some of his other thoughts during the podcast, Chiang also wrote a piece for the New Yorker the other day about how the singularity will probably never come.

What the End of the Pandemic Looks Like

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2021

Stat’s Andrew Joseph and Helen Branswell on the short-term, middle-term, and long-term future of the coronavirus in the US. The short-term outlook is dominated by vaccination & variants; some parts of the country will continue to be affected by outbreaks:

Conditions may be ripe for a better summer, however. Vaccine supplies should be flowing more freely, at least in the U.S.; the Biden administration now expects enough vaccine doses in hand for all adults by the end of May. With most vulnerable populations protected, there should be fewer hospitalizations and deaths. And with warmer weather, people can return to outdoor life.

Widespread transmission of the virus could be replaced by more sporadic and localized outbreaks. There’s also growing evidence that vaccines don’t just protect people from getting symptomatic Covid-19, but can reduce transmission.

And in the long-term, well, SARS-CoV-2 will be around for years and even decades to come:

Years from now, SARS-CoV-2 could join the ranks of OC43, 229E, NL63, and HKU1 — the four endemic, seasonal coronaviruses that cause a chunk of common colds every year. Essentially, our immune systems — primed by vaccines, boosters, and previous encounters with the coronavirus — will be ready to knock back SARS-2 when we see it again, potentially blocking an infection or leading to one that causes no symptoms or maybe just the sniffles.

It’s good to read stuff like this — it provides a basis to use when calibrating your optimism or pessimism for future activities and desires.

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2021

Matt Kish Moby Dick

Matt Kish Moby Dick

Matt Kish Moby Dick

Matt Kish Moby Dick

Over a period of a year and a half, Matt Kish created one illustration for each of the 552 pages in the Signet Classic paperback edition of Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick. He then turned those illustrations into a book, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page.

In retrospect, Kish says he feels as foolhardy as Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, and as obsessed as Captain Ahab in his quest for the great white whale. “I see now that the project was an attempt to fully understand this magnificent novel, to walk through every sun-drenched word, to lift up all the hatches and open all the barrels, to smell, taste, hear, and see every seabird, every shark, every sailor, every harpooner, and every whale,” he says. “It was a hard thing, a very painful thing, but the novel now lives inside me in a away it never could have before.”

All of the drawings are still available on Kish’s old Blogspot blog (first entry here) but the best way to see them is to get the book.

Finding All the Source Images for the Sgt. Pepper’s Album Cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2021

The iconic album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a collage of images of dozens of people — mostly famous, mostly men — arranged as though they’re standing in a group behind the band. A list of the people depicted on the cover (including Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Shirley Temple, and Fred Astaire) can be found on Wikipedia but Chris Shaw went a step further and tracked down the exact source images for each one of people & objects shown.

The collage was designed by Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth, and the cut-outs were assembled in Michael Cooper’s London photographic studio. Michael and his team toiled hard to construct the ‘cast of extras’, using a mix of photos sourced from the BBC Hulton Picture Library, images from private collections, waxworks and personal artifacts, including a gnome owned by Ringo Starr.

detail of Sgt. Pepper's album cover

detail of Sgt. Pepper's album cover

detail of Sgt. Pepper's album cover

You so rarely get to see the raw materials used for design objects, so this is a real treat. (via waxy)

A Kitchen Scraps Cookbook from Ikea

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2021

Scrapsbook

Ikea has published a cookbook for cooking with food waste called The ScrapsBook and it’s available to download for free.

IKEA has created The ScrapsBook, in collaboration with chefs from across North America. This cookbook is dedicated to cooking with the little things we usually throw away. Or, as we like to call it, “scrapcooking.”

Scrapcooking is about finding the beautiful possibilities in that banana peel, radish top, or even the chicken bones you’re about to toss, and make the most of everything available to you. It’s little things like these that can add up to make a big difference.

It includes recipes for dishes like banana peel bacon & wild rice pancakes, corn cob soup, and bruised apple butter cake. Here’s a trailer:

The cookbook also includes tips for reducing food waste throughout the text, including regrowing scallions, bok choy, and celery from the roots on your windowsill. (via huit denim)

The Green Knight

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2021

A24 and David Lowery have adapted the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the screen. The film was scheduled to be released early last year, but the pandemic intervened; it’s now due out at the end of July.

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

I read this story (Simon Armitage’s translation) to my kids a year or two back and it wasn’t our absolute favorite (it paled in comparison to our previous read, Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey), so I’m curious to see how it works as a film.

Onboard Camera Views from Perseverance Rover’s Descent & Touchdown on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2021

Just a few days after the Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars, NASA has released onboard video from the descent and landing from multiple perspectives. I watched this with my kids last night and all three of us had our mouths hanging open.

The real footage in this video was captured by several cameras that are part of the rover’s entry, descent, and landing suite. The views include a camera looking down from the spacecraft’s descent stage (a kind of rocket-powered jet pack that helps fly the rover to its landing site), a camera on the rover looking up at the descent stage, a camera on the top of the aeroshell (a capsule protecting the rover) looking up at that parachute, and a camera on the bottom of the rover looking down at the Martian surface.

After watching it again just now, I am struck by two things:

  1. Sometime in my lifetime, live broadcasts from Mars will likely become commonplace. There will be dozens or hundreds of Mars webcams you can pull up on whatever the 2052 internet equivalent is. It will be amazing how boring it all is. (Or perhaps it’ll be boring how amazing it all is.)
  2. That humans landed on the Moon in 1969 was an incredible feat, but a close second is that the first steps were broadcast live from the Moon’s surface to everywhere on the Earth. Unbelievable.

Can’t wait to see more from Perseverance once the science program gets cranking.

Case Closed: SARS-CoV-2 Spreads Primarily by Aerosols

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2021

In a letter published in The Lancet, a group of scholars argue, with an extensive review of the available evidence, that the primary mode of transmission from human to human of the virus responsible for Covid-19 is via aerosols, not through larger particles called droplets or through fomites (transfer from surfaces). Here are three of their ten reasons why:

Third, asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from people who are not coughing or sneezing is likely to account for at least a third, and perhaps up to 59%, of all transmission globally and is a key way SARS-CoV-2 has spread around the world, supportive of a predominantly airborne mode of transmission. Direct measurements show that speaking produces thousands of aerosol particles and few large droplets, which supports the airborne route.

Fourth, transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is higher indoors than outdoors and is substantially reduced by indoor ventilation. Both observations support a predominantly airborne route of transmission.

Fifth, nosocomial infections have been documented in health-care organisations, where there have been strict contact-and-droplet precautions and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to protect against droplet but not aerosol exposure.

The letter concludes with a plea by the authors for public health officials to finally embrace this reality: “The public health community should act accordingly and without further delay.”

I can’t believe we’re actually still arguing about this. One of the authors, Jose-Luis Jimenez, wrote this seminal Time magazine piece that provided the smoke analogy that is the mental model I’ve been using to think about potential risks during the pandemic.

When it comes to COVID-19, the evidence overwhelmingly supports aerosol transmission, and there are no strong arguments against it. For example, contact tracing has found that much COVID-19 transmission occurs in close proximity, but that many people who share the same home with an infected person do not get the disease. To understand why, it is useful to use cigarette or vaping smoke (which is also an aerosol) as an analog. Imagine sharing a home with a smoker: if you stood close to the smoker while talking, you would inhale a great deal of smoke. Replace the smoke with virus-containing aerosols, which behave very similarly, and the impact is similar: the closer you are to someone releasing virus-carrying aerosols, the more likely you are to breathe in larger amounts of virus. We know from detailed, rigorous studies that when individuals talk in close proximity, aerosols dominate transmission and droplets are nearly negligible.

Another of the authors, Zeynep Tufekci, has been arguing the case for aerosols (and masks & overdispersion) since early in the pandemic, and she succinctly explained in a Twitter thread how predominantly aerosol transmission fits with the mitigation methods that have really worked around the world:

Airborne transmission unites three things crucial to recognize for effective COVID-19 mitigation: transmission without symptoms (thus aerosols), clusters driving the epidemic (also aerosols) and masks/ventilation indoors being key (hey, also aerosols). This framework is coherent.

Her whole thread is worth a read — like this bit about how other respiratory pathogens are likely spread by aerosols and not droplets (as commonly believed):

Fascinatingly, you search the scientific record high and low, but there really is little to no direct evidence for gravity-sprayed droplets being predominant mode of transmission for respiratory illnesses outside of coughing/sneezing. It’s many… assumptions. Like a tradition.

If any good comes out of the pandemic at all, a better and more useful scientific understanding of how respiratory pathogens are transmitted would be a good start.

Update: One of the authors, Trisha Greenhalgh, responds succinctly to criticisms of the paper in this Twitter thread.

Criticism 1: “The paper is just opinion, and several authors aren’t even doctors.”

Response: No. It’s well-researched scholarly argument, produced by an interdisciplinary team of 6 professors including 3 docs, 2 aerosol scientists and 1 social scientist.

The Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars Tomorrow

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2021

Curiosity is about to get some company. NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, is set to land on Mars beginning tomorrow at around 3pm EST. The video above walks us through the 7-minute landing routine in which the rover ditches its spacecraft, heat shields its way through the Martian atmosphere, deploys its parachute, uses an onboard guidance system to navigate to a good landing spot, and finally is lowered down to the surface via a sky crane. The rover’s destination is Jezero Crater, site of an ancient river delta and lakebed.

Jezero Crater tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater lake. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments. Scientists will study how the region formed and evolved, seek signs of past life, and collect samples of Mars rock and soil that might preserve these signs.

Here’s how you can watch the landing “live” tomorrow (i.e. delayed by the 11 minutes & 22 seconds it takes for signals to travel from Mars). I’ll do a separate post tomorrow w/ the proper YouTube embeds so we can all follow along together.

Bob Odenkirk Action Movie??!

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2021

This is the trailer for Nobody, an action film that’s a cross between John Wick, Breaking Bad, and a tiny bit of Force Majeure (although maybe I’m alone in making this connection). The film stars Bob Odenkirk as an unassuming dad who decides he wants to be assuming again — violent hijinks ensue. Looks like it’s coming out in late March, which is still a bit too early for me to want to see a movie in a theater again.

Sculpture by Valérie Hadida

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2021

Valerie Hadida

I love this bronze sculpture by French artist Valérie Hadida. You can find more of her work on Colossal and Artsy.

The Invention of a New Pasta Shape

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2021

For the past three years, Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast has been on something of a mission: to invent a new pasta shape. All of Pashman’s hard work has paid off with the debut of cascatelli pasta, available for sale from Sfoglini.

Cascatelli pasta

Pashman and Sfoglini engineered the new shape to maximize the amount of sauce that sticks to it, make it easier to get your fork on it, and have it feel good when you bite into it.

Cascatelli Pasta 02

Cascatelli is designed to maximize the three qualities by which Dan believes all pasta shapes should be judged:

Sauceability: How readily sauce adheres to the shape
Forkability: How easy it is to get the shape on your fork and keep it there
Toothsinkability: How satisfying it is to sink your teeth into it

Pashman documented the invention of cascatelli in a 5-part series on The Sporkful podcast — you can listen to the first episode here — and on Instagram. You can order some cascatelli to try it out at home, but it looks like they are currently sold out of everything aside from 5-lb bulk bags.

See also How to Make 29 Different Shapes of Pasta by Hand and 150 Different Pasta Shapes.

Eyes on the Prize to Re-Air on PBS

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2021

The fantastic civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize will soon be available for viewing on public media and online. WORLD Channel and PBS will begin airing the 14-part series in early April. The first part of the series, covering the civil rights movement from 1954-1965, will also be available to watch online starting in mid-April. Check out the press release for more info.

Eyes on the Prize, created by Executive Producer Henry Hampton, is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed in-depth documentary series on civil rights in America. Hampton set out to share his vision of what he called “the remarkable human drama that was the Civil Rights Movement” through the experiences and challenges of those fighting for justice. Produced by Blackside Inc, Eyes on the Prize tells the definitive story of the civil rights era from the point of view of the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions launched a movement that changed the fabric of American life and embodied a struggle whose reverberations continue to be felt today.

With contemporary interviews and historical footage, the Academy Award-nominated documentary traces the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act; from early acts of individual courage through the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions. The late Julian Bond, political leader and civil rights activist, narrates.

If you’ve never seen Eyes on the Prize, you should definitely take this opportunity to check it out. (via @jbenton)

An 18-Day Time Lapse of the Fagradalsfjall Volcano in Iceland

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2021

On March 19, after seismic activity in the area, an eruption occurred in Fagradalsfjall, Iceland, adding a new volcano to the country’s already charismatic geology. Because the ongoing eruption is relatively small, steady, and located fairly close to Reykjavik, it’s been well-documented, both by drone and by live webcam. YouTube user stebbigu stitched footage from the live feed into a 5-minute time lapse of the formation of the volcano that covers 18 days, from the first few hours to a couple of days ago. The night views, with all that pulsing orange lava, are especially mesmerizing.

Quiet Storm: How Slow Jams Took Over the Radio

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2021

One of my favorite YouTube series, Estelle Caswell’s Earworm, is back for another season. In this first episode, she looks at how a beloved Black radio tradition called Quiet Storm came about and influenced the course of popular culture for decades.

Late one evening in the summer of 1976, a Howard University student named Melvin Lindsey was tapped to fill in as a host at WHUR, the university-owned Black radio station. He chose a lineup of his favorite R&B ballads to soundtrack Washington, DC, that evening. The show was an accidental success. Shortly thereafter he was hired, and his show had a name: The Quiet Storm.

What If the Earth Turned to Gold?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2021

For their latest video, Kurzgesagt ventures into What If? territory with a hypothetical exploration of what would happen if King Midas turned the entire Earth into gold. This video did not go where I thought it was going to. Ten minutes of freefall? Shrinking mountains?

Netflix to Air Documentary About the Last Blockbuster Video Store

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2021

Netflix was founded in 1997 as a DVD rental service. At the time, Blockbuster Video was a multi-billion dollar video rental behemoth, growing to over 9000 stores as recently as 2004. In 2000, Netflix offered to sell to Blockbuster for $50 million — Blockbuster declined. By 2011, Blockbuster was bankrupt and down to 2400 stores while Netflix had gone public and their streaming business was exploding. Today, Netflix has a market cap of $223 billion, is a member of the S&P 100, and will soon start showing The Last Blockbuster, a documentary about the very last Blockbuster video rental store in the world. Absolutely savage victory lap.

Radiohead, From The Basement

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 18, 2021

From the Basement was a series of musical performances from groups like The White Stripes, Radiohead, Gnarls Barkley, PJ Harvey, and Sonic Youth recorded in the late 2000s. Above, Radiohead performs a 55-minute set of music mainly from In Rainbows (there’s also a set from King of Limbs). You can check out more performances from the series here or in their playlist of full sets. (via open culture)

All the Sitcom References from WandaVision Explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2021

In this extensive video, The Take not only explains the themes and ending of WandaVision (spoilers, obvs) but walks through all of the sitcom tropes, references, and Easter eggs present in the show, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to the beeping Stark toaster commercial to Bewitched to Full House (Olsen sisters!) to The Office. Weirdly, they kinda glide right over perhaps my favorite trope referenced in the show: the recasting of the Pietro character a la Darrin in Bewitched and Aunt Viv in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The video pairs well with this interview with WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer.

The first thing was the notion of, how do you do this? How do you take sitcoms and combine them with Wanda and Vision who, up to this point in the M.C.U., were such self-serious characters and dramatic characters with so much sadness surrounding them. They weren’t funny. What’s the synthesis? I’m a big fan of “Lost,” and I was very inspired by shows like “Russian Doll,” “Forever” and “Homecoming.” I relished the opportunity of a slow burn. It seemed like an exciting, sneak-attack way to have a bit of a social commentary and a very large story of character and grief.

I thought how they constructed the entire show was really fantastic — I loved every minute of it.

Delayed: R. Kikuo Johnson’s New Yorker Cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2021

Delayed Cover

That’s the cover for the April 5, 2021 issue of the New Yorker illustrated by R. Kikuo Johnson.

I began preparing for this project by revisiting news coverage of anti-Asian hate crimes committed during the pandemic. As I absorbed one account after another, they became increasingly difficult to read. So many mothers and grandmothers have been targeted. I imagined my own mom in that situation. I thought about my grandma and my aunt, who have been among my greatest sources of support. The mother in the drawing is made up of all these women.

So simple, so powerful. The way the shoes, eyes, and faces are positioned and angled. On Twitter, Jiayang Fan commented:

I can’t stop staring at this cover. I can’t stop wondering who would come to this mother-daughter pair’s aid if someone attacked them. I can’t stop thinking I was once the daughter and how helpless I still feel to protect my mother.

The Competitive Quartet

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2021

Salut Salon is a German musical quartet that plays classical music with a “passionate virtuosity, instrumental acrobatics, charm and a great sense of fun”. For a little taste of their vibe, check out this video of the four of them playing Vivaldi’s Summer with a mock competitive spirit that escalates with increasingly outlandish & impressive performances. This article calls Salut Salon “the Harlem Globetrotters of piano quartets” and that’s pretty accurate. (via @M10MacTen)

The Zemo Cut

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2021

Marvel’s newest TV series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, contained a scene in the third episode that featured a tantalizingly short glimpse of erstwhile villain Zemo dancing awkwardly in a nightclub. Fans clambered for more, and so Marvel released an hour-long video of Zemo dancing, cheekily called “The Zemo Cut”. Tag yourself — I’m the clapping. (For some reason, this reminds me of Mad Men’s Ken Cosgrove dancing to Daft Punk.)

Perfect Shadows

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2021

Satisfying Shadows

Joaquim Campa recently shared some satisfying shadows for perfectionists. I guess I must be a perfectionist because those shadows are indeed deeply satisfying and calming to me, like fitting the last puzzle piece after hours of work.

More satisfying things: these animations, a race car loses a wheel, unslicing a tomato, and Japanese wood joinery. Or, check out the most unsatisfying things in the world.

A Giant Banana Orbiting the Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2021

What if a giant banana was orbiting the Earth at the same distance as the ISS? What would that look like? Well, it would look something like this.

See also If the Planets Were As Close As the Moon.

The Conversation Has Never Been Wider

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2021

I am still listening to the excellent interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Ezra Klein Show, but I wanted to highlight this exchange right at the beginning of the interview because I think it’s relevant to a lot of our shared interests, especially if you’ve been online reading blogs or personal sites for 15, 20, or even 25 years:

EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.

[LAUGHING]

There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.

There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that — before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.

Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.

They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.

That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.

So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce it, but even I get a little — I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.

EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.

Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.

Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

Look, as someone who benefitted hugely from it, I miss the golden age of blogging as much as anyone — productive discussions in comment threads, the community alchemy of Flickr, Google Reader, cross-blog conversations, the Open Web, small pieces loosely joined, etc. etc. etc. — but over the past few years, I’ve felt a lot less nostalgia for it for exactly the reasons McMillan Cottom & Klein are talking about here. Make the Internet Great Again is, in many important ways, as short-sighted, futile, and limiting as, well, you know.

Van Gogh That Was in Private Hands for More Than a Century Up for Auction

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2021

painting by Vincent van Gogh of Montmartre

A painting by Vincent van Gogh that hasn’t been exhibited for the public since it was painted in 1887 is up for auction this month. The Paris landscape was created by the Dutch master on the cusp of his impressionist phase:

The work reflects Van Gogh’s exploration of a new city as well as his first encounter with the Impressionists and other avant-garde painters in Paris, which in turn sparked a transformation of his palette. “Gone were the dark tones of his early works, replaced with color in all its brilliance,” Sotheby’s writes in a statement. “It was in Montmartre, during these formative years, that the foundations of his inimitable style were established.”

There’s some press release sales bluster here, but looking at the painting, you can see inklings of his signature kinetic style — the flag appears to flutter, the trees wave in the wind, and the windmill spins. The whole thing is alive with motion. Wonderful. Here it is with the (assumed) original frame:

Van Gogh Montmartre 02

I hope that whoever buys it makes it available for public display; I’d love to see it someday.

How Sperm Whales Learned to Collectively Outsmart 19th-Century Whalers

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2021

Sperm Whale

In the 19th century, when whaling fleets were first sent out to hunt sperm whales, the whales employed the same defensive strategy they used against orcas: forming the group into a tight circle. But what worked against orcas was not successful against whalers: the close grouping made the whales that much easier to kill. According to a recent analysis of whalers’ logbooks, within a few years the sperm whales collectively abandoned the grouping strategy in favor of swimming upwind from the sailing ships to escape.

Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.

The hunters themselves realised the whales’ efforts to escape. They saw that the animals appeared to communicate the threat within their attacked groups. Abandoning their usual defensive formations, the whales swam upwind to escape the hunters’ ships, themselves wind-powered. ‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.

See also Studying Humpback Whales to Better Communicate with Aliens.

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2021

Foley artist Richard Hinton talks about how he creates sounds for nature documentaries like Planet Earth. I love watching Foley artists do their thing, but I have mixed feelings about these made-up sounds!

Despite the veneer of neutrality of nature documentaries, I know there’s no such thing as objective truth when you’re dealing with cameras and film editing. And silent video is boring. But on the other hand, just making up sounds that spiders don’t actually make — I don’t know. I’ve posted about this before, regarding a video series about how Planet Earth II was made:

I hope the third program is on sound, which has been bugging me while watching Planet Earth II. I could be wrong, but they seem to be using extensive foley effects for the sounds the animals make — not their cries necessarily, but the sounds they make as they move. Once you notice, it feels deceptive.

See also How Fake Are Nature Documentaries?

Is it manipulation? Or good storytelling? And what’s the difference between the two anyway? A silent security feed of a Walmart parking lot is not a documentary but The Thin Blue Line, with its many dramatizations and Philip Glass score, is a great documentary.

(via open culture)

A Helicopter Flies on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2021

Ingenuity Shadow

Deployed from NASA’s Perseverance rover, the Ingenuity helicopter took off and hovered for about 30 seconds in its first flight early this morning.

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT (12:34 a.m. PDT) — 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) — a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight. Additional details on the test are expected in upcoming downlinks.

Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous — piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, and its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.

NASA livestreamed the team in Mission Control as the test results were transmitted back to Earth. The photo above is of Ingenuity’s shadow taken while in flight by its onboard camera.

Update: Here’s video footage of the first flight:

And there’s always room for a little Great Span on this site. Alex Knapp:

The world’s oldest living person was alive when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and when the first helicopter flew on Mars.

How to Turn Your Red State Blue

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2021

portrait of Stacey Abrams

I posted this as a Quick Link earlier today but decided it needed its own post. Stacey Abrams & Lauren Groh-Wargo of Fair Fight have written an opinion piece in the NY Times about how they increased Democratic votes in Georgia over the past decade, leading to flipping both Senate seats in the 2020 election. They are sharing their approach and framework so that others can apply it in their states.

Georgians deserved better, so we devised and began executing a 10-year plan to transform Georgia into a battleground state. As the world knows, President Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in November, and the January runoff elections for two Senate seats secured full congressional control for the Democratic Party. Yet the result wasn’t a miracle or truly a surprise, at least not to us. Years of planning, testing, innovating, sustained investment and organizing yielded the record-breaking results we knew they could and should. The lessons we learned can help other states looking to chart a more competitive future for Democrats and progressives, particularly those in the Sun Belt, where demographic change will precede electoral opportunity.

We realize that many people are thinking about Stacey’s political future, but right now we intend to talk about the unglamorous, tedious, sometimes technical, often contentious work that creates a battleground state. When fully embraced, this work delivers wins — whether or not Donald Trump is on the ballot — as the growth Georgia Democrats have seen in cycle after cycle shows. Even in tough election years, we have witnessed the power of civic engagement on policy issues and increases in Democratic performance. This combination of improvements has also resulted in steady gains in local races and state legislative races, along with the continued narrowing of the statewide loss margin in election after election that finally flipped the state in 2020 and 2021.

The task is hard, the progress can feel slow, and winning sometimes means losing better. In 2012, for example, we prevented the Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the Georgia House of Representatives, which would have allowed them to pass virtually any bill they wanted. We won four seats they had drawn for themselves, and in 2014 we maintained those gains — just holding our ground was a victory.

The steps toward victory are straightforward: understand your weaknesses, organize with your allies, shore up your political infrastructure and focus on the long game. Georgia’s transformation is worth celebrating, and how it came to be is a long and complicated story, which required more than simply energizing a new coterie of voters. What Georgia Democrats and progressives accomplished here — and what is happening in Arizona and North Carolina — can be exported to the rest of the Sun Belt and the Midwest, but only if we understand how we got here.

This piece, and the plan it describes, is excellent. You can see how their potent combination of vision, planning, and methodical execution were able to yield big results over time — success is the application of patience to opportunity.

Bic ballpoint portrait of Stacey Abrams above by Claire Salvo. Prints of similar portraits of AOC, RBG, and John Lewis are available.

The Growth of London, 47 ACE to the Present

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2021

Ollie Bye has created an animated time lapse of the growth of London from a small Roman town in 47 ACE to the largest city in the world (during the Victorian era) to the massive, sprawling city it is today.

See also Here Grows New York City, a Time Lapse of NYC’s Street Grid from 1609 to the Present, an example of what the creator called “an abstract representation of urbanism”. And a list of the largest cities throughout history — perhaps surprisingly, there have only been two lead changes since the 1820s. (via open culture)

A Drone’s Eye View of a Bowling Alley

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2021

The very first sequence of this video is of the camera — presumably perched on a drone — dropping out of the sky, flying through the door of beloved Minneapolis institution Bryant Lake Bowl, and following a bowling ball down the lane…and it just keeps going from there. Great drone piloting, choreography, sound design, and execution of concept. (via @brianmcc)

Update: ILM visual effects artist Todd Vaziri added Star Wars sound effects to the original video. He links to a few other remixes in this thread (like this Naked Gun one).

The Secret of Synchronization

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2021

What do swaying bridges, flashing fireflies, clapping audiences, the far side of the Moon, and beating hearts have in common? Their behavior all has something to do with synchronization. In this video, Veritasium explains why and how spontaneous synchronization appears all the time in the physical world.

I was really into the instability of the Millennium Bridge back when it was first opened (and then rapidly closed), so it was great to hear Steven Strogatz’s explanation of the bridge’s failure.

Oh, and do go play with Nicky Case’s firefly visualization to see how synchronization can arise from really simple rules.

Let’s Clear This Up: What Does 95% Covid-19 Vaccine Efficacy Actually Mean?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2021

In popular press and social media, there’s been a misunderstanding of what is actually meant when scientists say that the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines have an efficacy of 94-95%. It does not mean that 95% of vaccinated people are protected from infection — these vaccines are better than that. Dr. Piero Olliaro explains in a letter to The Lancet:

The mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were shown to have 94-95% efficacy in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, calculated as 100 x (1 minus the attack rate with vaccine divided by the attack rate with placebo). It means that in a population such as the one enrolled in the trials, with a cumulated COVID-19 attack rate over a period of 3 months of about 1% without a vaccine, we would expect roughly 0.05% of vaccinated people would get diseased.

Another way to put it: you’re 20 times less likely to get Covid-19 with a vaccine than without. (And again, data indicates these are safe vaccines.) Olliaro explains with some simple math:

If we vaccinated a population of 100,000 and protected 95% of them, that would leave 5000 individuals diseased over 3 months, which is almost the current overall COVID-19 case rate in the UK. Rather, a 95% vaccine efficacy means that instead of 1000 COVID-19 cases in a population of 100,000 without vaccine (from the placebo arm of the abovementioned trials, approximately 1% would be ill with COVID-19 and 99% would not) we would expect 50 cases (99.95% of the population is disease-free, at least for 3 months).

And of course if you vaccinate widely, it becomes a compounding situation because the virus just runs out of people to infect.

A Collection of Hand-Lettered Marvel Superhero Logos

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2021

Marvel Logos

Reagan Ray has compiled a collection of hand-lettered Marvel superhero logos from before the computer animation era. (via print)

How to Operate an Airport in Antarctica

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2021

This video and blog post look at the challenges of building and maintaining a 3000-meter ice runway in Antarctica. It bears some resemblance to grooming ski slopes and maintaining ice rinks.

Once the snow is removed, the runway is inspected for cracks, pits, or any other deficiencies that would prevent a safe landing. These are repaired by crews with a mixture of cold water, ice chips, and snow that is poured on, allowed to harden, and then smoothed over.

Finally, two snow groomers with tillers grind a small layer of ice to create a top layer of crushed snow and ice that gives the runway the necessary friction for aircraft to operate. Lidström points out that equipment at Troll isn’t necessarily purpose built, ‘These are the same machines that you see on ski slopes, but with a tiller grinder attached.’

There’s even a small terminal with bathrooms and wifi, amenities which aren’t available at all Antarctic airfields.

One Year Ago Today

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2021

For reasons I do not quite understand, I just spent the better part of an hour reading two oral histories of March 11, 2020, aka the day the United States finally took the Covid-19 pandemic seriously — this one from Wired published back in April 2020 and this one published today by Buzzfeed News. You may not want to relive that day and everything it’s come to signify, but apparently I did. (See also a Twitter search for “year ago today” and Covid One Year Ago.)

Several things happened on 3/11 that made Americans and their government finally realize that our lives were about to significantly change: the stock market plunged, the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive, the WHO called it a “pandemic” for the first time, Trump addressed the nation and announced a ban on travel from Europe, and Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson announced that they had tested positive for the virus.

Claudia Sahm: Frankly, the night before, the 10th, I was in a bit of a panic because I was worried that I was overreacting. It was like gaslighting the way Trump and Republicans and Fox News would talk about the coronavirus. Like, “We’ve got this one, it’s not a big deal. It’s like the common flu.” Listening to that, I was saying, “We need to get going.” Congress needs to do real things. That morning, I stood in front of the House Democrats at the minority whip breakfast and told them what they needed to do with a relief package. I told the House Democrats that the $8.3 billion package that they had passed the week before was an insult.

DANIEL MERTZLUFFT, director of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, who was then in a Broadway theater audience: In the three hours I was seeing Company, the world had changed. I went to drinks after work with friends, one of whom is a business owner that works in theater marketing, and I remember him arriving at the bar and sort of realizing for the first time what it must have been like on the day the Great Depression started. What he said was, “This is not a month; this is going to be months. My business no longer exists. I have to fire my entire team.”

The Trump, Hanks, and NBA news all hit within a period of 30 minutes — I vividly remember being on Twitter and texting w/ friends as the news rolled in that evening. I’d stocked up on food & such during the last week in February and had been fully convinced the day before by this video on the exponential growth of epidemics that this was going to be a world-changing event, but the pace of events that evening was unprecedentedly dizzying. (via the morning news)

Wobbling Muons May Hint at Unknown Forces

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2021

Muon Ring

The preliminary results of a study of elementary particles at Fermilab and elsewhere show that the behavior of particles called muons deviates from standard physical theories, indicating that previously unknown forces are at work.

Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

Update: At Quanta Magazine, Natalie Wolchover dives deeper into the preliminary results and what they might mean.

Re-Wilding Yourself by Swimming in Nature

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2021

In this short film called Hydrotherapy, Laura Owen Sanderson talks about how she found relief from a life-changing illness through wild swimming.

I wasn’t afraid to die. I was more afraid, or angry if you’d like, that I hadn’t lived, that I hadn’t made the most of every opportunity. So I was waiting for a day that might never come — when you retire or when you’re thin enough or when the kids have grown up — and there was a sudden realization that that day might never come.

If you’d like to reconnect with nature through wild swimming or cold water swimming, check out these two videos for some handy tips on how to get started and do it safely. (via huit denim newsletter)

The Secret Life of Machines

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2021

In the late 80s and early 90s, a show called The Secret Life of Machines aired in the UK and the US. Each episode focused on one piece of technology (television, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator) and how it worked — the show is definitely a precursor to the hordes of explainer videos on YouTube, and, increasingly, streaming services. Show creator Tim Hunkin has been uploading digitally remastered episodes of the show to YouTube with newly added commentary from Hunkin at the end of each one. (via @TimothyHelmuth)

Update: I got distracted and forgot to include that Hunkin is doing a new series called The Secret Life of Components about things like chains, hinges, and LED lights. (thx for the reminder @rou_revisionist & @kylevanhorn)

Mealworm Feast Time Lapse

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2021

This is pretty simple: 10,000 mealworms eating a tomato, piece of corn, and romanesco broccoli, filmed with a time lapse camera. My only comment is that for something called a mealworm, they don’t eat as quickly as I thought they would. 10,000 mealworms couldn’t polish off a tomato in less than 48 hours? You’re never going to be a beetle at that pace! (via the kid should see this)

Perfectly Synchronized Dancing

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2021
View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Taylor Pierce (@taylor_thatdancer)

I love this short dance video made by Taylor Pierce and Jackson Myles Chavis. For me, it’s when they slide to the side and then to the back in complete synchronized motion, like they’re on a dolly. I’ve watched this a dozen times at least. And a bunch of other videos by Pierce and Chavis. Mesmerizing.

Spring Doorstop Musical Instrument. Booooiinnggg!

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2021

I didn’t realize it at the time, but making a spring doorstop keyboard was probably one of my greatest desires as a young child obsessed with those boingy door stoppers. We didn’t even have any of them in my house — playing with them was a rare treat when visiting friends’ and relatives’ houses. Thank you Ali Spagnola for fulfilling a childhood dream. (Can’t remember where I found this, but since it’s music-related it was probably via Ted Gioia.)

Update: See also the Quantum Garden, “an interactive art installation that demonstrates key concepts of quantum physics, such as quantum superposition, interference, and the Schrödinger equation.” (via @kayelcio)

30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Studio Ghibli

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2021

This. This is the stuff. Lapping water, wind through the tall grass, patient trains, birds, rolling countryside, mountains, sleeping, castles in motion, and more calm scenes compiled from Studio Ghibli movies.

See also hundreds of Studio Ghibli backgrounds for your Zoom calls and 10 Hours of Extremely Relaxing Ocean Scenes & 40 Hours of Relaxing Planet Earth II Sounds, both from BBC Earth. (via laura olin)

America’s Vaccine Glut and “Vaccine Diplomacy”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2021

After the Biden administration announced they will have enough Covid-19 vaccine supply to cover every single adult in the country by the end of May, I got to wondering about what they were going to do with the tens & hundreds of millions of surplus doses already procured for the remainder of the year. “Oh,” I thought, naively, “We’ll be able to distribute it to countries that can’t easily procure or manufacture vaccines of their own!” And I’m sure some of that will happen, if only for PR purposes. But it’s perhaps more likely that America will practice vaccine diplomacy and use the stockpile to reestablish its global leadership.

The United States has backed away from the world. This isn’t a Clinton thing or a W Bush thing or an Obama thing or a Trump thing or a Biden thing, but instead a United States thing. The American people lost interest in playing a constructive role in the world three decades ago, and America’s political leadership has molded itself around that fact. Trump may have been instinctually and publicly hostile to all things international, but Biden is only different in tone. Biden’s Buy-American program is actually more anti-globalization than Trump’s America-First rhetoric as it is an express violation of most of America’s international trade commitments. TeamBiden says it wants to reestablish America’s global leadership…but it plans to do so without any troops or money. Sorry, but that’s not how it works.

Which makes the possibilities for vaccine diplomacy wildly interesting. The United States has no responsibility to provide COVID vaccines to the world. It can — it will — distribute them, but it will want something in return.

Even if you disagree with some of the analysis here, it will be interesting to watch where America’s stockpile ends up. Given Biden’s rhetoric of “listening to the science” when it comes to the pandemic, I hope that at least some of that supply goes to places that need it most to make certain the pandemic doesn’t sputter on for years, generating potentially dangerous new variants, even if it’s politically disadvantageous.

Update: Countries now scrambling for COVID-19 vaccines may soon have surpluses to donate by Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt for Science magazine:

Like three dozen other countries, the United States contracted with multiple vaccine companies for several times the number of doses needed to cover its population. No one knew at the time which, if any, of the candidate vaccines would work or when they might prove safe and effective. But by now, most of the prepurchased vaccines appear to offer solid protection — which means many countries will receive far more vaccine than they need. The excess doses the United States alone may have by July would vaccinate at least 200 million people.

A chart in the article notes that the US has procured enough vaccine to cover almost 1.5 billion people after fully vaccinating its entire population.

Yo-Yo Ma Plays Impromptu Cello Concert at Covid-19 Vaccination Clinic After Getting Second Dose

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2021

After getting his second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic at Berkshire Community College, Yo-Yo Ma got out his cello and performed a 15-minute impromptu concert for the others folks at the clinic.

When Ma had first visited the clinic for his first shot, he did so quietly, taking in the surroundings, staff said. But brought his cello when he returned for the second shot.

Staff described how a hush fell across the clinic as Ma began to play. “It was so weird how peaceful the whole building became, just having a little bit of music in the background,” said Leslie Drager, the lead clinical manager for the vaccination site, according to the Washington Post.

Why is it weird? Music is amazing. I know you could never get such a “frivolous” spending measure through an American deliberative body these days, but how awesome would it be for the government to commission out-of-work musicians to play at vaccination clinics? Ok maybe you couldn’t have anyone sing and the brass & woodwinds would probably have to sit this one out, but you could have strings, guitars, percussion, pianos, DJs, etc. there to play some relaxing, uplifting, or energetic music, according to local custom & culture. Bring back the WPA!

Why Does Vladimir Putin Want Alexei Navalny Dead?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2021

After Vladimir Putin, dictatorial leader of Russia for over 20 years now, had seemingly insulated himself against losing power through control of the media, law, elections, and the wealthy allies, a lawyer named Alexei Navalny began to expose the corruption in Putin’s regime with a series of posts to his blog and on YouTube. Navalny continued his investigations, gaining public popularity and running for public office. Putin imprisoned him and tried to have him killed. This Vox video explains in more detail why Putin wants Navalny dead.

More reading on Navalny: Vox explainer, Masha Gessen on recent pro-Navalny protests in Russia. (via open culture)

String Quartet Performs Billie Eilish’s bad guy

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2021

Over the past two decades, musical group Vitamin String Quartet has covered the songs of dozens of musical artists and groups, from Jimi Hendrix to PJ Harvey to Eminem. In the video embedded above, they cover bad guy by Billie Eilish, apparently one of several covers that appears in Bridgerton (haven’t seen it). The group’s music has also appeared in Westworld, most notably Radiohead’s Motion Picture Soundtrack. And, I just this second made this connection: VSQ also did the Strung Out on OK Computer album, a longtime staple of my music for working.

The Bookshop: One of John Cleese’s Favorite Comedy Sketches

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2021

In 2014, John Cleese listed five of his favorite comedy sketches that he had written over the course of his career. Among them was one I’d never seen before but soon had me in stitches: The Bookshop.

I also watched another of the sketches he mentioned (The Cheese Shop) and it fell totally flat — Monty Python-style humor is very much a hit-or-miss thing for me, so YMMV. (via open culture)

Languishing

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 21, 2021

Adam Grant, There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing:

At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member was staying up late to watch “National Treasure” again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends.

It wasn’t burnout - we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

Yeeeeeep. Yep. Yep. 1000% how I’ve been feeling today and on and off for months now.

‘Private Choices Have Public Consequences’

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2021

This is a very good and bracing essay from David Roth for Defector about a certain type of knee-jerk libertarian response to the pandemic in the US.

In place of any actually ennobling liberty or more fundamental freedom, contemporary American life mostly offers choices. But since most of these are not really choices at all in any meaningful way, it might be more accurate to say that we’re offered selection. The choice between paying for health insurance and running up six figures of non-dischargeable debt because you got sick, for instance, is honestly less a choice than a hostage situation. But because the second outcome is still extremely possible even if you choose to pay for health insurance, it’s more correct to say that the choice is already made, and that the decision is more about choosing from an array of variously insufficient and predatory options the one whose name or price or risk you like most. Sometimes there isn’t even that, and the choice is a binary one between something and nothing. None of this is really what anyone would choose, but these ugly individuated choices are what we get.

And then:

The broader complacent and unreasoned acceptance that props up our otherwise untenable status quo is shot through all these facile “it’s a private matter and a personal choice” formulations; if you have accepted that mostly useless choices between dreary outcomes are all you could ever get as a citizen in the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth, then you have also accepted that these choices are actually very important, and that making them is the thing makes you free. None of these personal choices actually make anything better for the person making them. In the case of the vaccine, those choices have devastating downstream impacts for all the people who glance off the choice-maker as they carve their personal hero’s journeys through the world. None of this matters as much as the idea that the choice is theirs to make.

Two Identical Strangers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2021

In 2018, Tim Wardle’s fantastic documentary Three Identical Strangers introduced us to a set of identical triplets who were separated at birth. The film goes deeper into the story (and into nature vs nurture) and I don’t want to spoil it too much, but after it was released, some people began to suspect that they might have identical siblings out there themselves. One of those people was Michele Mordkoff, who found she had a twin sister and got in touch with Wardle, who was there at their reunion and made this short film about it (major TIS spoilers in that first paragraph).

“She is a stranger to me, but she’s also a part of me-I mean, we shared a womb,” says Michele in the film after she meets her twin for the first time.

“I’ve been struck by how instinctive, magical, and moving genetic reunions can be,” Wardle told The Atlantic in a recent interview. “This isn’t to denigrate non-genetic/adoptive relationships, which can also be wonderful, but there’s something extraordinary and almost transcendent about observing the interaction between two people who have never met before but share the same DNA. It defies rational explanation.”

If you can’t get enough of twin reunions, here are a few more to watch.

Radiohead. Ballet. Together at Last.

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2021

A pair of dancers from the Polish National Ballet perform a dance to Reckoner by Radiohead, choreographed by Robert Bondara. This is from a longer performance featuring a number of Radiohead songs. The whole performance briefly popped up online over the weekend but is gone now. The video above is the only clip I could find on YouTube — hopefully the whole thing will be available again at some point.

Listen to Wikipedia

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2021

Wikipedia is a constantly changing entity with hundreds of edits occurring every minute and now you can experience that dynamism as ambient music: Listen to Wikipedia. Additions, subtractions, and new user signups to the site are tracked as they happen and represented as different tones — here’s a video recording from a few years ago:

Bells indicate additions and string plucks indicate subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit; the larger the edit, the deeper the note. Green circles show edits from unregistered contributors, and purple circles mark edits performed by automated bots. You may see announcements for new users as they join the site, punctuated by a string swell.

(via open culture)