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kottke.org posts about books

Victorian Condoms (Possibly)

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

You find the strangest things in the pages of old books, and the folks at the Bodleian Archives at Oxford are no stranger to the eccentric bits of paratext one picks up here and there. But this is indeed something of a mystery:

Folded Tissue with Ribbon.jpeg

The tissue was folded in half, lengthwise. When I unfolded it, it was immediately clear: not a glove, not unless you wanted to cover only one (very long!) finger at a time.

Instead there were four, individual, 8 inch/20cm-long tubes. For each, one end has been skillfully shaped, cut and sealed into a three dimensional dome, like a fingertip on a glove. The other end of each tube is fully open, and a pale blue ribbon drawstring is neatly tucked into a narrow hem around the circumference of each opening.

The archivist’s best guess? A small pack of condoms, quite possibly made from an animal casing, which would have been soft and supple when new (now quite brittle). And to be honest, a book is a perfectly good place to keep such supplies — unlikely to get lost in laundry or wardrobe changes, the closest thing a man of that era might carry to a bag or purse.

100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2021

In her recent book, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul catalogs some of the things we have lost because of our move to networked digital realms over the past 25 years.

Whatever our emotional response to this departed realm, we are faced with the fact that nearly every aspect of modern life now takes place in filtered, isolated corners of cyberspace — a space that has slowly subsumed our physical habitats, replacing or transforming the office, our local library, a favorite bar, the movie theater, and the coffee shop where people met one another’s gaze from across the room. Even as we’ve gained the ability to gather without leaving our house, many of the fundamentally human experiences that have sustained us have disappeared.

In adapted excerpts from the book, Paul covers filing cabinets, bad photos, and a list of things like privacy, cursive, and the ability to ignore people.

19th-Century Illustrations of the Great Barrier Reef

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2021

Great Barrier Reef corals

Great Barrier Reef anemones

Great Barrier Reef corals

In 1893, English marine biologist William Saville-Kent published his 550-page book, The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities. Accompanying the text are more than a dozen full-color illustrations of the plants and animals of the reef, drawn from Saville-Kent’s watercolors painted on location. You can peruse the entire book at the Internet Archive or the Biodiversity Heritage Library or take a look at the illustrations at The Marginalian (where prints are also available).

Sharpie Activism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2021

In 2015, Alex Gino published George, a children’s novel about a trans girl named Melissa — George was the character’s former name. Since its publication, many of the book’s fans have grown to dislike the title, saying that it elevated the deadname of the character instead of her actual name. Earlier this year, Gino and their publishing company announced that the title of the book is officially changing to Melissa.

No matter how many people have come to know it as George, we felt it was important to fix the title. What we call people matters and we all deserve to be referred to in ways that feel good to us. Calling the book Melissa is a way to respect her, as well as all transgender people. The text inside won’t change, so the name George will still appear to reflect the character’s growth within the novel, but Melissa will be the first name readers will know her by.

But even before that, readers began making their own modifications to the cover with Sharpies, crayons, colored pencils, and even entire dust jackets. On their blog, Gino explained why the book was called George in the first place and shared some of the amazing art that fans made to correct the title.

several book covers altered to change the name of a book from 'George' to 'Melissa's Story'

dust jacket for a book called 'Melissa's Story'

two book covers altered to change the name of a book from 'George' to 'Melissa's Story' or 'Melissa'

dust jacket for a book called 'Melissa'

two book covers altered to change the name of a book from 'George' to 'Melissa's Story'

Melissa will be out in April and is available for preorder now. (thx, caroline)

A Brief History of the Pixel

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2021

History Pixel

Computer graphics legend Alvy Ray Smith (Pixar, Lucasfilm, Microsoft) has written a new book called A Biography of the Pixel (ebook). In this adapted excerpt, Smith traces the origins of the pixel — which he calls “a repackaging of infinity” — from Joseph Fourier to Vladimir Kotelnikov to the first computers to Toy Story.

Taking pictures with a cellphone is perhaps the most pervasive digital light activity in the world today, contributing to the vast space of digital pictures. Picture-taking is a straightforward 2D sampling of the real world. The pixels are stored in picture files, and the pictures represented by them are displayed with various technologies on many different devices.

But displays don’t know where the pixels come from. The sampling theorem doesn’t care whether they actually sample the real world. So making pixels is the other primary source of pictures today, and we use computers for the job. We can make pixels that seem to sample unreal worlds, eg, the imaginary world of a Pixar movie, if they play by the same rules as pixels taken from the real world.

The taking vs making — or shooting vs computing - distinction separates digital light into two realms known generically as image processing and computer graphics. This is the classical distinction between analysis and synthesis. The pixel is key to both, and one theory suffices to unify the entire field.

Computation is another key to both realms. The number of pixels involved in any picture is immense - typically, it takes millions of pixels to make just one picture. An unaided human mind simply couldn’t keep track of even the simplest pixel computations, whether the picture was taken or made. Consider just the easiest part of the sampling theorem’s ‘spread and add’ operation - the addition. Can you add a million numbers? How about ‘instantaneously’? We have to use computers.

The Ten Contradictory Traits of Creative People

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2021

The late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified and popularized the concept of flow and also did research around the linked ideas of creativity and happiness. In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he listed 10 pairs of contradictory traits that creative people tend to have.

1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.

2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.

3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.

4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.

5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.

6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.

7. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping [of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’].

8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.

9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

10. The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

(via open culture & austin kleon)

The Library of Misremembered Books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2021

book with a cover that reads 'Looking for a Book, It's Red'

book with a cover that reads 'Ice Was in the Title'

book with a cover that reads 'The Book About the Magazine'

In her new book Library of Misremembered Books, Marina Luz creates new book covers from the vague and hilarious ways in which people can’t recall the exact names of books.

Anyone who has worked in a bookstore knows only too well that moment when a customer approaches by saying, “So I don’t remember the title, or the author, but-.” And we’ve all been on the other side of the counter, trying to pinpoint something we can’t quite describe at a bookstore (“It’s a murder mystery, but also quite funny”), or at a video store (“Could be subtitled, but then again, now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t”), or at a mechanic (“The car is kind of going gu-chunk, gu-chunk; except on hills, when it’s more of a clickety-tickety”). We are usually left not only without an answer, but also with the overwhelming sense that we have lost some small piece of our dignity in the attempt.

See also (via this thread) a list of misremembered titles from the Fukui Prefectural Library in Japan. (via literary hub)

Orbital Planes, a Photographic Ode to the Space Shuttle

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2021

closeup photo of the Space Shuttle Discovery

Space Shuttle instrument panel

Roland Miller has been documenting space exploration for more than 30 years and his latest book, which he’s funding via Kickstarter, is a photo documentation of the final years of NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

I started documenting the Space Shuttle program when I was teaching photography at a college near the Kennedy Space Center. In 2008, I began a concentrated effort to document the final years of the program. Orbital Planes is the result of that photography work. My hope is that Orbital Planes will give the reader their own personal view of the Space Shuttle and the technology and facilities that helped it fly.

You might remember Miller from his collaboration with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli photographing the ISS. (via colossal)

The Simpsons Library

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2021

Lisa Simpson holding a book called Tales of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Sister

Lisa Simpson holding a book about The Simpsons

Lisa Simpson reading a book called Backdoors to Citizenship

Marge Simpson reading a book called Love in the Time of Scurvy

The Simpsons Library Instagram account has been documenting all of the books, magazines, and other printed matter that has appeared on the long-running sitcom.

Fuck Everything, We’re Doing 32 Book Covers

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2021

Eggers Every Cover 01

Eggers Every Cover 02

Eggers Every Cover 03

Eggers Every Cover 04

Eggers Every Cover 05

For his new book, The Every, Dave Eggers and art director Sunra Thompson are doing 32 separate covers, with more to come “in perpetuity”.

Never one to shy away from pushing boundaries, Eggers teamed up with art director Sunra Thompson for the project, who discovered that the dust jacket printer they were using could run several cover designs on one sheet of paper at once, providing the means to print dozens of different versions at the same time. Thompson decided to exploit this printing feature, enlisting a boatload of artists to design a completely new version of The Every cover.

The hardcover version of the book featuring the 32+ designs will only be available on the McSweeney’s website and in independent bookstores, which doesn’t seem to include Bookshop.org. Amazon, says Eggers, can go pound sand.

“I don’t like bullies,” Eggers wrote in an email. “Amazon has been kicking sand in the face of independent bookstores for decades now.”

The novel follows a former forest ranger and tech skeptic, Delaney Wells, as she tries to take down a dangerous monopoly from the inside: a company called The Every, formed when the world’s most powerful e-commerce site merged with the biggest social media company/search engine.

“One of the themes of the book is the power of monopolies to dictate our choices, so it seemed a good opportunity to push back a bit against the monopoly, Amazon, that currently rules the book world,” he said. “So we started looking into how feasible it would be to make the hardcover available only through independent bookstores. Turns out it is very, very hard.”

Honest Weights, Square Dealings

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2021

A test printing pattern from Tekserve

Ahhhh, The Verge has published an excerpt of Tamara Shopsin’s LaserWriter II, “a coming-of-age tale set in the legendary 90s indie NYC Mac repair shop TekServe — a voyage back in time to when the internet was new, when New York City was gritty, and when Apple made off-beat computers for weirdos”.

Joel explains that the LaserWriter II was discontinued almost ten years ago. But Tek always encourages people to fix them. Always. LaserWriter IIs are tanks, one of the most solid printers Apple ever made. The printer has only one design flaw, one thing that consistently breaks, and that flaw takes ten years to surface. Joel pauses for breath. Claire is on the edge of her seat.

He concludes, “The fan blades warp a little over time and suck in dust. This dust eventually gets into the optics and causes pages to ghost.”

Claire prints a test page from the LaserWriter II. The edges of the paper are bright white. They stipple to a black stripe of text in the center, in a kind of reverse ice cream sandwich.

Ghosting is a term used to cover a host of printing problems — double images, an image seen through the backside of the paper. Here Joel uses “ghost” to describe printing so faint it has not actually printed.

I recommend reading LaserWriter II, as well as Shopsin’s memoir Arbitrary Stupid Goal.

The Graphic Edition of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 14, 2021

book cover for the graphic edition of On Tyranny

sample page spread for the graphic edition of On Tyranny

sample page spread for the graphic edition of On Tyranny

Originally written as a Facebook post in the wake of the 2016 election, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century went on to become a bestseller and a prescient warning on what was to come for America. Now, a graphic edition of On Tyranny has been released, designed and illustrated by Nora Krug. From Steven Heller’s piece on the book in Print:

Krug’s goal for this project was to use her medium to echo Snyder’s call for action. “While it was important to me to create images that would highlight the contemporary relevance of Snyder’s message,” she writes, “the use of historic images was clearly essential. At moments in the book that refer to a particular event in time — such as this one about Hitler’s annexation of Austria, when Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets clean — I felt that rather than showing my own visual representation of that event, it was more powerful to feature a historic photograph because of the immediacy of the medium that would make that moment in history come to life.”

Combining Krug’s drawings with historic materials gave her the license to contrast the documentary with the imagined, the factual with the poetic, and to create a narrative tension that emphasizes historical relationships. “More importantly,” she explains, “this combination of mediums allows me to admit to the fact that we don’t exist in a vacuum, that we can only exist in relationship to the past, that everything we think and feel is thought and felt in reference to it, that our future is deeply rooted in our history, and that we will always be active contributors to shaping how the past is viewed and what our future will look like.”

You can order the graphic version of On Tyranny here but it seems to be backordered in most places.

The Most Iconic Book Covers

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2021

book cover for A Clockwork Orange

book cover for The Great Gatsby

book cover for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

From Literary Hub, The 25 Most Iconic Book Covers in History. Some good ones shared in the comments as well. (thx, serge)

Letters to the Future

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2021

a book of letters to the future printed on recycled plastic

a book of letters to the future printed on recycled plastic

a book of letters to the future printed on recycled plastic

To raise awareness around plastic’s resistance to decomposition (it won’t break down for 1000 years), Vietnamese creative agency Ki Saigon has designed a book out of recycled plastic containing letters to read a millennium from now.

“There was a lot of trial and error” when putting the book together, says Kumkum. For starters, what does one say to their future family members? Ki Saigon decided to provide a guide for the letters, asking each participant to imagine what they would like to hear from them, given the fact the book will still be around in 1000 years. Each letter is also hand written, adding another dimension to the project while “staying true to the spirit of the project.”

A time capsule with no container needed.

The Book Blob

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2021

a number of book covers with amorphous color blobs that look similar

Over at Print, R.E. Hawley writes about a book cover design trend you may have noticed: Behold, the Book Blob.

This design trend, well into its third or fourth year in the major publishing houses, has attracted plenty of nicknames and attendant discourse online — culture critic Jeva Lange calls it “blobs of suggestive colors,” while writer Alana Pockros calls it the “unicorn frappuccino cover,” and New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka once referred to it on Twitter as “the Zombie Formalism of book covers.”

I hadn’t really noticed this, but only because I thought these were all mostly the same book. Eep.

“Caffeine Was an Amazing Aid to the Rise of Capitalism”

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2021

In this video, Michael Pollan explains how caffeine is woven into the fabric of modern society. Here’s the short version of how that came to be: People used to drink a lot of alcohol because water was unsafe, so folks were often in a sort of low-grade stupor. When coffee hit Europe, it provided the stimulation, focus, and energy necessary for people to work better and longer. Voila, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

You can read more about caffeine in Pollan’s latest book This Is Your Mind on Plants (excerpt here) or in his 2020 audiobook called Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World.

Have We Reached Peak Car?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2021

Tom Standage, whose The Victorian Internet was hugely influential to me in how to think about the history of technology, is out with a new book on transportation and cars: A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next (ebook). In this excerpt, he argues that the world has reached “peak car” — “the point at which car ownership and use level off and start to decline”.

Evidence for peak car in Western countries, meanwhile, has been accumulating for some time. In America, the total number of vehicle miles traveled has continued to increase. But it has been growing more slowly than both the total number of vehicles and the population. The number of miles driven per vehicle, and per person of driving age, both peaked in 2004 and have since fallen to levels last seen in the 1990s. The average distance driven per person per year peaked in the 2000s or earlier in many Western cities including London, Stockholm, Vienna, Houston, and Atlanta. In Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Spain, distance traveled per person has been flat or falling since the early 2000s (in Britain, the average motorist drove seventy-six hundred miles in 2018, down from ninety-two hundred in 2002). Miles traveled by car per annum per capita in Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden peaked in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2005 respectively.

See also this interview with Standage in Grist (which features the phrase “horse-drawn transport monoculture”).

The pandemic caused a drop in driving, and then an uptick as people came out of lockdowns and decided, in some cases, that they would rather drive than use public transit. But the longer-term trend seems clear: driving is becoming less popular, because it’s becoming less convenient, and the alternatives are becoming more convenient. The growing prevalence of remote working may encourage people to move to urban fringes where it’s difficult to live without a car, but overall I don’t think this will be enough to reverse the longer-term trend.

And here’s another excerpt of Standage’s book from The Guardian: The lost history of the electric car — and what it tells us about the future of transport.

In 1897, the bestselling car in the US was an electric vehicle: the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia Motor Carriage. Electric models were outselling steam- and petrol-powered ones. By 1900, sales of steam vehicles had taken a narrow lead: that year, 1,681 steam vehicles, 1,575 electric vehicles and 936 petrol-powered vehicles were sold. Only with the launch of the Olds Motor Works’ Curved Dash Oldsmobile in 1903 did petrol-powered vehicles take the lead for the first time.

Perhaps the most remarkable example, to modern eyes, of how things might have worked out differently for electric vehicles is the story of the Electrobat, an electric taxicab that briefly flourished in the late 1890s. The Electrobat had been created in Philadelphia in 1894 by Pedro Salom and Henry Morris, two scientist-inventors who were enthusiastic proponents of electric vehicles. In a speech in 1895, Salom derided “the marvelously complicated driving gear of a gasoline vehicle, with its innumerable chains, belts, pulleys, pipes, valves and stopcocks … Is it not reasonable to suppose, with so many things to get out of order, that one or another of them will always be out of order?”

The two men steadily refined their initial design, eventually producing a carriage-like vehicle that could be controlled by a driver on a high seat at the back, with a wider seat for passengers in the front. In 1897 Morris and Salom launched a taxi service in Manhattan with a dozen vehicles, serving 1,000 passengers in their first month of operation. But the cabs had limited range and their batteries took hours to recharge. So Morris and Salom merged with another firm, the Electric Battery Company. Its engineers had devised a clever battery-swapping system, based at a depot at 1684 Broadway, that could replace an empty battery with a fully charged one in seconds, allowing the Electrobats to operate all day.

The Psychology of Pandemics

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2021

I don’t know if this is comforting or what, but psychologist Steven Taylor published a book two months before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic called The Psychology of Pandemics that predicted many of the behaviors we’ve been seeing over the past 18+ months, including masking backlash, the acceptance of conspiracy theories, vaccine resistance, and wholesale denial that the pandemic is even happening.

Taylor would know because he predicted it. He wrote a remarkable little book back in 2019 called “The Psychology of Pandemics.” Its premise is that pandemics are “not simply events in which some harmful microbe ‘goes viral,’” but rather are mass psychological phenomena about the behaviors, attitudes and emotions of people.

The book came out pre-COVID and yet predicts every trend and trope we’ve been living for 19 months now: the hoarding of supplies like toilet paper at the start; the rapid spread of “unfounded rumors and fake news”; the backlash against masks and vaccines; the rise and acceptance of conspiracy theories; and the division of society into people who “dutifully conform to the advice of health authorities” — sometimes compulsively so — and those who “engage in seemingly self-defeating behaviors such as refusing to get vaccinated.”

He has no crystal ball, he says, it’s just that all of this has happened before. A lot of people believed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was spread by the Germans through Bayer aspirin. It’s all based on basic psychology as to how people react to health emergencies.

The denialists and refuseniks today are engaging in what the psychology field calls “psychological reactance.” It’s “a motivational response to rules, regulations, or attempts at persuasion that are perceived as threatening one’s autonomy and freedom of choice,” the book describes. Think what happens when someone says “Eat your broccoli.”

Following onto that is what psychologists term “motivated reasoning.” That’s when people stick with their story even if the facts obviously are contrary to it, as a form of “comforting delusion,” Taylor says. The book covers “unrealistic optimism bias,” in which people in pandemics are prone to convincing themselves that it can’t or won’t happen to them.

The book almost wasn’t even released at all — Taylor’s publisher told him the book was “interesting, but no one’s going to want to read it”.

Watch A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s First Travel/Food TV Show, for Free Online

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2021

After Anthony Bourdain died in 2018, I listened to the audiobook version of his fantastic Kitchen Confidential (read by Bourdain himself) and in retrospect, the trip he took to Tokyo documented in one of the final chapters was a clear indication that his career was headed away from the kitchen and out into the world. His long-time producer Lydia Tenaglia saw this too…she cold-called him after reading the book and pitched him on doing a TV show called A Cook’s Tour, where the intrepid Bourdain would travel to different locations around the world to experience the food culture there.

I met him at a point in his life where he had never really traveled before. He had written a book, Kitchen Confidential, and I had read somewhere that he was going to try to write a follow-up book called A Cook’s Tour. I approached him — I kind of cold-called him — and I said, “Listen, I work in television.” And at that point I was freelancing for other companies as a producer and a shooter and an editor. I called Tony, and he was still working in a kitchen at the time, and I said, “Would you mind if me and my husband, Chris, came and shot a short demo and we try to sort of pitch the idea of A Cook’s Tour — meaning you traveling the world, kind of exploring the way other people eat — as a television series?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure. Whatever.” I don’t think he had any expectations at that point. Again, he hadn’t really traveled.

A Cook’s Tour intrigued the folks at the Food Network and the show ended up running for 35 episodes over two seasons. And they are now all available to watch for free on YouTube. I’ve embedded the first episode above, where he goes (back) to Tokyo, but he also visits Vietnam, San Sebastian, Oaxaca, Scotland, Singapore, and Brazil during the show’s run. More from Tenaglia on how the show came about:

So that was the start of our relationship and our time together. We, fortunately, were able to pitch and sell that idea, A Cook’s Tour, to the Food Network. Me and Chris, my husband, and Tony, just the three of us, all went out on the road together for that first year, and we shot 23 episodes of A Cook’s Tour, and we kind of figured out the format of the show on the road. It was really Tony tapping into the references he did have — you know, films and books and things he had seen and knew about only through film and reading.

So he was able to bring all of those cultural references to the table, and the three of us together were able to kind of play with the format of what those visuals would look like, so that it wasn’t just about him eating food at a restaurant. It was really about everything that was happening around him — or the thoughts he was having internally as he had these experiences or the references that he had seen through film that he loved and books that he had read, like The Quiet American, and how those things related to what he was experiencing.

So it became this kind of sort of moving, evolving format that was very much based on, predicated on the location that we were in and those references that he could call up. The show just kind of began to take shape. I mean, really there was no format of the show going into it. We just said, “Hey, we’re going to travel around the world, and this guy … he’s a chef, and he’s written this great book, and he’s going to try food in other countries.” And that’s what sold the project to the Food Network at the time. Then, as we went and actually made the show, we really started to play with the format and turned it into something else.

I would say that 17 years later the show has gone through various iterations. We did the two seasons of A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network, and then we did eight seasons of No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and now we’re on Parts Unknown. And the show has evolved as Tony has evolved, as the crew has evolved, as the technology has evolved. The show has sort of turned into this kind of, you know, one man’s initial foray into the world, and I think today, 17 years later, he’s really kind of evolved into more of a cultural anthropologist.

The show’s very sociopolitical — it’s about people and characters. The food and the people are just the entry point. It’s really about all the context around it. The more you can bring story to that and the more you can bring references to that — film references … character references — the more you can introduce interesting, unique characters into the equation, I think that’s what keeps the show very fresh and why it’s continuing to evolve all these years later. Each show is very different from the one before it.

It’s fun to watch the prototype of what eventually became a very beloved and different show. (via open culture)

My Recent Media Diet, the Summer/Fall Switchover Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2021

Oh, I’ve let it go too long again. It’s been almost four months since I’ve done one of these media roundups and there’s lots to share. If you’re just joining us — welcome but WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN THO?! — I do a post like this every few months with short reviews of all the movies, books, music, TV show, podcasts, and other things I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. The letter grades are very subjective and inconsistent — sorry! Ok, here’s what I have for you today.

The Land That Never Has Been Yet. This podcast series by Scene on Radio on American democracy is essential listening. The episode on how a small group of libertarians have had an outsized influence on American life is especially interesting and maddening. (A)

The Legend of Korra. Watched this with the kids and we all enjoyed it. (B+)

The Expanse. A little uneven sometimes, but mostly compelling. I’ve got crushes on about 4 different people on this show. (B)

Galaxy Quest. The teens were skeptical about this one, but Alan Rickman’s presence won them over. I love this movie. (A)

The Truffle Hunters. The first movie I’ve seen in the theater since March 2020. The pace of the film is, uh, contemplative — I never would have lasted more than 10 minutes if I’d started watching this at home — but full of wonderful little moments. (B+)

The Ezra Klein Show, interview with Agnes Callard. I don’t catch every episode of Klein’s podcast, but this interview with Agnes Callard was particularly wide-ranging and good — I want to know her opinion on anything and everything. (A-)

NBC Sports’ Premier League recaps. I don’t get to watch as much football as I’d like, but I look forward to catching up with all the action at the end of the day. A lot of the networks’ recaps are pretty shabby — incomplete, rushed, no goal replays — but the ones from NBC Sports are really good. You see each of the goals (and significant near-misses) from multiple angles and get a real sense of the flow of the match. (A-)

Nomadland. I didn’t seem to like this quite as much as everyone else did. Frances McDormand is excellent as usual. (B+)

Mare of Easttown. Kate Winslet. I mean, what else do you have to say? I raced through this. (A)

Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation. Great exhibition at the MFA of one of the golden ages of NYC. (A-)

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis. It’s a little early to write the definitive book on what went so wrong in America with the pandemic, but Lewis did about as well as can be expected. The CDC doesn’t fare well in his telling. (A-)

Alice Neel: People Come First. Great show at the Met of an outstanding portraitist. (A-)

Nixon at War. The third part of the excellent podcast series on the LBJ & Nixon presidencies. Nixon’s Watergate downfall began with the Vietnam War…when Nixon committed treason to prolong the war to win elected office. (A)

Rashomon. Hard to believe this was made in 1950. A film out of time. (A-)

Velcro ties. Unobtrusive and super handy for organizing cords — wish I’d gotten these sooner. (B+)

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. Documentary about film director French film director Alice Guy-Blaché, who pioneered so much of what became the modern film industry, first in France and then in the United States. (B+)

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Compelling dystopian science fiction from Nobel-winner Ishiguro. An interesting companion book to The Remains of the Day. (A-)

Handshake Speakeasy. Super creative and delicious. Maybe the best new bar I’ve been to in years. (A)

The Fugitive. Great film…still holds up almost 30 years later. (A)

Speed. This doesn’t hold up quite as well as The Fugitive but is still entertaining. (B+)

Edge of Tomorrow. Underrated action/sci-fi movie. (A)

No Sudden Move. Solid crime caper movie from Soderbergh. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro are both excellent. (B+)

Black Widow. Struck the right tone for the character. Florence Pugh was great. (B+)

Summer of Soul. Wonderful documentary about 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Director Questlove rightly puts the music front and center but cleverly includes lots of footage of people watching too (a la the Spielberg Face). Beyonce’s Homecoming used this to great effect as well. (A)

Loki. Loved the design and architecture of the TVA. Great use of color elsewhere as well. (B+)

Nanette. Very clever and powerful. (A)

Fleabag (season two). Perhaps the best ever season of television? (A+)

Consider the Oyster by MFK Fisher. The highest compliment I can pay this book is that it almost made me hungry for oysters even though I do not care for them. (B+)

The Green Knight. Even after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and seeing this movie, I’m not entirely sure I know what this story is trying to convey, thematically or metaphorically, or if it’s even that entertaining. (B)

The Dark Knight Rises. Probably sacrilege, but this is my favorite of the Nolan Batmen. (A)

Bridge of Spies. Mark Rylance was superb in this and Spielberg’s (and Janusz Kamiński’s) mastery is always fun to watch. (B+)

Luca. A fun & straightforward Pixar movie without a big moral of the story. (B+)

Solar Power. Not my favorite Lorde album. (B-)

Reminiscence. I have already forgotten the plot to this. (B-)

The ocean. Got to visit the ocean three times this summer. One of my favorite things in the world. (A+)

The White Lotus. Didn’t really care for the first two episodes and then was bored and tried to watch the third — only made it halfway through. I “finished” it by reading Vulture recaps. Why do people like this show? (C-)

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Between Emily Wilson, Madeline Miller, and now Natalie Haynes, I’ve gained a unique understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey. (B+)

TWA Hotel. A marvelous space. (A-)

Turbo. Like Cars + Ratatouille but by Dreamworks and with Snoop Dogg. (C)

Laserwriter II by Tamara Shopsin. A love letter to NYC, printers, Apple computers, and the late, great Tekserve. Another banger from Shopsin. (A)

Donda. Beeping out all the swear words while managing to keep the misogyny in seems apt for an artifact of contemporary American Christianity. Too long and very uneven, I hate that I really love parts of this album. (D+/A-)

Certified Lover Boy. Same ol’ same ol’ from the easy listening rapper. Nothing on here that I wanted to listen to a second time. (C-)

The Great British Baking Show. I’ve only seen bits of one season so far (#6), but I can see why so many people love this show. It’s the perfect combination of soothing but competitive and about a topic that everyone loves — baked goods. (B+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Kaleidoscope Brain: 100 Visualizations of Moby-Dick

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 08, 2021

the letters of the alphabet in order of their appearance in Moby-Dick

the constellation Cetus (aka 'The Whale')

every color in Moby-Dick

Peter Gorman of Barely Maps has published a wonderful little book called Kaleidoscope Brain that contains 100 visualizations of Moby-Dick. Gorman read Herman Melville’s masterpiece last year and made these maps & graphics to help him make sense of it.

I read Moby-Dick in April 2020. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started making maps and diagrams as a way to figure it out.

Moby-Dick is infamous for its digressions. Throughout the book, the narrator disrupts the plot with contemplations, calculations, and categorizations. He ruminates on the White Whale, and the ocean, and human psychology, and the night sky, and how it all relates back to the mystery of the unknown. His narration feels like a twisting-turning struggle to explain everything.

Reading Moby-Dick actually made me feel like that-like I’d mentally absorbed its spin-cycle style. I developed a case of “Kaleidoscope Brain.” The maps I was making were obsessive and encyclopedic. They were newer and weirder and they digressed beyond straightforward geography.

The book is available as a free download on Gorman’s Patreon — support his efforts if you find them valuable!

Above, from top to bottom: the letters of the alphabet in order of their appearance in the book, the constellation Cetus (aka “The Whale”), every color in the book.

The Footnotes to The French Dispatch

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2021

Wes Anderson’s tenth film, The French Dispatch, is about a fictional magazine published by a group of Americans in France. The movie’s magazine is based on the New Yorker and in advance of its release, Anderson has published an anthology of articles from the actual New Yorker (and other magazines) that inspired the characters in the film. It’s called An Editor’s Burial.

A glimpse of post-war France through the eyes and words of 14 (mostly) expatriate journalists including Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, A.J. Liebling, S.N. Behrman, Luc Sante, Joseph Mitchell, and Lillian Ross; plus, portraits of their editors William Shawn and New Yorker founder Harold Ross. Together: they invented modern magazine journalism.

Because the world is constantly folding in on itself these days, Anderson explained why he is publishing the book to Susan Morrison in the New Yorker:

Two reasons. One: our movie draws on the work and lives of specific writers. Even though it’s not an adaptation, the inspirations are specific and crucial to it. So I wanted a way to say, “Here’s where it comes from.” I want to announce what it is. This book is almost a great big footnote.

Two: it’s an excuse to do a book that I thought would be really entertaining. These are writers I love and pieces I love. A person who is interested in the movie can read Mavis Gallant’s article about the student protests of 1968 in here and discover there’s much more in it than in the movie. There’s a depth, in part because it’s much longer. It’s different, of course. Movies have their own thing. Frances McDormand’s character, Krementz, comes from Mavis Gallant, but Lillian Ross also gets mixed into that character, too — and, I think, a bit of Frances herself. I once heard her say to a very snooty French waiter, “Kindly leave me my dignity.”

As Morrison then noted, it would be very cool if every movie came with a suggested reading list. The French Dispatch is set for release in the US in late October and An Editor’s Burial will be out September 14 and is available for preorder.

Evergreen Architecture

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2021

large building atrium with a bunch of trees and plants

a building with plants and trees all over it

a building with a green roof

a residential building with plants and trees on every balcony

I’ve been a bit obsessed recently with urban architecture that incorporates nature & greenery into the mix, especially since seeing the technique employed so creatively in Singapore last year, so this new book called Evergreen Architecture is tickling that fancy right now.

As more of the earth’s surface is swallowed up by the built environment, architects are increasingly advised to integrate urban flora and fauna into their designs. Whether developing green roofs, living walls, abundant indoor courtyards, or balconies that connect interior and exterior spaces, the urge to intertwine nature and architecture has never been more apparent.

Embracing this ubiquitous trend, Evergreen Architecture surveys a broad spectrum of residential, institutional, urban, and rural spaces. But as change occurs and solutions to the climate crisis are being integrated on the ground, many new questions are posed. How do residents keep moss-covered walls alive? How can a skyscraper uphold the weight of hundreds of trees?

You can order the book from Bookshop. (via colossal)

Caffeine, the World’s Most Popular Psychoactive Drug

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2021

In an excerpt from his new book This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan writes about caffeine, a performance enhancing drug that humans seemingly cannot get enough of.

Cognitive psychologists sometimes talk in terms of two distinct types of consciousness: spotlight consciousness, which illuminates a single focal point of attention, making it very good for reasoning, and lantern consciousness, in which attention is less focused yet illuminates a broader field of attention. Young children tend to exhibit lantern consciousness; so do many people on psychedelics. This more diffuse form of attention lends itself to mind wandering, free association, and the making of novel connections — all of which can nourish creativity. By comparison, caffeine’s big contribution to human progress has been to intensify spotlight consciousness — the focused, linear, abstract and efficient cognitive processing more closely associated with mental work than play. This, more than anything else, is what made caffeine the perfect drug not only for the age of reason and the Enlightenment, but for the rise of capitalism, too.

The power of caffeine to keep us awake and alert, to stem the natural tide of exhaustion, freed us from the circadian rhythms of our biology and so, along with the advent of artificial light, opened the frontier of night to the possibilities of work.

I particularly enjoyed — and by enjoyed I mean “found uncomfortably true” — this line:

Daily, caffeine proposes itself as the optimal solution to the problem caffeine creates.

For more information on how caffeine enabled the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, check out Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

How the Human Immune System Works

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2021

In the first part of a multi-video series on how the human immune system works, Kurzgesagt describes how the system’s first lines of defense work when your body is invaded by microorganisms.

The human immune system is the most complex biological system we know, after the human brain, and yet, most of us never learn how it works. Or what it is. Your immune System consists of hundreds of tiny and two large organs, it has its own transport network spread throughout your body. Every day it makes hundreds of billions of fresh cells.

It is not some sort of abstract entity. Your immune system is YOU. Your biology protecting you from the billions of microorganisms that want to consume you and from your own perverted cells that turn into cancer.

Kurzgesagt founder Philipp Dettmer is publishing a companion book to the series, Immune: A Journey Into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive; it’s out in late September.

I have read a lot about the human immune system over the past 18 months, but this video was still helpful in understanding how it all fits together. For more information, consult their extensive list of sources or watch their earlier video on what the SARS-CoV-2 virus does to a human body.

The Walking Dead: American Pedestrian Fatalities on the Rise

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2021

In the last decade, the number of pedestrians hit by cars in the United States has increased by almost 50%, even as that rate has decreased in Europe and other wealthy nations (“thanks primarily to new street and crosswalk designs, implemented in the belief that most road deaths are avoidable”). In a review of Angie Schmitt’s 2020 book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America for the New York Review of Books, Peter Baker explores why America is increasingly hostile to pedestrians. Part of the reason is the rise of SUVs (and one would assume, trucks) in the US:

In the 1980s SUVs were a rarity. It was only in 2015 that they started outselling sedans. In 2018 they accounted for just under half of new vehicle sales, more than any other category of car. The height of American SUVs makes it harder for drivers to see pedestrians and means the hit comes higher on the body — and backed by extra mass — which makes organ damage and death two to three times more likely for adults, and four times more likely for children. More SUVs than ever are “overpowered” — that is, equipped with a high horsepower-to-weight ratio; this makes speeding more likely, which, like increased height and weight, increases the chances of pedestrians being hit and killed. More cars on the road, taller and heavier than ever before, going faster: each factor alone presents a serious problem. Together, they are a recipe for disaster.

And pedestrian deaths are also not equally distributed across population groups, both because of who owns cars but also shifts in where people are living:

Low-income pedestrians, Black and Hispanic pedestrians, elderly pedestrians, and disabled pedestrians are all disproportionately affected. Black and Hispanic men are twice as likely as white men to die while walking, and four times more likely than the average member of the population. Native American men are almost five times more likely.

The piece is interesting throughout, as is Schmitt’s book I’m sure.

The Handshake of Generations

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2021

This reading of an excerpt of Andri Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water is a beautiful illustration of the idea of the Great Span.

Imagine that, 262 years. That’s the length of time you connect across. You’ll know the people who span this time. Your time is the time of the people you know and love, the time that molds you, and your time is the time of the people you will know and love, the time that you will shape. You can touch 262 years with your bare hands. Your great grandma taught you, you will teach your great granddaughter, you can have a direct impact on the future right up to the year 2186. Imagine that.

(via @robertsharp59)

Goodnight Moon Filmstrip (1984)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2021

This is a filmstrip version of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon produced in 1984. Not sure what a filmstrip is? Boing Boing explains:

From the 1940s until the low-cost videocassette boom of the 1980s, audio filmstrips were commonly used in classrooms as an alternative to 16mm film projectors that were more expensive and fiddly to keep working.

This post doubles as one of those “say how old you are without saying how old you are” Twitter prompts. Here’s more on filmstrips from the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences:

While the show was a welcome diversion from parsing, long division and dictation, what we didn’t realise was the filmstrips were an educational revolution in Australia akin to smart boards today. They were stored in neat little canisters which could be easily dispatched to schools. Accompanying them was a script read by the teacher describing the 25 or so images depicted in the films, which were manually advanced in the projector.

Until watching this Goodnight Moon video, I had totally forgotten about the beep used in filmstrip audio used to signal someone to switch to the next frame.

Eric Carle, Author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Has Passed On

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2021

Eric Carle

Beloved children’s book author Eric Carle died this past weekend at the age of 91 and this is one of the best openings to an obituary I can recall reading:

When a fictional caterpillar chomps through one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, five oranges, one piece of chocolate cake, one ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake and one slice of watermelon, it might get a stomach ache.

But it might also become the star of one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

Eric Carle, the artist and author who created that creature in his book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” a tale that has charmed generations of children and parents alike, died on Sunday at his summer studio in Northampton, Mass. He was 91.

I’ve written about Carle and his most famous creation, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a couple of times here — I can still remember the first time my son read (or, more likely, recited from memory) the list of everything the caterpillar ate on Saturday, including all of his adorable pronunciations.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was certainly one of my favorite books as a kid — along with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town & Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, and the Frog & Toad books — and it was one of the first books we read to our kids. I remember very clearly loving the partial pages and the holes. Holes! In a book! Right in the middle of the page! It felt transgressive. Like, what else is possible in this world if you can do such a thing?

You can see Carle at work in his workshop from an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1998. I particularly appreciated this short exchange:

Rogers: In this, there’s just no mistakes, is there?

Carle: No, you can’t make mistakes really.

My Recent Media Diet, the Fully Vaccinated Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   May 18, 2021

Every few months for the past couple of years, I’ve shared the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. Here’s everything I’ve “consumed” since early February, accompanied by a mini review.

How To with John Wilson. What happens near the end of the risotto episode got all the attention, but I’m all about the bag of chips saga. (B+)

Black Art: In the Absence of Light. I can listen to artists and critics talk about art all day long. Also? Everyone in this has impeccable eyewear. (A)

Spirited Away. A masterpiece. (A)

Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine (BNT162b2). Possibly the best experience of the past 5 years. (A+++++)

Casino Royale. The best of the Daniel Craig Bonds IMO. (B+)

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. Another marvelously constructed world with vibrant characters by Ferrante. (A)

Wandavision. A love letter to television. Watched this with the kids and we all loved it. (A)

Looper. This is perhaps my favorite type of movie: clever sci-fi with a creative director and good actors that give a shit. (A-)

Sonic the Hedgehog. Jim Carrey is the highlight here and not much else. (C+)

The Remains of the Day. One of my favorite movies. I’ve watched this every few years since 1993 and what I get out of it changes every time. Great book too. (A+)

Judas and the Black Messiah. Fantastic performances by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. (A)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Way too long and nearly pointless. This is what happens when you start treating the director of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole like an auteur. (B-)

A Promised Land by Barack Obama. I recommend the audiobook version of this. You can really tell the bits of the book he cares about and the stuff he phones in a little bit more. The tone of his voice when he talks about Michelle — that love is real. (B+)

Making Sense — The Boundaries of Self. I listened to this conversation with the poet David Whyte at the beginning of March and it was exactly what I needed to hear at that time. I must have listened to his short essay on Friendship about 5 times. (A)

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. About the invention of the wireless telegraph and the beginning of our abundantly connected world. (B+)

Still Processing - The N Word. The way that Morris and, particularly, Wortham use inclusive language is fascinating. They invite people into the conversation without any loss of insight or critical capability. A bracing rebuttal to the idea that using so-called “woke” language is hamstringing discourse in America. (A-)

Matilda by Roald Dahl. Read this aloud to the kids and was told my rendition was not nearly as good as Kate Winslet’s. (B+)

You’re Wrong About (The continuing OJ saga). This has become the show’s version of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, with entire episodes dedicated to explaining mere minutes of the trial. I am here for it. (A)

Godzilla vs. Kong. I watched this after eating an edible and I think that’s the perfect way to do it. Monsters, roar! (B)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One of my favorite Trek movies. (A-)

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Less popular with me and the kids than Wandavision. Occasionally fun but also kind of a mess, especially when it comes to the “moral of the story”. (B)

The Talk Show with Craig Mod. Every single second of this 2.5-hour-long conversation between Craig Mod and John Gruber felt like it was created specifically for me. (A-)

Rough Translation - Liberté, Égalité, French Fries… And Couscous. A follow-up to a classic episode about a French McDonald’s that was commandeered by its employees. (B+)

Unstoppable. The perfect movie. I wouldn’t change a thing. (A)

Pac-Man 99. A nice update to this venerable game. The kids dismissed it as “too hectic”. (B+)

Fortnite. The perfect game for introverts — you can actually win by cleverly avoiding crowds and then dealing with a much more manageable 1-on-1 situation. But also I am old and there are too many buttons on this controller. (B+)

Croupier. Young Clive Owen, wow. (B+)

HazeOver. Recommended to me by Mike Davidson, this macOS app dims background windows to help you focus on your work. (B+)

Titanic. Had to rewatch after Evan Puschak’s video about it. Still an amazingly effective blockbuster movie. (A)

For All Mankind (Season One). So many people have recommended this to me over the past year and I finally got around to watching it. I was hooked within the first 5 minutes. (A)

The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Entertaining and stylistically interesting. (B+)

NYC. So much to say about this city and the resilience of the people who call it home. Still undefeated. (A)

Throughline — The Real Black Panthers. Great podcast on the political agenda and strategy of the Black Panther Party. A natural companion to Judas and The Black Messiah. (A)

Frick Madison. They have like 10% of the world’s Vermeers in just one room! (B+)

The Whitney. Great to be back here to see the work of Dawoud Bey and Julie Mehretu. (A)

The outdoor dining situation in NYC. The city has to keep this and the pandemic pedestrian areas reclaimed from cars. More room for people, less room for cars. (A)

Fairfax. This is the sister restaurant to my two favorite places in NYC, both of which closed permanently because of the pandemic, and the first restaurant I’ve been to since March 2020. We ate outside, I had too many cocktails, and it was perfect. (A+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.