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Watch how smoke, dust, and salt circulate in the Earth’s atmosphere

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

Using a combination of satellite data and mathematical weather models, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center made this simulation that shows how aerosols like dust, smoke, and salt were circulated in the atmosphere during the 2017 hurricane season. It’s amazing to see how far some of these things spread.

During the 2017 hurricane season, the storms are visible because of the sea salt that is captured by the storms. Strong winds at the surface lift the sea salt into the atmosphere and the particles are incorporated into the storm. Hurricane Irma is the first big storm that spawns off the coast of Africa. As the storm spins up, the Saharan dust is absorbed in cloud droplets and washed out of the storm as rain. This process happens with most of the storms, except for Hurricane Ophelia. Forming more northward than most storms, Ophelia traveled to the east picking up dust from the Sahara and smoke from large fires in Portugal. Retaining its tropical storm state farther northward than any system in the Atlantic, Ophelia carried the smoke and dust into Ireland and the UK.

I watched this several times to pick up on different things…the hurricanes of course, but also how smoke from the forest fires in the Pacific Northwest makes it all the way to Scotland (!!!) and dust from the Sahara desert makes it to the Caribbean (also !!!). (via phil plait)

Update: All that dust from the Sahara blowing across the ocean? Some of the dust, 27 million tons per year on average, is deposited in the Amazon basin in South America, providing the ecosystem there vital phosphorus:

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust, Yu said. Specifically the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed where rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

(via tom whitwell)

An interactive map of debt in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2017

Interactive Debt Map

The Urban Institute has built an interactive map for exploring debt in America.

Credit can be a lifeline during emergencies and a bridge to education and homeownership. But debt-which can stem from credit or unpaid bills-often burdens families and communities and exacerbates wealth inequality. This map shows the geography of debt in America at the national, state, and county levels.

I’d love to hear why the “share with any debt in collections” is so relatively low in the Upper Midwest, Minnesota in particular.

Update: Unsurprisingly, health insurance coverage is a significant factor in American debt…and Minnesota has a low rate of medical debt in collections along with a relatively low rate of uninsured. This 2016 press release from MN Department of Health provides some clues as to why the uninsured rate is so comparatively low. (via @yodaui)

Dot Piano

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Dot Piano

Dot Piano is a web-based visual piano that works with a MIDI keyboard peripheral or with your regular computer keyboard. As you play, colorful dots dance across the screen in a variety of ways. Hit record and you can easily save and share your composition with others. This one is fun to watch. (via prosthetic knowledge)

The making of Burial’s Untrue

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Ten years ago, electronic musician Burial released his second album, Untrue, which went on to be quite influential.

Where would UK dance music be without Burial’s Untrue? The South Londoner’s second album, released ten years ago this month on Hyperdub, has arguably done more than any other record in recent history to shape electronic music, presenting not only novel production techniques but the power of rooting a record in a specific time, mood and place.

This video from Resident Advisor explores that influence and how Burial’s novel production methods contributed to the album’s success. For one thing, instead of using music software that everyone else used to build and layer beats, Burial used Soundforge, which only shows the waveforms.

So I thought to myself fuckit I’m going to stick to this shitty little computer program, Soundforge. I don’t know any other programs. Once I change something, I can never un-change it. I can only see the waves. So I know when I’m happy with my drums because they look like a nice fishbone. When they look just skeletal as fuck in front of me, and so I know they’ll sound good.

Basically, he eyeballed it, which makes the whole thing feel more natural (and makes it difficult for DJs to mix). (via @pieratt)

The populism of Amazon’s real-world bookstores

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen recently visited an Amazon Store for the first time and posted some impressions.

1. It is a poorly designed store for me, most of all because it does not emphasize new releases. I feel I am familiar with a lot of older titles, or I went through a more or less rational process of deciding not to become familiar with them. Their current popularity, as measured say by Amazon rankings, does not cause me to reassess those judgments. For me, aggregate Amazon popularity has no real predictive power, except perhaps I don’t want to buy books everyone liked. “A really smart person says to consider this again,” however, would revise my prior estimates.

6. I consider myself quite pro-Amazon, still to me it feels dystopic when an attractive young saleswoman says so cheerily to (some) customers: “Thank you for being Prime!”

Some of his observations match those of other reviewers from when the store opened back in May. On my last trip to NYC, I visited the same store as Cowen (also for the first time) and it didn’t change my opinion about the visibility of the data in the store:

Other bookstores have books arranged according to best-seller lists, store-specific best-sellers, and staff recommendations, but I’ve never seen any store layout so extensively informed by data and where they tell you so much about why you’re seeing each item. Grocery store item placement is very data driven, but they don’t tell you why you’re seeing a display of Coke at the end of the aisle or why the produce is typically right at the entrance. It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon’s approach works or if people will be turned off by shopping inside a product database, a dehumanizing feeling Frommer hints at with “a collection of books that feels blandly standard” when compared to human curated selections at smaller bookstores.

Walking around, I half-expected to see SQL queries accompanying some of the displays — “SELECT * FROM books WHERE rating > 4.8 AND pub_year = 2017 ORDER BY number_sold”. Amazon definitely needs to figure out how to get a little weird into their stores, a little of the human touch. Toning down the data talk would help. A more casual typeface might work too — not Comic Sans but perhaps something at least approaching handwritten? They’ve got so so much data about how people buy books…they just need to be more clever about how they slice and dice it. Maybe look for books that exhibit the Napoleon Dynamite Problem? Find people with interesting wishlists?

Ultimately, I didn’t buy anything either.

Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

I used to be darker
Then I got lighter
Then I got dark again
Something too big
To be seen
Was passing over and over me
— Bill Callahan, “Jim Cain”

Bill Callahan is my favorite living, active musical artist. It’s been three years since his last album, Have Fun With God; until then, he’d released an album of all-new material every year or other year since 1990, mostly under the name band Smog [or “(Smog)”].

Since 2007, he’s toured under his own name. Like other Drag City artists, he’s not on Spotify or most streaming services. (Update: Drag City made a deal with Apple Music this summer, although it’s still missing from most of the other players.) This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.

At one time or another, Bill’s managed to channel almost every deep-voiced, literary-minded, hard-knocks storyteller in popular music. You can hear bits of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Gil-Scott Heron, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash; you hear resonances of contemporaries like David Berman, Will Oldham, Mark Everett, or Jim O’Rourke (who produced four of Bill’s albums).

But he’s stranger than any of them. You get autobiography, direct address, dialogue, and narrative, but also surreal tableaux, where the singer/author stands at a remove. His characters talk like Cormac McCarthy’s, but think like Albert Camus. Overtly or covertly, he’s been the model for every sad man in the new generation of indie rock. I like some of them; I don’t like some of them. But all of them offer so much less than he does.

His work has gone through a number of phases. “A Hit” was his home-recorded, low-fi manifesto:

It’s not gonna be a hit
So why even bother
With it

I’ll never be a rock n’ roll saint
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan

In the 90s, he moved into the studio and became a more recognizable indie folk artist. The apex of this phase might be “I Break Horses,” a disarming, alarming anthem for men who can’t (or won’t) make a relationship work:

“To Be Of Use” could be written by the same character as “I Break Horses,” but it’s much more musically and lyrically abstract. He’s crossed over from a singer who has practical problems dealing with humans to one who has philosophical problems with humanity.

Most of my fantasies are of
Making someone else come.
Most of my fantasies are of
To be of use—
To be of some hard,
Simple
Undeniable use.

Oh — like a spindle.
Or oh — like a candle.
Oh — like a horseshoe.
Or oh — like a corkscrew.

1999’s Knock Knock, his last collaboration with producer Jim O’Rourke, was his fifteen minutes of fame. “Cold Blooded Old Times” was on the High Fidelity soundtrack: he loaned the movie album a level of indie cred (of course Rob would love Smog), and eighteen years ago, a movie or TV commercial appearance was enough to launch an indie band into the indie stratosphere — i.e., modest, ephemeral fame.

There are so many good songs on Knock Knock, in every indie rock style, but my sentimental favorite is another simple arpeggiated tune that sounds a lot like “To Be Of Use.” “Teenage Spaceship” breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Landing at night
I was beautiful with all my lights
Loomed so large on the horizon
So large, people thought my windows
Were stars

Bill, or Bill’s personae (it’s hard to nail him down), is always worried he’s been mistaken for something he’s not. It’s the most peculiar but totally recognizable kind of butch vulnerability. “You will never know exactly how far I have let you in.”

The hallmark of a good Bill Callahan song is its deceptive simplicity. Later, he’d add orchestration and sometimes work with fuller bands, but even then, there’s generally not a whole lot going on that’s extra.

“Dress Sexy At My Funeral” is the best Lou Reed song Lou never wrote, two chords and a bridge. The concept is jokey, but the execution is compelling:

2003’s Supper is Bill’s most beautiful album, and “Truth Serum” (with Sarabeth Tucek on vocals) may be its most beautiful song.

This is really the hinge in his career. He’d split up with Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, a few years before (see the cat struck by lightning on the cover of Knock Knock?). He would soon be dating Joanna Newsom, another brilliant young folk singer and songwriter. A River’s Too Much to Love is really his first solo album, but still under the Smog name; the alarmingly upbeat Woke on a Whaleheart the first Bill Callahan album proper. It seemed like good times were ahead. [Narrator: They were not.]

“Sycamore” is the song I played for my son when he was born.

Callahan and Newsom went through a messy breakup. They both wrote great songs about it. They both didn’t seem fully over it. She ended up with Andy Samberg, essentially Bill Callahan’s tonal opposite.

Bill married filmmaker Hanly Banks, who’d directed a documentary of his “Apocalypse” tour. And he wrote “Small Plane,” which is awfully close to perfect.

He still tours. He still writes. His fans still wait for his next work, wondering what it all means.

Amanda Meyncke is a television writer and director, and the biggest fan of Bill’s I know. I asked her to try to explain his appeal.

He’s my favorite musician of all time, followed closely by David Byrne and Bob Dylan — both performers who are startlingly easy to get to know, to research, to understand in time. Not so with Bill.

Bill is like so fucking infamously enigmatic. He makes a wonderful billboard to project your own theories onto as well as a safe home for your feelings to live, since it is unlikely any stories behind the music will ever emerge. Also you get the feeling he’d lie to your face about his own work, or somehow be amused at your insistence on infusing it with meaning beyond the obvious.

I’ve seen him perform perhaps 10 times, I’ve flown to other states for the singular purpose of seeing him. I’ve seen him multiple times on the same tour and he performs the exact, precise set list at every stop of the tour, never altering or adding. He doesn’t seem to like performing, doesn’t seem to like the limelight.

About ten years ago I posed as a promoter and wrote his record label to find out what it would cost to get a solo Bill show. Turns out it will cost $10,000, so I’ve been saving up ever since. I bet it’s close to $15,000 now.

One of my friends said he and Joanna Newsom were engaged in the slowest rap battle of all time, warring records being released every three years.

Mostly it’s just the most goddamn beautiful music and vocals I’ve heard. A vision of love that feels more like a New Yorker short fiction from decades ago. A two-step with isolation that is both self-imposed and rejected.

He married the woman who made a documentary about him and they had a kid a year or two ago. Bill as a dad, the family man. What a world.

Four versions of “A House Is Not A Home”

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

The first, of course, is by Dionne Warwick. It’s a 1964 live version of the Bacharach and David arrangement she’d already made a hit. It’s the first track from her third album: she’d made all three in a year and a half.

Dionne’s performance is all about funneling emotion through control. It’s like shooting an explosive bullet through a rifled barrel, for maximum velocity, accuracy, and impact.

Almost all of Hal David’s lyrics are all about loss and unfulfilled dreams, but he/they always find an objective correlative that roots those feelings in specific places, scenes, and experiences. It’s a phenomenology of loss — and “A House Is Not A Home” is maybe the purest example of this.

Burt Bacharach is Burt Bacharach, a composer with a perfect combination of brains and swag. Everyone sounds like him, and nobody sounds close. (Also, Paul Griffin is maybe the best session piano player in the history of pop music. Someday, he deserves his own post.)

This BBC documentary gives some of the history between Warwick, Bacharach, and David (check around 10:45):

And this terrific clip shows Warwick and Bacharach at work on “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets”:

The second version of “A House Without A Home” is by Luther Vandross, from his first proper album, Never Too Much. It’s more than twice as long as Dionne’s version. (From here on out, I’m going to call Dionne and Luther by their first names, because they are my best friends.)

Instead of opening with “House,” Luther closes with it, and by god, does he close. He closes it, sets it on fire, collects the insurance money, and spends it all on you.

My friend Zach Curd is a musician, singer, and composer (with a brand new album out!), and most importantly, a fellow Luther fan. He recently put Luther’s cover of “House” on a playlist of “perfect songs,” and agreed to share some thoughts about what makes this version so good.

The things I love about “A House Is Not a Home”:

This is the thing about Luther: casual fans remember the slowed-down crooning, but forget that he sets up that framework just to play against it. This leads to otherwise intelligent people saying crazy things in public like “Luther doesn’t slap.” It’s okay. Everyone gets a chance to be completely wrong.

The third version of “A House Is Not A Home” is my very favorite. It is Luther singing Dionne’s song to Dionne at the 1986 NAACP Image Awards. The orchestration’s a little fuller, splitting the difference between Dionne’s original and Luther’s studio version. And it is just a goddamn showcase for what one man can do with his voice. Just watch:

At this point, if you’re still with me, set aside an hour and watch this terrific documentary about Luther. It’s about his childhood, his early career, his first encounter with Dionne Warwick’s music [he patterned his entire style on hers], his appearances on Sesame Street, his struggles with weight, and what to me is frankly an admirable “I will never confirm, I will never deny, because I don’t owe you assholes EVERYTHING” attitude about publicly discussing his homosexuality.

I hate the closet and wish Luther could have been free to be who he was with all of us, but my god, did anyone make more out of his life in the closet than Luther Vandross?

The fourth version of “A House Is Not A Home” is from Luther’s 2003 concert at Radio City Music Hall. As Zach points out, it is somehow even slower than his studio version, a full ten minutes long. I don’t even know how you make a drummer play that slow without medication. When Luther says “I’m gonna take my time and sing this thing — can I do that?” he means it.

This song is outer space, and Luther’s voice is a gravitational wave. It’s radiating from colliding stars millions of miles away. It bends spacetime. We might be farther away from Dionne’s tightly channeled emotion and David’s carefully charted physical details. But nowhere else are we closer to the godhead.

How today’s animals would look if drawn like dinosaurs

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2017

It’s difficult to know how a particular animal might have looked if you only use its skeleton as a guide. For example, we used to think dinosaurs were mostly scaly like lizards until evidence was uncovered that many kinds of dinosaur were more birdlike with feathers.

Artist C.M. Kosemen, in his book All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, illustrated some present-day animals like many dinosaurs are typically drawn, based only on their skeletons.

Most serious paleoart bases itself on the detailed findings of paleontologists, who can work for weeks or even years compiling the most accurate descriptions of ancient life they can, based on fossil remains. But Kosemen says that many dinosaur illustrations should take more cues from animals living today. Our world is full of unique animals that have squat fatty bodies, with all kinds of soft tissue features that are unlikely to have survived in fossils, such as pouches, wattles, or skin flaps. “There could even be forms that no one has imagined,” says Kosemen. “For example there could plant-eating dinosaurs that had pangolin or armadillo-like armor that wasn’t preserved in the fossil. There could also be dinosaurs with porcupine-type quills.”

Here are Kosemen’s drawings of a baboon and swans:

Kosemen Dinosaur

Kosemen Dinosaur

AfroArt: fantastic portraits of African American kids with “unique natural hairstyles”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2017

Afroart

Afroart

Afroart

Afroart

Afroart

Husband and wife photographers Regis & Kahran Bethencourt have been working on a project called AfroArt “to showcase the beauty and versatility of afro hair”. It features African American kids and young adults photographed in different settings (futuristic, Baroque, etc.) with natural hairstyles.

We feel that it is so important for kids of color to be able to see positive images that look like them in the media. Unfortunately the lack of diversity often plays into the stereotypes that they are not “good enough” and often forces kids to have low self-esteem. We try to combat these stereotypes in our photography by showing diverse imagery of kids who love the skin they’re in, their own natural curls and their culture. Stories like this are important to show so that we can shatter the current standards of beauty.

It was really tough to pick just three four five of these portraits…go check out the lot. Oh, and prints are available in their online store.

Ben Saunders embarks on Trans-Antarctic Solo expedition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2017

Ben Saunders Antarctic Solo

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

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

Update: A bittersweet update from Ben today (12/28/2017). After 52 days and 650 miles, he’s reached the South Pole. But he’s also not embarking on the return leg of the journey, thereby ending his expedition. A further explanation will come — it’s likely his journey was taking much longer than he had food for — but what I wrote when his last expedition ended prematurely holds:

Adventure is never about battling the environment or elements or whatever. It’s always a struggle with the self. And as this battle reached a fevered pitch, Ben and Tarka were not found wanting. Calling for resupply, and thereby giving up on one of the major goals of this expedition 10 years in the making, was probably the hardest thing Ben has ever had to do in his entire life. But he did it, for his family, his loved ones, and his teammate. Ben, Tarka, I’m proud of you. Thank you for letting us follow along on your journey, for showing us what is humanly possible, and for the reminder that pushing the boundaries is never about how far you can tow a sled but about what you do when confronted with the no-win scenario: beating yourself.

Congratulations, Ben!

How generative music works

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2017

From software developer and writer Tero Parviainen, an interactive presentation on how generative music works. (Roughly speaking, generative music is “about making music by designing systems that make music”.)

The presentation includes many examples — Terry Riley’s In C, Brian Eno’s recent app, Listen to Wikipedia, Steve Reich’s work, neural nets for generating music — and a few interactive generative music toys you can play around with. (via waxy)

New extreme sport: Thomas the Tank Engine stunts

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2017

It is what it says on the tin: a toy Thomas the Tank Engine doing stunts on wooden tracks. My favorite part is that the slowed-down audio makes it sound somewhat like a skateboard.

Voyager 1 just fired its trajectory thrusters for the first time since 1980

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2017

Nasa Voyager

The last time that the four trajectory thrusters on the Voyager 1 probe were fired, Jimmy Carter was still President of the United States. But with the main attitude control thrusters deteriorating from trying to keep the probe oriented correctly, the team thought they could keep the mission going using the trajectory thrusters. So they fired them up.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly — and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, is currently more than 13 billion miles from Earth, and is still functional and doing science. Incredible.

The undersung middle act of the first Star Wars

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Speaking of digging up weird old stories from the pulps — I don’t know if we always appreciate how good the middle of 1977’s Star Wars is. “Middle” is a vague concept, so let’s nail it down to all the parts where Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, R2-D2 and C-Threepio are sneaking around on the Death Star.

The beginning and end of Star Wars are much more straightforward. You have a series of handoffs, from Leia to the droids to Luke. Luke then meets up with Obi-Wan, then Han Solo and Chewbacca, and sets off to find his destiny. That’s the Joseph Campbell part of the movie. The end, where Luke and the rebels attack the Death Star, is a straight-up war movie action sequence that pays off all the threads you’ve set up in the beginning.

The middle is much trickier. Lucas gets all the characters we’ve met so far into very deep trouble, and splits them up. Scenes float from one set of characters to the next before eventually converging back together again. Then he strings together a series of set pieces, largely ripped off from old serials. Han, Luke, and Chewie have to break into one room. Then they have to break into another. Then they have to break out. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is quietly skulking around, and Threepio bluffing his way out of danger. And it’s all tied together by dialogue taken straight from 1930s-1940s screwball comedy.

Everything slows down, but because there’s a mood that anything can happen, it sustains its tension. The only recent movie I can think of that really does something similar is The Incredibles, as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl sneak around Syndrome’s base. I think for most contemporary movies, they’d find it too slow or too hard to follow. But pound for pound, it’s the best part of the movie.

I asked my friend Gavin Craig, writer of one of my favorite Star Wars essays ever [PDF], to tell me what he loves about the first Star Wars.

The best thing about the original Star Wars film is that it’s still a bit weird. The aliens that populate the Mos Eisley cantina are still compelling and inexplicable. Darth Vader comports himself with the sense of honor of a samurai serving an evil master without question. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not an old soldier, but a hermit and a wizard, with a trickster’s secret knowledge and impish grin. And for every attempt to recapture its magic, no Star Wars film has yet framed a shot as beautiful as Luke Skywalker standing outside his home while Tatooine’s twin suns set, staring at a horizon that he thinks he’ll never reach.

There are the raw materials for a universe ready to explode into being, but everything is still fresh and raw, not yet sure of what it wants to become.

For all this, it’s the droids that stay with me. C-3PO and R2-D2 have appeared in every Star Wars film to date, and have even starred in their own Saturday morning animated series. Still, their point of view has never been treated as worthy of consideration as it was in their first adventure.

In interviews, Lucas has said that he considers the Star Wars films to be a story narrated long after the fact by R2-D2, and there are fan theories that posit Artoo as a secret rebel agent guiding the action of the war. But in 1977, Threepio and Artoo are… almost human. They fret and squabble. They run from and into danger. They perform acts of sacrifice and bravery, but at least one of them would be happier with a kind word and the comfort of a warm bath. One of them nearly dies, and while the heroes aren’t terribly concerned, the film understands that we are. We are shown that they are restored and reunited. While the heroes are rewarded with a fanfare and medals, the droids find a home, together, and that is the true happy ending.

Reaction GIFs and digital blackface

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

In the latest installment of the newish video series Internetting with Amanda Hess, Hess discusses The White Internet’s Love Affair with Digital Blackface. From Teen Vogue, an explanation of digital blackface by Lauren Michelle Jackson:

Adore or despise them, GIFs are integral to the social experience of the Internet. Thanks to a range of buttons, apps, and keyboards, saying “it me” without words is easier than ever. But even a casual observer of GIFing would notice that, as with much of online culture, black people appear at the center of it all. Or images of black people, at least. The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Oprah, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, NBA players, Tiffany Pollard, Kid Fury, and many, many other known and anonymous black likenesses dominate day-to-day feeds, even outside online black communities. Similar to the idea that “Black Vine is simply Vine,” as Jeff Ihaza determined in The Awl, black reaction GIFs have become so widespread that they’ve practically become synonymous with just reaction GIFs.

If you’ve never heard of the term before, “digital blackface” is used to describe various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace. Blackface minstrelsy is a theatrical tradition dating back to the early 19th century, in which performers “blacken” themselves up with costume and behaviors to act as black caricatures. The performances put society’s most racist sensibilities on display and in turn fed them back to audiences to intensify these feelings and disperse them across culture. Many of our most beloved entertainment genres owe at least part of themselves to the minstrel stage, including vaudeville, film, and cartoons. While often associated with Jim Crow-era racism, the tenets of minstrel performance remain alive today in television, movies, music and, in its most advanced iteration, on the Internet.

This is an incredibly satisfying video

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2017

A wheel comes off of a car during a race and behaves in an amazingly tidy way until…well, I won’t spoil it for you but watch until the wheel stops. The polar opposite of this video of the most unsatisfying things in the world.

The 2017 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2017

Hubble Advent 2017

From Alan Taylor at In Focus, the 10th anniversary installment of the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. One image taken by the Hubble for each day in December leading up to Dec 25th. Here’s Taylor’s caption for the image above:

A Caterpillar in the Carina Nebula. Scattered across the enormous Carina nebula are numerous dense clumps of cosmic gas and dust called Bok globules, including this one, which resembles a huge glowing caterpillar. First described by by astronomer Bart Bok, the globules are relatively small, dark, and cold regions made up of molecular hydrogen, carbon oxides, helium, and dust. The glowing edge of the caterpillar indicates that it is being photoionized by the hottest stars in the surrounding cluster. It has been hypothesized that stars may form inside these dusty cocoons.

The Periodic Table of Endangered Elements

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2017

Periodic Table Endangered

Until recently, humanity has treated the Earth as an infinite resource. As the Earth’s population has exploded over the past century however, we’ve learned in many different ways that that’s untrue. We’ve overfished the ocean, pumped too much carbon into the atmosphere and oceans, driven thousands of species into extinction, and terraformed much of the planet’s land. This periodic table produced by the American Chemical Society shows that there are also 44 chemical elements that will face supply limitations in the coming decades. Among those under a “serious threat in the next 100 years” are silver, helium, zinc, and gallium. Robert Silverberg wrote about The Death of Gallium back in 2008:

Gallium’s atomic number is 31. It’s a blue-white metal first discovered in 1831, and has certain unusual properties, like a very low melting point and an unwillingness to oxidize, that make it useful as a coating for optical mirrors, a liquid seal in strongly heated apparatus, and a substitute for mercury in ultraviolet lamps. It’s also quite important in making the liquid-crystal displays used in flat-screen television sets and computer monitors.

As it happens, we are building a lot of flat-screen TV sets and computer monitors these days. Gallium is thought to make up 0.0015 percent of the Earth’s crust and there are no concentrated supplies of it. We get it by extracting it from zinc or aluminum ore or by smelting the dust of furnace flues. Dr. Reller says that by 2017 or so there’ll be none left to use. Indium, another endangered element-number 49 in the periodic table-is similar to gallium in many ways, has many of the same uses (plus some others-it’s a gasoline additive, for example, and a component of the control rods used in nuclear reactors) and is being consumed much faster than we are finding it. Dr. Reller gives it about another decade. Hafnium, element 72, is in only slightly better shape. There aren’t any hafnium mines around; it lurks hidden in minute quantities in minerals that contain zirconium, from which it is extracted by a complicated process that would take me three or four pages to explain. We use a lot of it in computer chips and, like indium, in the control rods of nuclear reactors, but the problem is that we don’t have a lot of it. Dr. Reller thinks it’ll be gone somewhere around 2017. Even zinc, commonplace old zinc that is alloyed with copper to make brass, and which the United States used for ordinary one-cent coins when copper was in short supply in World War II, has a Reller extinction date of 2037. (How does a novel called The Death of Brass grab you?)

Zinc was never rare. We mine millions of tons a year of it. But the supply is finite and the demand is infinite, and that’s bad news. Even copper, as I noted above, is deemed to be at risk. We humans move to and fro upon the earth, gobbling up everything in sight, and some things aren’t replaceable.

As with many such predictions, the 2017 dates didn’t pan out, but the point that these resources are finite still holds. Eventually, we will run out.

Mirror, a short story of similar objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

A snack-sized video look at objects which have similar shapes, like a soft-serve ice cream cone and a compact fluorescent light bulb, a giraffe and a light pole, and an Oreo cookie and a manhole cover. (via colossal)

How a neural network algorithm sees Times Square

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2017

AI scientist Clayton Blythe fed a video of someone walking around Times Square into an AI program that’s been trained to detect objects (aka “a state of the art object detection framework called NASNet from Google Research”) and made a video showing what the algorithm sees in realtime — cars, traffic lights, people, bicycles, trucks, etc. — along with its confidence in what it sees. Love the cheeky soundtrack…a remix of Daft Punk’s Something About Us.

See also a neural network tries to identify objects in Star Trek:TNG intro. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Update: Well, it looks like the video is offline for whatever reason. You can see some animated screengrabs at prosthetic knowledge.

Art, ambition, and the selfish monstrousness of creation

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2017

Claire Dederer’s recent essay for The Paris Review, What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?, starts off with a discussion of the ethical and moral issues around appreciating the art of men who are monsters (e.g. Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, or Picasso):

They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.

Interesting enough, right? I don’t want to spoil it too much, but the essay takes a sharp turn about halfway through, leading to a fascinating examination of the necessary selfishness of artists.

There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one.

Really worth reading the whole thing…I’ve been thinking about it constantly since I read it the other day.

What’s under the trees? LIDAR exposes the hidden landscapes of forested areas.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2017

WA LIDAR Geology

The Washington State Geological Survey is using LIDAR technology to study the geology of the land hidden under forested areas of the state. LIDAR is like radar, but instead of bouncing radio waves off of objects to detect their distances, you use lasers. When you shoot laser light at a forested area, most of it is reflected back by the trees. But some of it reaches the ground, so by measuring the light that’s reflected back from the lowest point, you get a very accurate map of the bare earth, sans nature. Using the LIDAR maps, they can study the course changes in rivers, landslides, volcanic lava flows, earthquake faults & fault zones, tsunami inundation zones, and glaciers.

The beautiful photo at the top is a LIDAR image of the Sauk River and all its current and former channels…the bluish tint makes it look like an x-ray, which it pretty much is. It also reminds me of the meander maps of the Mississippi River made by Harold Fisk for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Here are two images of Bainbridge Island:

WA LIDAR Geology

WA LIDAR Geology

The LIDAR image clearly shows a horizontal earthquake fault scarp that’s completely hidden by the ground cover.

These two images are of drumlins left behind by a glacier:

WA LIDAR Geology

WA LIDAR Geology

Again, the LIDAR image shows the movement of a long-gone glacier with stunning clarity compared to the satellite photo with ground cover.

The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Writing for the MIT Technology Review, robotics and AI pioneer Rodney Brooks, warns us against The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions. I particularly enjoyed his riff on Clarke’s third law — “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — using Isaac Newton’s imagined reaction to an iPhone.

Now show Newton an Apple. Pull out an iPhone from your pocket, and turn it on so that the screen is glowing and full of icons, and hand it to him. Newton, who revealed how white light is made from components of different-colored light by pulling apart sunlight with a prism and then putting it back together, would no doubt be surprised at such a small object producing such vivid colors in the darkness of the chapel. Now play a movie of an English country scene, and then some church music that he would have heard. And then show him a Web page with the 500-plus pages of his personally annotated copy of his masterpiece Principia, teaching him how to use the pinch gesture to zoom in on details.

Could Newton begin to explain how this small device did all that? Although he invented calculus and explained both optics and gravity, he was never able to sort out chemistry from alchemy. So I think he would be flummoxed, and unable to come up with even the barest coherent outline of what this device was. It would be no different to him from an embodiment of the occult — something that was of great interest to him. It would be indistinguishable from magic. And remember, Newton was a really smart dude.

Brooks’ point is that from our current standpoint, something like artificial general intelligence is still “indistinguishable from magic” and once something is magical, it can do anything, solve any problem, reach any goal, without limitations…like a god. Arguments about it become faith-based.

The Lost Words

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Lost Words

Written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Lost Words is a collection of words related to the natural world that are fading from our children’s minds as the “wild childhood” disappears from western society.

All over the country, there are words disappearing from children’s lives. These are the words of the natural world — Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone. The rich landscape of wild imagination and wild play is rapidly fading from our children’s minds.The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of nature words and the natural world they invoke.

In 90 seconds, Penn & Teller show why vaccination is great

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2017

In only 90 seconds with the use of a few props (and some profanity), entertainers Penn & Teller offer a succinct and compelling argument of the benefits of vaccinating our children.

So even if vaccination did cause autism, WHICH IT FUCKING DOESN’T, anti-vaccination would still be bullshit.

Along with “Vaccines. And now my kids don’t die.”, this might be my favorite anti-vaxxers broadside ever.

If I Were/Was Your Girlfriend

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

It’s tempting to treat Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” as a genderscrambled version of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman” or Janet Jackson’s “If.” It’s really not. All three songs are great, but thematically and grammatically, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is way more complicated than the others, and more intricate than almost any other song Prince wrote.

Prince is not just saying you’d be better off with him; he is not just saying that he wants to get in your pants. He’s not not saying those things, but Prince has written dozens if not hundreds of songs with that as his theme, and none of those songs are “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

Prince is up to something. Even the usual interpretive trick for Prince’s songs — imagine that he is singing them to and about himself — doesn’t get you very far here.

Let’s start with that “Was.” We use the simple past “was” instead of the subjunctive mood “were” all the time, mostly because the subjunctive in English almost only shows up for a few irregular verbs like “were.” But there’s a songwriting tradition here; Prince knows it; every word is carefully chosen; we should take that “Was” seriously.

If I was your girlfriend, would U remember

To tell me all the things U forgot when I was your man?

The song is built on a series of conditional clauses, all of which are firmly set in the past. Was, would, could, sometime. Over and over again. Even when the singer lapses into something that seems like a present or present continuous tense, we get a counterpoint placing it in the past conditional again.

Sugar
Sugar, do you know what I’m saying 2 U this evening?
(If I was your girlfriend)
Maybe U think I’m being a little self-centered
But I, I said I want to be all of the things U are to me
(if I was your girlfriend)
Surely, surely you can see

That “this evening” is deixis — it’s pointing to say, “I am speaking these words HERE and NOW.” And it gets completely wiped away by the conditional past “If I was your girlfriend” and the conditional future “I want to be” and “surely you can see.”

This is an amazing song about intimacy, fantasy, the limits of gender roles, the limits of gender flexibility, a man’s full catalog of shortcomings and possibilities. This is also a breakup song, about heartbreak and desperation. It’s a song about a man putting the pieces of the past together and hoping they can add up to something more than they were.

Breakup songs are not exactly plentiful in the Prince catalog, although the ones he wrote were amazing. He wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” for The Family because it didn’t fit the brand of progressive party pop he’d established for Prince and the Revolution. Sinead O’Connor covered it in 1989, after Prince had shifted his image with Sign O’ The Times, and everyone marveled (again) at his songwriting.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” gets smuggled in as a Prince song at the right place and time. (Principle: every song on “Sign O’ The Times” is doing something other than what it seems to be doing.) The song is sexy because Prince is sexy. But the singer is losing the thread between past, present, and future. All those nesting dolls are collapsing. Even the marvelous, sensual come-on at the end, a desperate throw of the dice that pulls the song into the full future tense for the first time, gets framed as a dream:

And would you, would you let me kiss you there You know, down there where it counts I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long And together we’ll stare into silence

And we’ll try to imagine what it looks like Yeah, we’ll try to imagine what, what silence looks like Yeah, we’ll, we’ll try to imagine what silence looks like Yeah, we’ll try

The song seemed to evolve for Prince himself. In early live shows and the song’s official video above, Prince is the sexy seducer. Of course he talks his ex into bed. He’s Prince — the one and only — and his fans came to see a Prince show.

Later, he can’t do the splits any more. He’s sitting at the piano. The BPM is slowed down to about 80 percent. His eyes are closed. It’s a Joni Mitchell ballad.

Anil Dash, CEO of Fog Creek software, blogging pioneer, and Prince superfan, told me about these late performances of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”:

In his final shows, Prince would do the song in medley with Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain”, a song he only started playing very late in life, that seemed to have a lot of meaning for him.

[“Wait(ing) In Vain is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, even in Bob Marley’s bouncey version. Prince’s cover on solo piano is devastating.]

In his last set of concerts, he’d pause the song to bring up a still of Streisand and Redford in “The Way We Were”, after the part where he says “if somebody hurt u, even if that somebody was me.”

[This was at Prince’s second-to-last show, in Atlanta.]

It was one of the most honest and unexpected and sincere and heartbreaking things I think I ever heard him do. I was listening to audio of that in an airport in Tokyo a few months before he passed, and it brought me to tears, and it was one of the first things I returned to after I heard about his death. Was just as purely empathetic as I’d ever heard a straight man be in pop culture, and taught me a lot.

For me, losing Lou Reed was like losing a great teacher; losing Bowie was losing a hero; losing Phife was losing a best friend. But losing Prince, for many of us, was like losing the love of your life.

The mechanics of history

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2017

From choreographer Yoann Bourgeois, a mesmerizing trampoline performance called La mécanique de l’histoire (The mechanics of history). It often looks like they’re moving in slow motion, which is tough to do when the acceleration of gravity is involved.

These conjoined twins can share each other’s thoughts & vision

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

Tatiana and Krista Hogan are conjoined twins. But not only that, they are joined at the head, an extremely rare occurence that’s resulted in the girls sharing parts of their brains with each other.

Neurological studies have stunned the doctors. Tatiana can see out of both of Krista’s eyes, while Krista can only see out of one of Tatiana’s. They also share the senses of touch and taste and the connection even extends to motor control. Tatiana controls 3 arms and a leg, while Krista controls 3 legs and an arm.

Amazingly, the girls say they also know one another’s thoughts without needing to speak. “We talk in our heads” is how they describe it.

Despite their unique connection, the twins remain two distinct people. Tatiana is talkative, outgoing and high-strung, while Krista is quieter, more relaxed and loves to joke. But she has a temper and can be aggressive if she doesn’t get her way.

When they were little, they used to try to pull their heads apart. Their mother always told them they were stuck, so they would have to work things out. But as they’ve gotten older and the frustrations mount, they still fight. As they freely admit, some days they don’t like being together. “She’s annoying,” says Tatiana, who promptly gives her twin a reassuring hug.

That’s from a writeup of a CBC documentary about a year in the twins’ lives. The doc is only viewable in Canada, but there are several clips that anyone can watch.

Mosaic, Steven Soderbergh’s app/HBO TV series thingie

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2017

Steven Soderbergh’s latest project, Mosaic, takes two forms. The first is a free iOS app that contains an interactive miniseries with over seven hours of footage that you can move through in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure, with “DVD extras” built right into the story. Mosaic will also air in a more conventional linear form on HBO in January. Both versions star Sharon Stone, Beau Bridges, and Garrett Hedlund. Wired has the story of how Mosaic came to be.

Where they ended up was a smartphone-enabled story, developed and released by Silver’s company PodOp, that lets viewers decide which way they want to be told Mosaic’s tale of a children’s book author, played by Sharon Stone, who turns up dead in the idyllic ski haven of Park City, Utah. After watching each segment — some only a few minutes, some as long as a standard television episode — viewers are given options for whose point of view they want to follow and where they want to go next. Those who want to be completest and watch both options before moving on can do so, those who want to race to find out whodunit can do that too. Because each node, filmed by Soderbergh himself, feels like a TV show, launching Mosaic can be akin to sneaking a quick show on Netflix while commuting to work or waiting on a friend; but because it’s long story that’s easily flipped through, it can also enjoyed like the pulpy crime novel on your nightstand, something you chip away at a little bit at a time before bed. It’s concept isn’t wholly original — Soderbergh himself notes that “branching narrative has been around a long time” (the most obvious analogue is a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but Soderbergh cringes at that analogy) — but that it finds a way to appeal to both fans of interactive storytelling, and people who just want to watch some decent TV.

Matt Zoller Seitz also interviewed Soderbergh about the app/show for Vulture. It’s a really good interview (not surprising with Seitz at the helm); they inevitably got into the question of Hollywood and abuse of power:

MZS: Do you believe that in order to make memorable art, you have to be disturbed in some way?
SS: Not at all.

MZS: That’s what’s often raised as a defense of Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, and others.
SS: No, I don’t believe that at all. It takes a lot of energy to be an asshole. The people I admire most just aren’t interested in things that take away from their ability to make stuff. The people I really respect, and that I’ve met who fit this definition, have a sense of grace about them, because they know that there is no evolving and there is no wisdom without humility.

You can’t get better if you behave in a way that shuts people off. You can’t! You don’t have all the ideas necessary to solve something. You don’t! I’m sure if you spoke to Harvey in his heyday and said to him what I just said to you, he would believe that he accomplished all that he had because of the way he behaved.

MZS: Meaning, like a bully.
SS: Yes, and I would argue instead, “You’re 50 percent of what you could have been, because of the way you behave.” Ultimately, there is a large group of people who are talented, who you want to be in business with, but who won’t be in business with you. I don’t know how you view that as being your best self, or the best version of your business, but I’m really curious to see going forward what changes.

People matching artworks

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2017

Photographer Stefan Draschan spent hours hanging around museums waiting for people who matched in some way the artwork around them.

People Matching Artworks

People Matching Artworks

People Matching Artworks

People Matching Artworks

Draschan has done several other similar-ish projects, including People Touching Artworks. If I ever get really into Buddhism and mindfulness, I think my biggest obstacle in achieving enlightenment will be observing people in museums touching the art and remaining calm about it.

Leonardo da Vinci is overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Leonardo Overrated

Tyler Cowen asks Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated? and, in a rebuke to Betteridge, proceeds to answer “yes”.

He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them. The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading. Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.

So Leonardo was perhaps not the best at any one thing but he was very good or great at many different things. He is literally the quintessential “Renaissance man” and yet Cowen fails to evaluate him on that basis. Not surprising…history’s generalists are under-celebrated as a rule. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo in the next couple of weeks.

See also how the Mona Lisa became overrated.

Emergence: how many stupid things become smart together

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2017

A nice overview of emergence by Kurzgesagt. I continue to find the concept of emergence endlessly fascinating — order from disorder, complexity from simplicity, more is different. As a society, we tend to underestimate how much emergence plays a role in why things happen the way they do and are therefore often wrong-footed in our analysis and response.

For a good primer on emergence and other related phenomena, check out Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.

Tabloid Art History

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2017

Tabloid Art History

Tabloid Art History

Tabloid Art History

Twitter account Tabloid Art History shares pop culture images paired with art history references because, in their words, “for every pic of Lindsay Lohan falling, there’s a Bernini sculpture begging to be referenced”. A TAH art journal is also available (in online and paper versions).

Some early thoughts on iPhone X

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

I got an iPhone X on Friday and have been using it all weekend. Here are some of my initial thoughts about it, some of which will likely change after more use and reflection. As an hors d’oeuvre, Apple’s guided tour of iPhone X’s new features and capabilities:

In some ways, the setup process has been streamlined. Soon after turning on the iPhone X, it asked to use my nearby iPhone 7 to transfer its settings. The verification step for this used a cool swirling blue pattern on the X that I had to view with my old phone’s camera…the iTunes visualizer is finally coming in handy.

In other ways, the setup process could still use some work. Anticipating afternoon delivery of the X, I’d backed up my iPhone 7 that morning. When it came time to set up the X using that backup, it failed…iTunes said the backup was not compatible. It didn’t specify why but I had a hunch: my 7 had iOS 11.1 installed but the X had an earlier version installed. I upgraded the X and the backup worked. Less savvy users are going to be completely lost here and Apple should fix it.

The X is slightly thicker and heavier than the 7. With the larger screen area, the iPhone is no longer a one-handed device for me in many situations. This might be a dealbreaker for me.

Haven’t used the “wireless” charging yet. Just added this $25 charging pad to my shopping cart though, so I’ll get to try it out in a couple of days.

Animoji is the “Ewoks in Return of the Jedi” feature of the iPhone X. After the novelty wears off, approximately no one will use it.

I don’t like the notch. It looks idiotic. I’ll probably get used to it. I don’t care for the display’s rounded corners either. If you look at the apps that have been updated for the X, many of them don’t make use of the bottom 1/4” of the display because of the rounded corners. I feel like there’s an optical dissonance happening where I see the edge-to-edge display and think, “wow, massive display” but really the bottom slice of the screen and the two weird bunny ears at the top are not actually that useful. (Pls don’t email me about the utility of the bunny ears for the time, network, & battery display and the tradeoffs involving the camera placement, etc. “You’ve gotta put those somewhere!” I am aware.) Call me old-fashioned, but I want all my screens to be rectangles with square corners.

Face ID works great for me. I had a week of stubble on my face for the initial scan and it still worked after I shaved. It worked with glasses on. (My Ray-Ban sunglasses: no.) It worked with a baseball cap on. It worked in the dark…like a really dark room. It worked in a dark room with my glasses on. It worked with my head rested on my hand with pretty much half my face covered (this one surprised me when I realized what had just happened).

Thank god the home button is gone. So far, Face ID + swiping up is a superior interaction 99% of the time. It’s quicker and you don’t have to think about it. App switching is super simple now…just swipe left/right on the bottom of the screen. Relearning the new Home-less Siri, screenshot, and power-off interactions isn’t that hard.

A note on Face ID security, from Apple’s Face ID Security Guide:

The probability that a random person the population could look at your iPhone X and unlock it using Face ID is approximately 1 in 1,000,000 (versus 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID).

I hadn’t read about the 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID…that seems really high.

The TrueDepth camera is fun for taking new kinds of selfies. (I wonder…can someone take that video and make an animatronic face that can be used to break into my phone?)

Everything on this phone happens instantly…or somehow faster than instantly. It would be fun to use the first iPhone (which seemed really fast at the time) just to compare how blazing this this really is. And I wonder…will the X feel as slow in 10 years as that first phone feels today? It doesn’t seem as though it could get much faster…

The OLED screen is beautiful. I mainly use my phone to read Twitter and my email, so I’m not sure I need this beautiful new screen, but damn your tweets look good!

The camera quality remains the key advantage of the iPhone…they’re just so far ahead of everyone else here.

Update: The reviewers at DxOMark disagree with me on the camera quality. They place the Google Pixel 2 ahead of the iPhone X for image quality and a few other Android phones aren’t far behind.

Incredible photo of the black ice covering an Antarctic lake

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2017

Lake Vanda Black Ice

Hilary Dugan is a limnologist, which means she studies inland bodies of water like rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and marshland. Specifically she studies lakes:

As a limnologist, I study how terrestrial and atmospheric changes, such as warming air temperatures or land use patterns, alter biogeochemical fluxes and aquatic processes in lakes.

Right now, Dugan is in Antarctica on a research trip to Lake Vanda, where she took this amazing photo of the 12-ft sheet of black ice covering the lake. (She also took a video of herself walking on the ice.) Beautiful.

Lake Vanda sounds fascinating btw: three thermal layers of water that don’t mix (the bottom layer is a toasty 73 °F) and it’s one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, more than 10 times saltier than seawater (although very little of that salt is contained in the upper layers). The lake is also home to the The Royal Lake Vanda Swim Club, a largely abandoned tradition of skinny dipping in the lake when the ice melts enough to permit it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, addiction, and being “all in”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2017

In the latest issue of Vogue, Mimi O’Donnell reflects on the death of her husband, Philip Seymour Hoffman, his addiction, and their family.

The first time I met Phil, there was instant chemistry between us. It was the spring of 1999, and he was interviewing me to be the costume designer for a play he was directing — his first — for the Labyrinth Theater Company, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Even though I’d spent the five years since moving to New York designing costumes for Off-Broadway plays and had just been hired by Saturday Night Live, I was nervous, because I was in awe of his talent. I’d seen him in Boogie Nights and Happiness, and he blew me out of the water with his willingness to make himself so vulnerable and to play fucked-up characters with such honesty and heart.

I remember walking into the interview and anxiously handing Phil my résumé. He studied it for a few moments, then looked up at me and, with complete sincerity and admiration, said, “You have more credits than I do.” I felt myself relax. He wanted to put me at ease and let me know that we would be working together as equals. After the meeting, I called my sister on one of those hilariously giant cell phones of the time, and after I had raved about Phil, she announced, “You’re going to marry him.”

Drone shots of NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2017

Among Humza Deas’ hundreds of shots of NYC on his Instagram are a collection of drone shots of the city taken in the fall.

Humza Deas Drone

Humza Deas Drone

Humza Deas Drone

I know that last one has been filtered to within an inch of its life and I normally don’t cotton to those sorts of shenanigans, but this one makes me feel so fricking autumnal that I’ll allow it.

Card catalogs and the secret history of modernity

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Life 1944 File Room.jpeg
A large room of fingerprint files at FBI Headquarters, 1944. By George Skadding for LIFE Magazine.

Card catalogs feel very old but are shockingly new. Merchants stored letters and slips of paper on wire or thread in the Renaissance. (Our word “file” comes from filum, or wire.) But a whole technology, based on scientific principles, for storing, retrieving, and circulating an infinitely extensible batch of documents? That is some modern-ass shit. And it helped create the world we all live in.

I could recite the history of the idea and of the furniture, French bibliographic codes, Melvil Dewey, the standardization of index cards, how vertical filing propagated from railroads into offices and from there into the university. It’s on Wikipedia. Instead, let’s talk about the card catalog as a concept.

Before loose-leaf cataloging, books would be cataloged in other books. (Most other documents were never cataloged at all.) This meant they’d be recorded chronologically, sometimes alphabetically, or according to some other scheme, with ad hoc additions and substitutions sprouting off like epicycles on Ptolemaic circles. It was a big damn deal to even find a book.

Manuscripts on parchment — the universe of The Name of the Rose — you could almost keep up with that pace. Printed books on rag paper? It gets a lot harder. And steam-powered fast-press books on wood-pulp paper? Even setting aside newspapers, pamphlets, telegraphed letters and memoranda? You can’t keep track of any of that without a system.

Card catalogs imagine an endlessly growing collection of books and other documents. It imagines institutions capable of standardizing the treatment of those documents. And it imagines a democratic public, scholars, students, and amateurs with both the urge and the ability to seek out such materials. The card catalog is everything that is the best of the 19th and 20th centuries. And they look beautiful, and smell fantastic.

In Control Through Communication, her study of 19th century information management, JoAnne Yates identifies five breakthrough technologies. There’s the telephone and telegraph, which handle external communication. For internal communication, the big three are the typewriter, carbon paper (and other duplication technologies), and filing systems, especially the vertical file and card catalog.

The others made information producible, reproducible, and transmittable, but the file systems made information intelligible. If the telegraph was “the Victorian Internet,” the file cabinet and standardized filing were the Victorian operating system. For over a century, it was Windows.

Like all media revolutions, this one changed how we thought. Our ideas about knowledge, the universe, human achievements, all had to be revised. In the ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound puts his finger on it:

Contemporary book-keeping uses a ‘loose-leaf’ system to keep the active part of a business separate from its archives. That doesn’t mean that accounts of new customers are kept apart from accounts of old customers, but that the business still in being is not loaded up with accounts of business that no longer functions.

You can’t cut off books written in 1934 from those written in 1920 or 1932 or 1832, at least you can’t derive much advantage from a merely chronological category, though chronological relation may be important. If not that post hoc means propter hoc, at any rate the composition of books written in 1830 can’t be due to those written in 1933, though the value of old work is constantly affected by the value of the new.

Literature and human culture are no longer bound to time. Or rather, they are no longer bound to the linear sequence of time. The past — multiple pasts! — and the present can coexist, shaping and transforming each other. The text — no longer the book — becomes a cinema where narrative and montage are only a few of the wider set of possible techniques.

For William James, concepts become flexible and variable, suited to the task of the moment, not our inherited intellectual architecture. For Saussure, signs become slips of paper, shuffled and reshuffled, their meaning always relative to the other terms not given. For Darwin, species is a category in process; for Mendel and later scientists, genetic material is a code that is recombined and deciphered. None of this is an accident. Our physical and psychological experience of the media made us ready for these ideas.

The vertical file and card catalog also very quickly became the chosen technology of surveillance by state and industrial agents. But in this way too, it paved the way to what we are now. And if a technology can’t be abused by the Stasi, was it really ever that powerful in the first place?

Sarah Werner, a Shakespeare scholar and independent librarian, once took me on a tour of the beautiful card catalogs at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This is what she had to say about them:

What makes card catalogs more magical than machine readable catalogs is that they carry in them the passage of time. Books acquired early in a library’s history might have handwritten cards, while later purchases could have typewritten cards; printed cards might be annotated and updated by hand; and there might even be cards for books that have not yet been cataloged. The best card catalogs are time machines built on the most accessible and inexpensive of technologies—and that’s even before you get to the books.

Like tables, like books, like newspapers and magazines, and like everything else, most libraries are giving their card catalogs away to make more room. If your library still has one, take a moment to ride that time machine. You won’t be sorry you did.

Road signs suck. What if we got rid of them?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

Vox and 99% Invisible take a look at the movement to remove signs and traffic lights from traffic intersections in favor of building “shared spaces”, intersections in which cars, pedestrians, and cyclists are equally free to roam.

In traditional intersections, right-of-way has essentially been outsourced to unthinking objects like stop lights and signs. Shared spaces place the responsibility of determining right-of-way back with the individual motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists. Both approaches have their pros and cons. As the video notes, accessibility is an issue with shared spaces. But in traditional traffic schemes, cars are often given too much power to harm people, in the form of speed and the implied “I have the right-of-way so get out of my way” legal authority of the green light.

While watching traffic interact in the shared spaces in the video, you realize the assumption that makes them work: that as a general rule, people do not want to harm others. Cars, being so much more dangerous than pedestrians or cyclists, could bully their way these spaces but mostly they don’t because they don’t want to menace or injure others. However, as we’ve seen in the American political sphere recently, social norms can erode and force re-evaluation of assumptions. There will always be individual bad actors — asshole drivers or those who deliberately want to harm — but what happens to shared traffic spaces if the general assumption of people not wanting to harm others breaks down? And would traffic lights and signs fix that problem?

P.S. This is off topic (or is it?!), but I was in Amsterdam last week and it was interesting to observe the hierarchy of traffic there compared with other cities. In the absence of signs or traffic lights, who has the assumed right-of-way in these places?

In NYC (especially Manhattan), cars rule the streets, followed by pedestrians and cyclists…you only need to look at the city’s policy of not prosecuting murder-by-car to understand this. In California and esp. San Francisco (at least when I lived there years ago), if a pedestrian steps out into the street, cars will usually stop, even if they’re jaywalking. This also holds for many other places in the US, especially outside of large cities…cars are generally assumed to have the right-of-way but will also stop for pedestrians. But not in Boston…the sheer insanity of the drivers there gives cars a certain authoritative wide berth, not unlike that of a tottering Jenga tower. In Amsterdam though, cyclists seem to take priority in most situations…cars and pedestrians had to be on the lookout for them whether the cyclists had the light or not. Fascinating to observe.

Google Maps in space: spinnable maps of our solar system’s planets & moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

Google Maps Io

Maaaaps! Innnnn! Spaaaaaaaace! Google Maps now features spinnable spherical maps of several planets and moons in our solar system, including Mars, the Moon, Io, Pluto, Enceladus, Titan, and Charon. Super fun. Here’s Google’s blog post about the new maps. (via emily lakdawalla)

On the origin of time travel in fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

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

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

Ohio high school sports teams with Native American names/mascots

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

Daniella Zalcman

Daniella Zalcman

For Topic, photographer Daniella Zalcman went to Ohio to document high school sports teams using names and mascots that refer to Native Americans.

Outside of professional sports, words and names referring to indigenous Americans abound: there are high-school teams and squads called the Redskins, Redmen, Big Reds, Braves, Warriors, Chieftains, Indians, Savages, Squaws, Apaches, Mohawks, and Seminoles. Many of them are in the state of Ohio, which, some reports say, has over 60 high-school mascots with names considered to be slurs. (It’s worth considering the cost of “tradition”: a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress found links between these team names and the lowered self-esteem-and increased suicide rates-of young Native Americans.)

The various approaches to time travel in movies & books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Using a number of hand-drawn diagrams, minutephysics goes over the various types of time travel featured in books and movies like Primer, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and Looper. The video covers free will, do-overs, alternate timelines, multiple selves, time machines within time machines, and many other things.

Area man uses telephone to fight back against sleazy debt collectors

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2017

When Andrew Therrien told off a sleazy debt collector for calling about a debt he didn’t owe, the collector called back to threaten violence to Therrien and his wife. Therrien got mad and reached for the most potent weapon in his arsenal: the telephone. Over the course of the next two years, he charmed and bullied his way into the debt collection world in order to learn how it worked and how to take it down.

When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken — using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone.

Great story…read the whole thing. This is perhaps not your takeaway from it, but reading this, I wonder how much different my life would be if I knew how to talk on the telephone 1/10th as effectively as someone like Therrien.

Elevator scenes in movies debunked & fact-checked

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2017

How realistic are the elevator scenes in movies? Cinefix enlists the help of elevator technician John Holzer to fact-check and debunk scenes featuring elevators from movies like Die Hard, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and Speed. True true: there’s actually an elevator now that can travel sideways, a la the Wonkavator.

Join me in supporting Tim Carmody’s writing on Patreon?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

Over the past few years of doing kottke.org, I’ve been lucky enough (with your support) to be able to take some time off now and again to relax, spend time with my family, and recharge the batteries. My vacations are also a chance to introduce different voices and perspectives to the site in the form of guest editors. For my last few absences, Tim Carmody has stepped into the guest editor role and has done an incredible job. It’s a win-win…I get some time off and the site improves while I’m gone. Most recently, he organized the creation of a time capsule for the internet and wrote an amazing collection of posts about love letters and time machines.

If you enjoy and appreciate what Tim does here (and elsewhere), I hope you’ll join me in supporting his independent “rogue writing” efforts on Patreon.

Can I tell you a secret?

I don’t know what my work is any more.

Or rather: I don’t know what to call it. Not anything that makes sense.

There was a time when that would have been a very easy question to answer. I’m a reporter who writes about the intersection of technology and media. Or: I’m a scholar who studies the history of comparative media and the stories we tell about it going back forever. Or: I’m a blogger who’s trying to figure out what the liberal arts are in a networked age.

I think all of those things are still true, but how and where I’m doing them have changed. I don’t have a university job like I used to at Penn. I don’t have a regular gig at a fancy magazine like Wired or The Verge (or Newsweek or National Geographic or The Atlantic or the few dozen other places I’ve written). I don’t even have a sweet collective blog like Snarkmarket or The Message to call home.

Like a lot of us, I’m adrift, a planet flung out of its orbit into some other new system: strange, unfamiliar, ready at any moment to collide with another planet and make something new.

So that’s what I am. A rogue writer trying to put things together again and figure them out. I’m using all the tools I can find to do it: anything I can learn, anything I can leverage.

I’m proud that kottke.org has been a frequent venue for Tim’s writing, but the web could use more of it and I’m happy to support him in that effort.

P.S. Tim and I are also plotting how he can contribute more regularly here. No promises, but stay tuned!

Cutaway illustration of a film camera reveals iconic movie scenes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2017

Directors Cut

This might be Dorothy’s best print yet: a cutaway view of the Arriflex 35 IIC camera used extensively by directors like Stanley Kubrick but the guts of the camera has been replaced with some of the most iconic movies scenes of all time. The full print contains 60 scenes, but even in the small excerpt above, you can see The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Strangelove, The Empire Strikes Back, Forrest Gump, and The Godfather.

Envisioning Chemistry, beautifully stunning videos of chemical reactions and processes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2017

As a follow-up to Beautiful Chemistry, the Beauty of Science and the Chinese Chemical Society have teamed up to showcase the natural beauty of chemical reactions in Envisioning Chemistry.

To achieve this goal, we took two approaches. The first was the artistic approach, in which we used chemical reactions as an essential element in the film media, together with music and editing, to explore the new possibility of film-making. The second was the technical approach, in which we took advantages of the state-of-the-art photography equipment, including high-resolution microscopes, infrared thermal imaging cameras, high-speed cameras, and 4K Ultra HD cameras, to reveal beauty of chemical reactions like never before.

You’ll notice while watching some of these videos how alive these reactions look and how common the growing/branching structures of crystals & skeletons & trees & circulatory systems are in nature, on all scales.

Stranger Things season 2 soundtrack

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2017

One of the best parts about Stranger Things is the music. 80s tunes, the opening title music, and the synth-heavy scores. The second season of the show is out on Netflix and with it are the score and the soundtrack from the first season (featuring the likes of Corey Hart, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, and Scorpions).

Add to this volume one and volume two of the season one soundtrack, baby, you’ve got yourself a stew going.

Each night, Walmart’s parking lots turn into America’s largest campground

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2017

Walmart Camping

Walmart is an example of a commercial third place…a place people go to socialize that isn’t home or the workplace. But like Starbucks and McDonald’s, Walmart also functions as a replacement home for some people. Across America, Walmart parking lots fill up with the vans, RVs, and cars of nomads, vacationers, and the homeless. The NY Times sent a pair of photographers out to capture some of these parking lots at night.

There are standards of etiquette — do not, for instance, sit in the parking lot in lawn chairs — and also online rosters of no-go Walmarts. There is an expectation that you should buy something, but there is no parking fee. There is a measure of solitary privacy, even in a place that is deliberately accessible. Still that doesn’t prevent some people from leaving skid marks in the parking lot.

El Monte RV provides a short guide to Walmart camping and Allstays has a list of Walmarts that allow overnight parking.

The Dodge of the Art

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2017

For his work Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, William Forsythe sets in motion hundreds of pendulums in a room and invites people to walk among them, attempting to avoid collisions.

Suspended from automated grids, more than 400 pendulums are activated to initiate a sweeping 15 part counterpoint of tempi, spacial juxtaposition and gradients of centrifugal force which offers the spectator a constantly morphing labyrinth of significant complexity. The spectators are free to attempt a navigation this statistically unpredictable environment, but are requested to avoid coming in contact with any of the swinging pendulums. This task, which automatically initiates and alerts the spectators innate predictive faculties, produces a lively choreography of manifold and intricate avoidance strategies.

When I read the preview for the video at The Kid Should See This, I was expecting heavy brass pendulums cutting large swaths through the room, not unlike the first challenge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where “only the penitent man will pass”. That would have been fun but perhaps too dangerous and not art.

Melting Antarctic glaciers could raise global sea level 11 feet by 2100

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2017

Writing for Grist, Eric Holthaus reports on some research about a pair of fast-melting glaciers in Antarctica that could add 11 feet to the global sea level.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today.

To figure that out, scientists have been looking back to the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, when global temperatures stood at roughly their current levels. The bad news? There’s growing evidence that the Pine Island Bay glaciers collapsed rapidly back then, flooding the world’s coastlines - partially the result of something called “marine ice-cliff instability.”

The ocean floor gets deeper toward the center of this part of Antarctica, so each new iceberg that breaks away exposes taller and taller cliffs. Ice gets so heavy that these taller cliffs can’t support their own weight. Once they start to crumble, the destruction would be unstoppable.

“Ice is only so strong, so it will collapse if these cliffs reach a certain height,” explains Kristin Poinar, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We need to know how fast it’s going to happen.”

Eleven feet of sea level rise would be, uh, hugely problematic for the world’s coastal areas:

Three feet of sea-level rise would be bad, leading to more frequent flooding of U.S. cities such as New Orleans, Houston, New York, and Miami. Pacific Island nations, like the Marshall Islands, would lose most of their territory. Unfortunately, it now seems like three feet is possible only under the rosiest of scenarios.

At six feet, though, around 12 million people in the United States would be displaced, and the world’s most vulnerable megacities, like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City, could be wiped off the map.

At 11 feet, land currently inhabited by hundreds of millions of people worldwide would wind up underwater. South Florida would be largely uninhabitable; floods on the scale of Hurricane Sandy would strike twice a month in New York and New Jersey, as the tug of the moon alone would be enough to send tidewaters into homes and buildings.

Alarming, but read the whole article. Scientists are still trying to figure out how probable this scenario is…early days still.

Update: The site Climate Feedback, a network of scientists that evaluates media coverage of climate change, recently rated Holthaus’ piece as “high” on the credibility scale and described it as both “accurate” and “alarmist”.

Scientists who reviewed the article found that while it accurately described recent research on these processes, it should have provided more accurate context on the timescale of these sea level rise scenarios and the scientific uncertainty about how likely these scenarios are to come to pass.

Mark Zuckerberg invents revolutionary new foundation called “government”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

I don’t know when this ran, but I liked this brief article published in Private Eye magazine called Zuckerberg Announces Revolutionary New Foundation to Eliminate Disease.

The genius founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has announced an inspiring new foundation to which he and his wife will donate huge amounts of their fortune in a bid to defeat all disease over the next century.

“It’s called the government,” said Mr. Zuckerberg. “For such a long time I’ve been pondering how I can make a real difference with the enormous fortune I’ve amassed by concocting clever tax structures that minimise any tax liability from my firm.

“Imagine my shock when it turned out that this ‘government’ is devoted to ending disease. Not only that, it also has side projects dedicated to running schools, hospitals, a road system, parks, a national infrastructure, and lots of other worthy projects which make this planet a decent place to live.

I’m proud to announce that I’ll be giving lots of money to the ‘government’, as I’ve decided to call it, and I fully expect to get a lot of really fantastic publicity out of it.”

This reminded me of a pair of similar essays: I am an American conservative shitheel and I am an American liberal shitheel. (via @paulpod)

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2017

Chimileski Microbes

Chimileski Microbes

Chimileski Microbes

Chimileski Microbes

In their new book, Life at the Edge of Sight, Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter “lead readers through breakthroughs and unresolved questions scientists hope microbes will answer soon”. But the book is also a showcase for Chimileski’s photography of these tiny organisms.

I’m not surprised, but it’s still always a little unnerving to see just how closely some of these photos resemble satellite photos of natural features, ancient cities, and modern-day subway maps. And look, this slime mold made a little human brain-shaped network:

Chimileski Microbes

After all, branching networks like these are often the most efficient way of moving material, information, people, and nutrients from one place to another.

In praise of Cookie Monster, the literary muppet

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 26, 2017

monsterpiecekcomp.jpg

In De pueris instituendis (On the education of children, 1529), the great Renaissance humanist, borrowing from the classical rhetoricians Horace and Quintillian, helped reintroduce an important idea:

I have now come to the stage of my argument where I shall briefly explain how love of study may be instilled in children - a subject which I have already touched upon in part. As I have said, through practice we acquire painlessly the ability to speak. The art of reading and writing comes next; this involves some tedium, which can be relieved, however, by an expert teacher who spices his instruction with pleasant inducements. One encounters children who toil and sweat endlessly before they can recognize and combine into words the letters of the alphabet and learn even the bare rudiments of grammar, yet who can readily grasp the higher forms of knowledge. As the ancients have demonstrated, there are artful means to overcome this slowness. Teachers of antiquity, for instance, would bake cookies of the sort that children like into the shape of letters, so that their pupils might, so to speak, hungrily eat their letters; for any student who could correctly indentify a letter would be rewarded with it.

In grad school, I worked with a British literary historian who expertly broke this down into a post-psychoanalytic framework. Biscuits, like speech and writing, form a circuit between the eyes, hand, and mouth. The regulation of desire clears the way for the discipline of discourse. Like Plato, we move from the immanent and particular to the abstract and universal, but this is always mediated by the body, whose conflicting drives trouble these ideal categories.

I responded: “It’s Cookie Monster.” Growing up in England, he’d never heard of him.

Cookie’s idiosyncratic pronouns and truncated consonant clusters are a ruse. He’s easily the most verbally adept, best-educated character on Sesame Street. He teaches children the alphabet and vocabulary, and of course doubles as Alistaire Cookie on Monsterpiece Theatre. The growly voice, googly eyes, and outsized yearnings mask the heart of a scholar.

I bet he used to be a graduate student. You can’t show any of us free food without us reacting like this.

cookies.gif

He even loves absurdist metafiction:

Cookie is all of us who always get underestimated, just because we refused to always change how we talk and how we act because we went to school. But we love those sweet leatherbound books, too.

NOTE: Cookie Monster was invited and was originally slated to collaborate on this post. He was excited; I was excited. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, he wasn’t able to appear. You have his and my regrets. (I swear on Mr. Snuffleupagus: All of this is 100 percent true.)

“Whumph”: the sound of settling Antarctic snow

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

Polar adventurer Ben Saunders is currently about three weeks into a planned 1000-mile solo journey across Antarctica, blogging about it all the while. In his latest post, he describes the noise that snow makes when it settles under certain conditions, which he calls “whumphing”.

The only redeeming factor of all this fresh snow is what I’ll refer to as ‘whumphing’. I’ve no idea if there’s an actual term for the phenomenon, but I had the best whumph of my life when I first stepped out of the tent today. I assume it’s something to do with the weight of the snow settling, but the sensation is of the area of snow you’re standing on suddenly dropping by an inch or two, accompanied by a sound like a muffled thunderclap. If you’re lucky — as I was this morning — this sets off a chain reaction whumph, with a shockwave rolling out towards the horizon in every direction. It’s petrifying the first time you experience a whumph (in Greenland for me) but once you realise they’re harmless, it’s extraordinarily satisfying, like being a snowfield chiropractor, clicking tons of snow back into the right place.

Curious to see if whumphing was documented elsewhere, I did a little poking around. In a 1920 mountaineering book called Mountain Craft, Geoffrey Young talks about sudden settling due to sub-surface snow that’s less dense than the snow above. On a slope that can lead to an avalanche but on a flat Antarctic surface, you just get the muffled thunderclap.

I was also delighted to find that the legendary Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911, noted the very same effect in his book detailing the journey: The South Pole. In a false start to the expedition in September 1911, facing poor visibility and a temperature of -69 °F, he and his men decide to stop and build igloos for warmth. After settling in, they heard a noise.

That night we heard a strange noise round us. I looked under my bag to see whether we had far to drop, but there was no sign of a disturbance anywhere. In the other hut they had heard nothing. We afterwards discovered that the sound was only due to snow “settling.” By this expression I mean the movement that takes place when a large extent of the snow surface breaks and sinks (settles down). This movement gives one the idea that the ground is sinking under one, and it is not a pleasant feeling. It is followed by a dull roar, which often makes the dogs jump into the air — and their drivers too for that matter. Once we heard this booming on the plateau so loud that it seemed like the thunder of cannon. We soon grew accustomed to it.

Amundsen seemed rather less charmed than Saunders with whumphing, but it’s wonderful to witness the experience of it shared between these two explorers across more than 100 years.

The Universe is much bigger than it is old

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2017

In a Twitter thread, author Oliver Morton compares the physical scale of the Universe with its age (from the perspective of humans).

If a human life is 70 years long, there has been room for 200 million lives since the big bang, but 200 million humans, end to end, would reach just a bit further than the moon. If you had started walking towards the centre of the galaxy on the day of the big bang (had there been days, you, paths & galaxies), you would have got about 20 parsecs by now: just 0.25% of the way.

Maybe walking pace is the wrong metric. A nerve impulse travels around 70 times faster than a person walks. But even at the speed of thought, the age of the universe is too small for something to have reached the centre of the galaxy.

The situation is even worse when you choose another reference object, like UY Scuti, the largest known star. The red hypergiant is nearly 1.5 billion miles across and, because of its size and position near the center of the galaxy, is probably around 13 billion years old, just a few hundred million years younger than the age of the Universe itself.

Even if you use light as a marker, the size of Universe remains unfathomably immense. Over the course of the Universe’s lifetime, a photon could have travelled 13.8 billion light-years, just 15% of the current estimate of the Universe’s diameter of 93 billion light-years. See also what are the physical limits of humanity?

Salvador Dali’s surreal wine guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Wines Of Gala

Wines Of Gala

Last year, Taschen re-released a new edition of a surrealist cookbook originally written by the artist Salvador Dali back in the 70s. The quirky book was a hit, so now the company is re-releasing another of Dali’s food-related books, a guide to wine called The Wines of Gala.

A Dalinian take on pleasures of the grape and a coveted collectible, the book sets out to organize wines “according to the sensations they create in our very depths.” Through eclectic metrics like production method, weight, and color, the book presents wines of the world in such innovative, Dal’iesque groupings as “Wines of Frivolity,” “Wines of the Impossible,” and “Wines of Light.”

Accompanying the fanciful wine advice are more than 140 illustrations by Dali. Punch reviewed the original book a couple years ago.

Of the more than 140 illustrations by the artist, most are reprinted sketches and details from earlier paintings; of the original pieces made for the book, many were produced by slightly altering the work of other artists, adding touches like the aforementioned torso drawers and penis-wine bottle spout, which were appended to a traditional nude by Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academy painter.

(via colossal)

How Technicolor changed movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands after being brought to Oz by a tornado, she opens the door and, bang!, Technicolor. It’s a surprising transition, one of the most effective in film history. But it wouldn’t have been a complete shock for audiences in 1939 because Oz was not the first film to feature the color technology. In this video, Phil Edwards details the history of Technicolor, how it works, and how it changed movie making.

Many people recognize Technicolor from The Wizard of Oz, but the technology existed long before then. Two strip Technicolor and three strip Technicolor both revolutionized the film industry and shaped the look of 20th century film.

But Technicolor also influenced movies through its corporate control of the technology. People like Natalie Kalmus shaped the aesthetic of color films, and directors redesigned their sets and films based on the Technicolor look that the company — and viewers — demanded.

Edwards also did a “director’s cut” video with further information that wasn’t in the first video.