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kottke.org posts about books

The Korean Invention of the Printing Press, Almost 200 Years Before Gutenberg

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

Jikji

M. Sophia Newman writing for Literary Hub: So, Gutenberg Didn’t Actually Invent the Printing Press.

It is important to recognize what this means. The innovation that Johannes Gutenberg is said to have created was small metal pieces with raised backwards letters, arranged in a frame, coated with ink, and pressed to a piece of paper, which allowed books to be printed more quickly. But Choe Yun-ui did that — and he did it 150 years before Gutenberg was even born.

This piece is also a good reminder that the spread of technology (and culture) depends on more than just how useful it is.

However, Korea’s printed books did not spread at a rapid pace, as Gutenberg’s books would 200 years later. Notably, Korea was under invasion, which hampered their ability to disseminate their innovation. In addition, Korean writing, then based closely on Chinese, used a large number of different characters, which made creating the metal pieces and assembling them into pages a slow process. Most importantly, Goryeo rulers intended most of its printing projects for the use of the nobility alone.

The image at the top of the post is of Jikji, the oldest existing book printed with movable metal type, made in 1377.

The Forgotten Power of Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2019

David Remnick recently interviewed Robert Caro and if you’ve read Caro’s book, Working, or the New Yorker article based on the book, there’s not much new here, but this exchange at the end is worth highlighting:

Remnick: We are living in a political moment, and when you watch the current President it seems that one of the saving graces is that, for all his erratic thinking, insulting thinking, his insults directed at minority groups — and, well, practically everyone — that he’s not that good at the exercise of power. He won the election, but if he had Johnsonian capacities in terms of the exercise of power, we might be even in deeper trouble than we already are.

Caro: Well, I think that that’s correct. And I think, [what] you say about Johnson, what does it mean to [be like] Johnson? You say, well, he wins election over Barry Goldwater, in 1964, by this tremendous majority. So the next morning he’s on the phone — or the morning after, he’s still hoarse the day of the election — calling the House Majority Leader and saying, “You know, the only thing that can hold this up here is the Rules Committee. Now is the moment to change the Rules Committee. Here’s how to do it.” And in the next couple of months he passes Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the voting-rights bill… I’m forgetting the rest of it. The most amazing — he could seize a moment because of this political genius that he has, and change, really, the face of America. It’s hard to remember a day when there wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid.

Remnick: You write in “Working” that there is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power. But there’s also great good that can come out of it. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this, you write. Why have we forgotten it?

Caro: You ask very good questions. I think we’ve forgotten it because we’ve had too many Presidents who don’t use political power — you say, what are things that change people’s lives? In the last century, Social Security, Medicare-like, right now I’m working on a section that, you could say, if I wanted to call it this, is what it was like to be old and sick in America before Medicare. And as I’m doing this I’m thinking, People aren’t even going to be able to imagine this. What was it like to be old in America before Social Security? People can’t imagine it. The power of government to do good for people is immense. And I think we have forgotten that power.

My Recent Media Diet, Summer Solstice 2019 Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2019

I keep track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month. I just started reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson; I loved his The Devil in the White City. On the TV front, I’m holding off on season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale and season 2 of Big Little Lies for some reason…don’t want to get sucked into anything right now, I guess. Ditto for catching up on the Historical Cinematic Universe…just not feeling it at the moment. As always, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades…they’re higher in the summer than in the cold, depressing winter.

Deadwood: The Movie. A fitting end to one of the best shows on TV. It was great to be able to spend a little more time with it. (A-)

Booksmart. I loved this movie. Great soundtrack too. (A)

Thermapen Mk4. Finally got tired of my anxiety about overcooking my meat. Been using it with the reverse sear to great effect. (B+)

Serial season 3. I couldn’t make it through more than two episodes of each of the previous two seasons, but I went the distance on this one. Is the American system of justice just? I doubt it. (A-)

Working by Robert Caro. The DVD extras for The Power Broker and the LBJ books. I don’t have time to read a 3000-page biography of Lyndon Johnson right now, but Working made me want to do it anyway. (A-)

Persuasion System. The latest album from Com Truise. Great for working to. (B+)

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. An idiosyncratic and deeply personal little museum. I felt very much at home there. (A)

Small Steps, Giant Leaps. Apollo 11 artifacts paired with historic scientific tomes from the likes of Galileo & Newton go together like chocolate and peanut butter. (A-)

Mary Queen of Scots. Nothing much here to distinguish this from your usual historical drama. (B)

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris. Great show at the MFA. Was not a particular fan of Toulouse-Lautrec before but perhaps I am now. (A-)

Street Food. Interesting to compare this to David Gelb’s other show, Chef’s Table. Same focus on quality ingredients and serving great food, but very different ends of the economic spectrum. (B+)

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Caught the peak of the cherry blossoms. Beautiful. But crowded. (A-)

Salt Fat Acid Heat. This wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can see what other people love about it. The final episode is the strongest and I thought Nosrat’s emphasis on shopping as a vital part of cooking was interesting. (B)

Summer in Vermont. It’s been spectacular here lately. (A)

Normal People by Sally Rooney. I burned through this in only two days. (A)

Cumulonimbus Mammatus

Cumulonimbus mammatus. They’re no asperitas clouds, but cumulonimbus mammatus is still one of the best clouds around. (A)

The Ezra Klein Show interview with Alison Gopnik. Gopnik’s ideas about gardeners vs carpenters and explore vs exploit are fascinating frameworks for thinking about human creativity. (A-)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s tough to maintain a coherent story told over several generations, but Lee manages it easily. (A-)

No Country for Old Men. Masterful. (A)

Chernobyl. Sometimes bureaucracy is no match for the truth. See also the accompanying podcast. (A-)

The Lives of Others. Got on a bit of a Cold War kick. (A-)

Always Be My Maybe. Strong ending. (B+)

Toy Story 4. Hollywood is often accused of being super liberal, but I thought the values depicted in this movie were quite conservative. (B+)

Anima. Thom Yorke’s solid third solo album. (B+)

13 Minutes to the Moon. There’s lots of Apollo stuff out there right now and some of it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But this podcast from the BBC is substantial, with interviews from key players, including Apollo software engineer Margaret Hamilton, who doesn’t give many interviews these days. (A-)

Bad Times at the El Royale. Rhymes with Tarantino but not that well. This should have been 90 minutes long. (B-)

Long Shot. Why did this flop? It’s not exactly great but it works fine. (B)

Whitney Biennial 2019. Things that caught my eye were Christine Sun Kim’s hand-drawn graphs about “deaf rage” and Jeanette Mundt’s paintings of Olympic gymnasts based on these composite photos in the NY Times. (B)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Highlights from Normal People by Sally Rooney

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2019

Normal People

Based on a recommendation from *gestures around at almost everyone*, I started and finished Sally Rooney’s Normal People in the space of a couple of days last week. Her prose is straightforward yet somehow not, and I found plenty to highlight on my Kindle. Here’s everything I highlighted for one reason or another:

Page 10:

Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it.

Page 12 (on the appeal of sports):

They were cheering together, they had seen something magical which dissolved the ordinary social relations between them.

Page 12:

It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him. She knew these were the kind of thoughts that made her different from other people in school, and weirder.

Page 25:

But why Marianne? It wasn’t like she was so attractive. Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school. What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it.

Page 26 (and yet…):

This “what?” question seems to him to contain so much: not just the forensic attentiveness to his silences that allows her to ask in the first place, but a desire for total communication, a sense that anything unsaid is an unwelcome interruption between them.

Page 27:

Lately he’s consumed by a sense that he is in fact two separate people, and soon he will have to choose which person to be on a full-time basis, and leave the other person behind.

Page 34:

Connell always gets what he wants, and then feels sorry for himself when what he wants doesn’t make him happy.

Page 46:

You make me really happy, he says. His hand moves over her hair and he adds: I love you. I’m not just saying that, I really do. Her eyes fill up with tears again and she closes them. Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she’s aware of this now, while it’s happening. She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.

Page 50 (hard same):

Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example.

Page 68 (re: toxic masculinity):

Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter’s frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks “warmth,” by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.

Page 71 (stories are stories are stories):

And in a way, the feeling provoked in Connell when Mr. Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.

Page 76 (love these little meta descriptions of the characters: “the kind of person he’d turned out to be”):

He felt a debilitating shame about the kind of person he’d turned out to be, and he missed the way Marianne had made him feel, and he missed her company.

Page 78:

He had thought that being with her would make him feel less lonely, but it only gave his loneliness a new stubborn quality, like it was planted down inside him and impossible to kill.

Page 99:

I mean, when you look at the lives men are really living, it’s sad, Marianne says. They control the whole social system and this is the best they can come up with for themselves? They’re not even having fun.

Page 108:

She had been sad before, after the film, but now she was happy. It was in Connell’s power to make her happy. It was something he could just give to her, like money or sex.

Page 117:

Marianne, he said, I’m not a religious person but I do sometimes think God made you for me.

Page 118 (pairs well w/ the above quote from page 46):

Marianne looked on, slightly drunk, admiring the way Sophie and Connell looked together, his hands on her smooth brown shins, and feeling a strange sense of nostalgia for a moment that was already in the process of happening.

Page 127 (on having money):

She bought him things all the time, dinner, theatre tickets, things she would pay for and then instantly, permanently, forget about.

Page 132 (ah, the friends-with-your-ex conundrum):

Connell can’t figure out what kind of relationship they are supposed to have now. Are they agreeing not to find each other attractive anymore? When were they supposed to have stopped?

Page 138:

I mean, I don’t enjoy it. But then, you’re not really submitting to someone if you only submit to things you enjoy.

Page 165:

That’s money, the substance that makes the world real. There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it.

Page 168:

He’s not sure what friends are allowed to enjoy about each other.

Page 176 (there were several other descriptions of various blues throughout the book):

The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.

Page 187 (the obligatory titular reference):

I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.

Page 189 (this had at least two different meanings and was simply brutal in context):

But Marianne has already turned away.

Page 195 (also a saying in Vermont):

In Sweden we have a saying, he says. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

Page 195:

He has managed to nurture a fine artistic sensitivity without ever developing any real sense of right and wrong. The fact that this is even possible unsettles Marianne, and makes art seem pointless suddenly.

Page 198:

There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.

Page 219:

But that was their world then. Their feelings were suppressed so carefully in everyday life, forced into smaller and smaller spaces, until seemingly minor events took on insane and frightening significance.

Page 224:

What we can do here in counseling is try to work on your feelings, and your thoughts and behaviors, she says. We can’t change your circumstances, but we can change how you respond to your circumstances.

Page 225 (a counterpart to the famous Groucho Marx line):

They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.

Page 231:

Not for the first time Marianne thinks cruelty does not only hurt the victim, but the perpetrator also, and maybe more deeply and more permanently. You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.

Page 237 (quietly devastating, given that it occurs right near the end of the book):

It’s different for men, she says.

Yeah, I’m starting to get that.

Page 242:

Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now.

I should go back through my book highlights more often. Too often, I just jump from finishing a book into the next thing (book, movie, sleep, work); reading through my notes (and writing about them, briefly) really solidified this book in my mind. I’m curious though: was it helpful/interesting for you? And did you read the book or not?

The 50 Best Memoirs of the Last 50 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2019

Best Memoirs

The NY Times has compiled a list of the best memoirs published since 1969. Here are a few that caught my eye:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. “At the age of 6, Marjane Satrapi privately declared herself the last prophet of Islam. At 14, she left Iran for a boarding school in Austria, sent away by parents terrified of their outspoken daughter’s penchant for challenging her teachers (and hypocrisy wherever she sniffed it out). At 31, she published ‘Persepolis,’ in French (it was later translated into English by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris), a stunning graphic memoir hailed as a wholly original achievement in the form.”

Hold Still by Sally Mann. “The photographer Sally Mann’s memoir is weird, intense and uncommonly beautiful. She has real literary gifts, and she’s led a big Southern-bohemian life, rich with incident. Or maybe it only seems rich with incident because of an old maxim that still holds: Stories happen only to people who can tell them.”

Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee. “The child of Afrikaner parents who had pretensions to English gentility, he was buttoned-up and sensitive, desperate to fit into the ‘normal’ world around him but also confounded and repulsed by it. He noticed how his indolent relatives clung to their privileged position in South Africa’s brutal racial hierarchy through cruelty and a raw assertion of power. Out in the world, he lived in constant fear of violence and humiliation; at home he was cosseted by his mother and presided like a king.”

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. “Grandin, a professor of animal science who is autistic, describes the ‘library’ of visual images in her memory, which she is constantly updating. (‘It’s like getting a new version of software for the computer.’) As Oliver Sacks wrote in an introduction to the book, ‘Grandin’s voice came from a place which had never had a voice, never been granted real existence, before.’”

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. “William Finnegan, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, recalls his childhood in California and Hawaii, his many surfing buddies through the years and his taste for a kind of danger that approaches the sublime.”

Uncompetitive Purposefulness and Infinity Cake

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2019

In her post about the book The White Cat and the Monk, Maria Popova uses this great phrase, “uncompetitive purposefulness”, which is one of those things that you hear and you’re like, riiiight, that’s how I want to be living my life.

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

Just this morning I ran across a tweet from Jonny Sun:

if you cheer for people you like instead of envy them the world gets better for you and for them and for everyone involved i promise

And Jenna Wortham’s response:

the cake is big enough for everyone to have a slice. ten slices. the sheet cake can feed us all. infinity cake. infinity rewards and wins.

The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

It started in mid-April, barely 3 and 1/2 months into the year. To hit expectant readers before Memorial Day with suggestions for beach reads, summer reads, roadtrip reads, and just plain read reads, publications started rounding up the best books released in 2019:

Best books of 2019 so far (The Guardian)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Vulture)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Real Simple)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Glamour)
The Best Books of 2019 to Add to Your Reading List (Marie Claire)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Esquire)

I love that almost everyone uses the same title — it’s economical and the “(So Far)” is a wink that, yes, it’s a more than a little absurd to be talking about the best books of the year in freaking April. Of course, I couldn’t resist using it too.

But never mind the meta crap, what books are actually on these lists? Here are some that caught my eye or featured on one or more of these lists.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. This one is going to be on all the year-end lists, so it’s almost required reading at this point.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon. “This contemporary story mirrors the ancient legend of Antiochus, whose love for the daughter of his dead wife was discovered by the adventurer Appolinus of Tyre. The tale appeared in many forms through the ages; Apollinus becoming the swashbuckling Pericles in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.”

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. “Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories — equal parts wholesome and uncanny; from the tantalizing witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can — beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.”

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. A retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women in the story. In the same vein as Circe and Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey, both of which I loved.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. I wrote about Cirado Perez’s book back in February. “In her new book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez argues that the data that scientists, economists, public policy makers, and healthcare providers rely on is skewed, unfairly and dangerously, towards men.”

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. “A gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.”

Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. “Giridharadas asks hard questions: Why, for example, should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions it erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes?”

The History of the Bible by John Barton. “In our culture, the Bible is monolithic: It is a collection of books that has been unchanged and unchallenged since the earliest days of the Christian church. The idea of the Bible as “Holy Scripture,” a non-negotiable authority straight from God, has prevailed in Western society for some time. And while it provides a firm foundation for centuries of Christian teaching, it denies the depth, variety, and richness of this fascinating text.”

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. “Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Wang discusses the medical community’s own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness, and then follows an arc that examines the manifestations of schizophrenia in her life.”

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian. A collection of stories from the author that broke the internet with Cat Person. Included in the collection is The Good Guy, also very much worth a read.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl. Reichl’s memoir about her time at Gourmet magazine. “This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat.”

Update: Here are a few more lists I’ve run across, along with the books recommended therein.

Best books of the year so far (Amazon)
5 good books I read this spring (Austin Kleon)
Most Popular Books Published In 2019 (Goodreads)
Best Books of 2019 So Far (Book Riot)
The 10 best books of 2019…so far (Entertainment Weekly)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. “His new collection of nine stories — theming free will and choice, virtual reality and regret — is so provocative, imaginative, and soulful that it makes Black Mirror look drab and dull by comparison.”

Internment by Samira Ahmed. “This book inspires me to be more active in my engagement with the struggle for equality. Change can happen. In that respect, despite its horrifying moments, Internment is a hopeful dystopia. Layla, in defiance of being imprisoned in the first internment camp for Muslim Americans and living under dehumanizing conditions, maintains enough hope and resolution to protest.”

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. “Nothing is harder to do these days than nothing. But in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity… doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance. So argues artist and critic Jenny Odell in this field guide to doing nothing (at least as capitalism defines it). Odell sees our attention as the most precious-and overdrawn-resource we have. Once we can start paying a new kind of attention, she writes, we can undertake bolder forms of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress.”

Update: Book Marks compiled their own meta-list: The Best Reviewed Books of 2019 (So Far). The runner-up to Normal People on the list is Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf.

Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written a novel unlike anything that’s come before it: a saga of breathtaking adventure that’s also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is both surprising and profound as it explores the fundamentals of truth, the limits of power, and our need to understand them both.

How to Draw Animals

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2019

Robert Lambry

Robert Lambry

Robert Lambry

Robert Lambry

Les Animaux Tels Qu’ils Sont is a 1930s book by Robert Lambry that contain instructions for drawing all kinds of animals, from elephants and snakes to birds and horses. Each drawing starts with basic forms — circles, rectangles, etc. — which Lambry builds into simple line drawings of each animal. I love the dogs drawn with parallel lines.

Update: A new English edition of Lambry’s book is being released this fall as The Draw Any Animal Book. (thx, matt)

Salvador Dali’s Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2019

Salvador Dali / Alice Wonderland

In 1969, surrealist Salvador Dali provided a set of 12 illustrations for an edition of Alice in Wonderland, a seemingly perfect match of artist to subject matter. It was released in a limited edition and copies are now a coveted collector’s item — here’s a signed copy on eBay for $10,000. Luckily, Princeton Architectural Press put out a 150th anniversary edition a few years ago that’s more manageable (Amazon).

See also a couple of Dali’s other books: a wine guide and a cookbook.

Conduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2019

The New Yorker has published an excerpt of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ forthcoming novel, The Water Dancer. In Conduction, we meet Hiram Walker, a slave who has escaped his bondage in Virginia and traveled to Philadelphia to work on the Underground Railroad.

I followed the river as it bent inward then curved back out. Its banks were crowded with workshops, small factories, and drydocks. The oppressive scent of the city eased some against the cool river breeze. Now I came upon a promenade, a large green field dissected by walkways lined with benches. I took a seat. It was about nine in the morning, Friday. The day was clear and blue. The promenade was filled with Philadelphians of all colors and kinds. Gentlemen in boaters escorted ladies. A circle of schoolchildren sat in the grass hanging on the words of their tutor. A man rode past on a bicycle, laughing. It occurred to me that this was the freest I had ever been in my life. And I knew that I could leave right then, right there, that I could abandon the Underground, and disappear into this city, float away on the poisonous air.

The Water Dancer is out in September.

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2019

Mirror Light Cover

Hear ye, hear ye! The third book in Hilary Mantel’s excellent Thomas Cromwell trilogy has been announced. The Mirror & the Light picks up where the previous book left off, with (spoilers!) the execution of Anne Boleyn, and covers the final years of Cromwell’s life.

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

I loved both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and am really looking forward this one coming out next March. Preorder now!

My Recent Media Diet, The “It’s Not Life or Death, It’s Just Tacos” Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2019

I keep track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two months. I never wrote a proper report on my trip to Mexico City, so I put some of the highlights in here. I’m in the middle of several things right now. On TV, I’m watching Our Planet, In Search of Greatness, Street Food, Chernobyl, The Clinton Affair, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, and This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy. I don’t normally watch 19 different things at one time, but life’s felt a little scattered lately. For books, I’m listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on audiobook and I’m making good progress on Robert Caro’s Working (highly recommended).

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. Hard to summarize but there’s certainly something interesting on almost every page. (A-)

Fleabag. Bitingly funny and poignant, a real gem. (A+)

Skyscraper. Die Hard + the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia + #sponcon for Big Duct Tape. I love a good disaster movie. (B+)

Mexico City. Great food, vegetation everywhere, beautiful architecture, culturally fascinating, super walkable/bikeable/scooterable. I am definitely visiting here again as soon as I can. (A)

Puyol Taco Omakase. Delicious & fun & a great experience, but I’m not sure the food was obviously so much better than some of the best street food I had in Mexico City. I had this same experience in Bangkok years ago…street food is tough to beat when there’s a thriving culture of markets, carts, and stalls. (B+)

The National Museum of Anthropology. One of my new favorite museums in the world. The only thing possibly more impressive than the collection is the architecture of the building. (A+)

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacán. I had high hopes for this archeological site and I was still blown away by it. (A+)

AirPods. This is my favorite gadget in years, the first real VR/AR device that feels seamless (and not like a Segway for your face). The freedom of wireless headphones feels similar to when I first used a laptop, wifi, and dockless bike share. (A+)

Homecoming. So many things to love about this, but one of my favorites is the shots of the audience watching Beyoncé and the rare moments when she watches them back: “I see you.” And also the way they put a cohesive show together while showcasing individual talents and styles. (A-)

Homecoming: The Live Album. Come on, a marching band playing Beyoncé hits? That this works so well is a small miracle. (A-)

Avengers: Endgame. I liked but didn’t love it. It was like the ST:TNG finale and the Six Feet Under finale mashed together and not done as well. It also seemed too predictable. (B)

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now that the Thanos narrative arc is complete, this is an underrated installment. (B+)

Casa Luis Barragán. This was like being in someone’s creative mind. The layering of the garden reminded me of Disney’s use of the multiplane camera in the forest scene in Bambi. (B+)

Gelatin Sincronizada Gelitin (NSFW). I was skeptical of this art performance at first — a bunch of half-naked people painting on a moving canvas using paintbrushes coming out of their butts — but it ended up being a really cool thing to experience. (B+)

Game of Thrones. I’m not quite as critical of the final season as everyone else seems to be. Still, it seems like since the show left the cozy confines of George RR Martin’s books, it has struggled at times. (B+)

Wandering Earth. Based on the short story by Liu Cixin (author of the Three Body Problem trilogy), this disaster movie is a little uneven at the start but finishes strong. (B)

Halt and Catch Fire Vol 2. The music was one of the many great things about this show. (A-)

Running from COPS. A podcast about how media and law enforcement in America intersect to great and terrible effect. (B+)

Eating bugs. I tasted crickets, grasshoppers, and grubs at the market: mostly just salty. I had beef tartare and guacamole with grasshoppers on it. They added a nice crunch to the guac. Wouldn’t exactly go out of the way for them, but they weren’t bad. (B)

Panaderia Rosetta. Did I have one of the best pain au chocolat I’ve ever had here? Yes. Yes, I did. Also extremely delicious: everything else I tried. (A-)

Against the Rules. A podcast from Michael Lewis about what’s happening to the concept of fairness in America. The episode about Salvator Mundi, the supposed Leonardo masterpiece, is particularly interesting. (A-)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. I have a new appreciation of how much Tolkien did in creating his books: writing, map making, world building, art, constructing languages. (B+)

Frida Kahlo’s Blue House. A striking house with a lush courtyard, but the highlight was seeing Kahlo’s work area much the way she left it when she died. (B+)

Street Food Essentials by Club Tengo Hambre. Mexico City is a huge place with so much to do that I wanted to hit the ground running right away, so I booked this street food tour. Definitely a good idea. We sampled so many different kinds of tacos & gorditas & quesadillas that I lost count. Highlights: huitlacoche quesadillas, al pastor tacos, fresh Oaxaca cheese at the Mercado de San Juan, and the blue corn masa used to make tlacoyos at one of our last stops — probably the best tortilla I’ve ever eaten. (A-)

The Matrix. This came out 20 years ago. I watched it with my 11-yo son the other day and he thought the special effects “held up pretty well”. (A)

Electric scooters. I used the Lime dockless electric scooters for the first time when I was in Mexico City and I loved experience. Easier than a bike and a fun & fast way to get around the city. Cons: the combo of the speed & small wheels can be dangerous and cities generally don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate them yet. (B+)

Paprika. Inventive and visually dazzling. Purportedly an influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. (B+)

Oh and just because, here’s a photo I took recently in my backyard that makes it seem like I live in Narnia or The Shire:

Ollie Shed

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2019

This wonderful site presents animations of 507 mechanical movements first published in a book by Henry T. Brown in 1868, the full title of which is:

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements: Embracing All Those Which Are Most Important in Dynamics, Hydraulics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Steam Engines, Mill and Other Gearing, Presses, Horology, and Miscellaneous Machinery; and Including Many Movements Never Before Published and Several of Which Have Only Recently Come Into Use

The site is a work-in-progress…not all of the movements have been animated yet. This short video shows movement #123:

You can buy a paperback version of the original book or browse/download the entire thing at the Internet Archive.

See also this great explanation of differential gears and especially Ralph Steiner’s 1930 short film Mechanical Principles, in which we see many of the mechanisms from Brown’s book actually working:

Warning: if you start Steiner’s film, you’ll probably end up watching the whole thing…it’s mesmerizing, particularly when the gears come in around ~2:30.

The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2019

I am here for any metaphor linking the internet and Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy. Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler writes that netizens are retreating from the public square of the internet, resulting in many private & isolated worlds that don’t communicate with each other, a la the dark forest condition in Liu’s books.

Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.

Explore Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus Online

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2019

Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus

An 1119-page collection of papers known as the Codex Atlanticus has been completely digitized and put online to explore. The codex showcases Leonardo’s impressive range of interests and abilities, from flying machines to anatomy to weaponry to astronomy to engineering.

Several more of Leonardo’s notebooks have been put online as well…I’ve listed all of them in this post about the Codex Forster. (via open culture)

One-Word Book Titles

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

Merriam-Webster asked 11 authors how they came up with their single-word book titles. Here’s A.S. Byatt talking about Possession:

The book began with a word — the title — Possession. Earlier novels have begun with characters, or themes, but Possession began when I was watching the great Canadian Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, working in the British Museum and thought — “she cannot have had a thought that was not his thought for the last 30 or 40 years.” And then I thought — “and what I know about him is mediated through her - she edited all his notebooks, checked the sources of the quotations, etc.”

And then I thought, “I could write a novel called Possession about the relationship between a dead poet and a living scholar.” And the word possession would have all sorts of senses — daemonism, ownership, obsession……

And Jeffrey Eugenides on Middlesex:

A good title tells you what the book’s about. It reminds you, when you lose heart, why you started writing it in the first place. I saw an interview with Francis Ford Coppola once where he said that he likes to boil down his films into one word. For The Godfather, the word was “succession.” Whenever Coppola decided something, even a small thing like a costume detail, he reminded himself of his theme in order to make everything cohere, from the storyline right down to the gangsters’ hats.

With two of my novels, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, I knew the titles before I even started writing. I wasn’t so lucky with Middlesex. For years I had a terrible working title for that book, so bad I won’t even mention it here.

(via @john_overholt)

Meet Aerospace Engineer Judith Love Cohen

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

Judith Love Cohen was, at various times in her fascinating life, an engineer who worked on the Pioneer, Apollo, and Hubble missions, an author & publisher of books about women in STEM and environmentalism in the 90s, a ballet dancer with the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, an advocate for better treatment of women in the workplace, and actor Jack Black’s mother. From an obituary written by her son Neil Siegel after her death in 2016:

My mother usually considered her work on the Apollo program to be the highlight of her career. When disaster struck the Apollo 13 mission, it was the Abort-Guidance System that brought the astronauts home safely. Judy was there when the Apollo 13 astronauts paid a “thank you” [visit] to the TRW facility in Redondo Beach.

She finished her engineering career running the systems engineering for the science ground facility of the Hubble Space Telescope.

During her engineering career, she was a vigorous and tireless advocate of better treatment for women in the workplace. Many things that today we consider routine — the posting of job openings inside of a company so that anyone could apply, formal job descriptions for every position, and so forth - were her creations. She had a profound impact on equality in the workforce.

Here’s Cohen pictured with an early Pioneer spacecraft in 1959:

June Love Cohen

Frustrated with the lack of female role models for girls interested in science, math, and technology, she retired from engineering to write and publish a series of books. From a 1999 LA Times profile:

The 11-book series features female professionals such as a paleontologist, Egyptologist and marine biologist. Cohen’s first book in 1991, “You Can Be a Woman Engineer,” traces her arc from a girl who had never heard of female engineers to a woman who led a team of engineers on the design for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“You only think about things when you see people doing it. Most girls know now they can be lawyers” from TV shows like “Ally McBeal” and female lawyers in the news, Cohen said. “They know that they can work in an emergency room — they’ve seen ‘ER.’ But I don’t recall that anyone has seen scientists on a large scale, except for a few paleontologists in ‘Jurassic Park.’”

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, physicist Barbara Wilson, 50, said she never knew of any female scientists while growing up in the Midwest. At age 10, she started reading science fiction books for inspiration, but none of them featured women. In school, counselors dismissed the idea of her becoming a scientist, saying she should consider jobs that “women are more likely to be good at.” Books like Cohen’s would have provided the validation she sought, said Wilson, JPL’s chief technologist.

“It was really difficult psychologically and emotionally to be better than all the boys in math and science,” she said. “[The books] really would have helped encourage my feeling good about myself, that this was the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t see role models. I didn’t get encouragement other than at home.”

It’s difficult to imagine a better role model than Cohen…she obviously loved engineering and her work. When her son Jack Black was born, she barely hit the pause button:

Her fourth child, Jack, was born a few years later. She actually went to her office on the day that Jack was born. When it was time to go to the hospital, she took with her a computer printout of the problem she was working on. Later that day, she called her boss and told him that she had solved the problem. And… oh, yes, the baby was born, too.

If anyone from the NY Times is reading, I think Cohen would make a good subject for the Overlooked series. (via history cool kids)

The Persistent Myth of the Empty American Frontier

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

The author and popular historian David McCullough has a new book out called The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. I don’t really know where to start with that title (heroic? ideal?) but in her Slate review, Rebecca Onion says that McCullough’s brand of Manifest Destiny-laden American history furthers “the lie that the ‘frontier’ was an empty Eden waiting for American expansion”.

This poem embodies another “pioneer attitude” — the idea that the land was prehistoric, suspended in stasis, before the arrival of white people, and needed to be properly brought into production by the kind of work only “stalwart” settlers could do. This idea, repeated over centuries, aided Manifest Destiny, even as Native settlements like the Miami town of Kekionga boasted cornfields, gardens, and cattle herds. McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes — and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it.

Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin agrees in a NY Times book review:

And whatever praise Manasseh Cutler and his supporters might deserve, their designated Eden had an original sin: dispossession of the region’s native inhabitants — paradise lost, indeed. McCullough plays down the violence that displaced the Indians, including the actual Ohio people. He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about “savages” and “wilderness,” words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land. He also states that the Ohio Territory was “unsettled.” No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians “considered” the land to be theirs. That paragraph begins, however, with a description of the Northwest Territory as “teeming with wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, rattlesnakes and the even more deadly copperheads,” as if the native people were comparably wild and venomous, to be hunted down, beaten back, exterminated.

The Design Manual of the 1972 Munich Olympics

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2019

For the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, a team led by Otl Aicher designed the iconic identity for the event. The guidelines for the visual design were laid out in a manual produced in 1969, which contained the design systems governing how everything from signage and merchandise to tickets and even landscaping were to be produced.

Olympics 1972 Design

Now, a lovingly produced reprint of that manual is available for purchase on Kickstarter.

The visual modules — the typeface, the colors, the grid systems and the application methods — were the basis of all printed matter, merchandising products, signage, wayfinding systems, urban planning and landscaping.

“The freedom of play” was about ensuring “maximum variation” via “strict discipline and adherence to rules”, explained Otl Aicher in 1975.

(via steven heller)

An Animated Version of The Giving Tree Narrated by Shel Silverstein

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2019

From 1973, this is an animated short film version of the classic children’s book The Giving Tree, narrated by author Shel Silverstein. As Wikipedia notes, there are conflicting ideas about the book’s meaning:

This book has been described as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature”; the controversy stems from whether the relationship between the main characters (a boy and the titular tree) should be interpreted as positive (i.e., the tree gives the boy selfless love) or negative (i.e., the boy and the tree have an abusive relationship).

Silverstein’s narration does little to resolve the complexity of the story, although as someone who has never read The Giving Tree1, I was left feeling not so great about the relationship depicted in the story. (via open culture)

  1. I know! Silverstein was not part of my childhood — perhaps his stuff was too weird for my parents? — so I’ve only gotten to know his work through Where the Sidewalk Ends, which I’ve read to my kids.

Barack Obama’s Spring 2019 Book Recommendations

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2019

Moment Of Lift

In a recent Facebook post, President Obama 1 shared a few books that he’s been reading recently. At the tippy top is Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

When you lift up women, you lift up everybody — families, communities, entire countries. That’s not just the right approach; it’s backed up by research and countless real-world examples. In her book, Melinda tells the stories of the inspiring people she’s met through her work all over the world, digs into the data, and powerfully illustrates issues that need our attention — from child marriage to gender inequity in the workplace. I’ve called Melinda an impatient optimist and that’s what she delivers here — the urgency to tackle these problems and the unwavering belief that solving them is indeed possible.

From a short excerpt of the book:

In my travels, I’ve learned about hundreds of millions of women who want to decide for themselves whether and when to have children, but they can’t. They have no access to contraceptives. And there are many other rights and privileges that women and girls are denied: The right to decide whether and when and whom to marry. The right to go to school. Earn an income. Work outside the home. Walk outside the home. Spend their own money. Shape their budget. Start a business. Get a loan. Own property. Divorce a husband. See a doctor. Run for office. Ride a bike. Drive a car. Go to college. Study computers. Find investors. All these rights are denied to women in some parts of the world. Sometimes these rights are denied under law, but even when they’re allowed by law, they’re still often denied by cultural bias against women.

Two of the top ten solutions on Paul Hawken’s list for slowing the effects of climate change are “educating girls” and “family planning”, which taken together would have a greater impact on reversing climate change than any other thing on the list.

Obama also recommends Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a book I’ve been curious about ever since it was published. Friends have recommended it and the cover always catches my eye in the bookstore even though I’m never specifically looking for it. I don’t even know why I’ve been resisting it…just ordered it!

  1. President Obama. That two-word phrase still fills me with so many conflicting emotions that I can’t even process it. I imagine it’s the same way for a lot of other people (on both sides of the political spectrum).

Monk Hacks: Dealing With Distraction in Late Antiquity

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 26, 2019

memory-theater.png

For monks, concentration wasn’t just a practical necessity, but a spiritual discipline. Consequently, they spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of distraction and how to fight it.

Sometimes [monks] accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment - let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration.

That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat.

Actually, I can think of several other things John Cassian would have done if he had seen a smartphone, but let’s not get off track. Sure. He’d have figured out we’d have some problems.

Here’s a paradox: monks and nuns weren’t all about that austerity, at least cognitively. Instead, they’d go full tilt into embracing the wild, distracting powers of the mind, but trying to harness them for useful purposes.

Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to accept its delights and preferences, in order to take advantage of them. Authors and artists might do some of the legwork here, by writing vivid narratives or sculpting grotesque figures that embodied the ideas they wanted to communicate. But if a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better - strangeness would make them easier to retrieve, and more captivating to think with when she ‘returned’ to look them over.

My favorite book about this is Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory; it’s more about the Renaissance than the height of the monastic period, but focuses on the history and artistry of these various mnemonic devices, while doubling as a kind of cultural history of the mind.

The Books Shakespeare Read

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 26, 2019

metamorphoses.jpg

Five Books is a pretty cool website I’d never heard of before; it’s a recommendations website, anchored by interviews with experts who pick a certain number (guess how many!) of books to recommend. Most are sorted by topic, so you get the best books about X; this interview, with Shakespeare expert Robert S Miola, examines five books that influenced Shakespeare, especially (but not only) as source material.

What I like especially is how Miola deftly deals with the whole problem of influence in an era when what it even meant to read or own a book was very different from our own age.

One thing we’re coming to appreciate is how print culture existed side by side with a vibrant and flourishing manuscript culture. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, were passed around in manuscript, from what we can gather, as were most of John Donne’s poems. Many have pointed to the importance of print because at that time, schools had texts that people could study. And, more importantly, individuals could collect libraries.

This leads to one of the great mysteries: where did Shakespeare find these books? Whose libraries did he raid? John Florio was known to have a big library, as did Ben Jonson, who famously wrote a poem about its burning. And there were collectors, too. Yet we still haven’t discerned from the available clues where Shakespeare got access to his books…

When you get a passage in Shakespeare—or any Elizabethan—you can’t really assume that the author knows the whole text. He or she might just have 12 lines from Virgil. The reading practice was that knowing lines might help you in another situation in your life. Scholars get upset because they can’t be sure that someone really knows Virgil; the lines might have been taken out of context from Virgil’s Georgics on beekeeping or gardening, for any reason whatsoever.

That’s one way to look at it. But the other is to say that they believed in Virgil so much that they took him as a guide for daily life. And that is the way they saw it. It takes an imaginative leap to understand just how much they valued books, and just how much they read.

The discussion of what Shakespeare took from Ovid, not just in terms of content for stories, but stylistically, is great:

Ovid is like Shakespeare as a poet; both possess extremely rapid wit and move magically and unpredictably on the surface of the text, from image to image and metaphor to metaphor. They defy expectation. Reading them is always surprising. Here, you have a great contrast with Virgil. I think Shakespeare read and liked Virgil, but Virgil is stately, imperial, and marvellously well-wrought, whereas Ovid is quick, shifting, and interested in surface and glitter.

Another nugget gleaned from this interview right away: only two of Shakespeare’s plays are thought to be more or less original in their plots — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Everything else was borrowed, in whole or part, from classical, historical, or contemporary sources.

The Beautiful Ones, a Forthcoming Memoir From Prince

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2019

The Beautiful Ones

Before his death in 2016, Prince had begun work on a memoir about his wonderfully creative life. The Beautiful Ones, due out in October 2019, will incorporate the 50 hand-written pages the artist had completed before he died, along with other writings, personal photos, and handwritten lyric sheets.

The Beautiful Ones is the story of how Prince became Prince — a first-person account of a kid absorbing the world around him and then creating a persona, an artistic vision, and a life, before the hits and fame that would come to define him. The book is told in four parts. The first is composed of the memoir he was writing before his tragic death, pages that brings us into Prince’s childhood world through his own lyrical prose. The second part takes us into Prince’s early years as a musician, before his first album released, through a scrapbook of Prince’s writing and photos. The third section shows us Prince’s evolution through candid images that take us up to the cusp of his greatest achievement, which we see in the book’s fourth section: his original handwritten treatment for Purple Rain — the final stage in Prince’s self-creation, as he retells the autobiography we’ve seen in the first three parts as a heroic journey.

The book is being produced in partnership with his estate, which is also behind the forthcoming Netflix documentary series about Prince directed by Ava DuVernay.

The project has the full cooperation of the late artist’s estate, which is providing with interviews, archival footage, photos and archive access. The multiple-part documentary will cover the artist’s entire life.

The book and documentary sound similar…I wonder if they’ll share a title?

The Secret Pigeon Service

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2019

This short piece in the London Review of Books about pigeons is fascinating. I learned many new things about pigeons and now hold them in higher esteem than I did previously.

Pigeons are more intelligent than we give them credit for, one of the few animals — along with great apes, dolphins and elephants — able to pass the mirror self-recognition test. If you mark a pigeon’s wing and let it look in a mirror it will try to remove the mark, realising that what it sees is a reflected image of its own body. Pigeons can recognise video footage of themselves shown with a five-second delay (three-year-old children find it difficult to comprehend a two-second delay). They are able to recognise individuals from photographs, and a neuroscientist at Keio University in Japan has trained them to distinguish between the paintings of Matisse and Picasso. ‘Modesty,’ Marianne Moore wrote, ‘cannot dull the lustre of the pigeon.’

Pigeons move through a human world. They stay close to the land, often flying at street level, below the height of the rooftops. Recent studies have suggested that they navigate using human structures as well as natural ones: they follow roads and canals, and have been observed going round roundabouts before taking the appropriate exit. They can fly extremely fast — up to 110 miles per hour — and with a following wind can cover 700 miles in a single uninterrupted flight (pigeons don’t like to fly at night but can be trained to do so). There are faster birds — peregrine falcons, the pigeon’s main predator, can reach 200 miles per hour on the stoop — but none can fly horizontally, under its own power, as quickly as a pigeon.

This bit, about the role of pigeons in developing the telecommunications networks of today, is terrific:

During the 19th and early 20th centuries they became important auxiliaries to the technological networks that were springing up across the world. Reuter’s News Agency was established in 1850 with a flock of 45 pigeons, which were used to cover a gap in the telegraph network between Brussels and Aachen, giving Paul Reuter a monopoly over all telegraph traffic between Belgium and Germany. The five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild used pigeons to stay in touch as they travelled around Europe consolidating their father’s banking dynasty. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, pigeons were taken out of the city by balloon and returned carrying thousands of letters stored on microfilm and sewn into their tail feathers.

Pigeon Secret Service

The bulk of the piece is a review of Gordon Corera’s book, Operation Columba - The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe, which is about a British campaign that used carrier pigeons to gather intelligence from German occupied territories during WWII.

Between 1941 and 1944, British intelligence dropped sixteen thousand homing pigeons in an arc across Nazi-occupied Europe, from Bordeaux, France to Copenhagen, Denmark, as part of a spy operation code-named Columba. Returning to MI14, the secret government branch in charge of the “Special Pigeon Service,” the birds carried messages that offered a glimpse of life under the Germans in rural France, Holland, and Belgium. Written on tiny pieces of rice paper tucked into canisters and tied to the birds’ legs, these messages were sometimes comic, often tragic, and occasionally invaluable-reporting details of German troop movements and fortifications, new Nazi weapons, radar systems, and even the deployment of the feared V-1 and V-2 rockets used to terrorize London.

Rebuilding the Notre Dame with Strong Trees and Laser Scans

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2019

According to an expert, France doesn’t have any of the large, old trees necessary to replace the burned wooden beams in the roof of the Notre Dame.

Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, told France Info radio that the wooden roof that went up in flames was built with beams more than 800 years ago from primal forests.

He says the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire because “we don’t, at the moment, have trees on our territory of the size that were cut in the 13th century.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories about future planning (possibly apocryphal). As told by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn, the story goes:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be two feet square and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because they had no idea where they would get beams of that calibre nowadays.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some oak on College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks has been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Hopefully the trees needed for rebuilding Notre Dame can be sourced elsewhere. Just as important, a more modern form of future planning was recently undertaken that should help greatly with the rebuild. In 2010, two men photographed and laser-scanned every inch of the Notre Dame, creating an incredibly detailed 3-D map of the building.

3D Notre Dame

Now, with the building having sustained untold but very substantial damage, the data that Tallon and Blaer created could be an invaluable aid to whoever is charged with rebuilding the structure. Ochsendorf described the data as “essential for capturing [the structure] as built geometry.” (He added, however, that the cathedral, no matter what happens now, “is irreplaceable, of course.”)

Tallon and Blaer’s laser data consist of 1 billion data points, structured as “point clouds,” which software can render into images of the three-dimensional space. Stitch them together, inside and out, map the photographs onto the precise 3-D models, and you have a full digital re-creation of incredible detail and resolution.

“I saw this happening, and I had two thoughts,” Blaer told me of watching the cathedral engulfed in flames. “One thought was that I was kind of relieved that he didn’t actually have to see this happen. But on the other hand, he knew it so well and had so much information about how it’s constructed, he would have been so helpful in terms of rebuilding it.”

(thx, meg)

Update: According to this piece in Le Monde (as best as I can discern in Google Translate), French forests have both the quality and quantity of wood available to provide new beams for Notre Dame. (via @ramdyne)

The Little Book of Fixers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2019

Jan Chipchase’s Studio D has recently released their latest booklet, The Little Book of Fixers.

Fixers and guides are core to the way we operate — to complement the skills and address the weaknesses of international teams tasked with documenting and decoding cultures across the globe. Fixers and guides are crucial for knowing the best neighbourhood for the team to be situated, recruiting suitable participants, identifying nascent behaviours and critically discussing the trajectories that put the data into a broader societal perspective. Working with fixers enables research projects to go beyond the veneer of a culture, to truly understand the forces shaping society.

The Little Book of Fixers

I continue to find the output of Studio D and Chipchase fascinating — see 61 Glimpses of the Future for example. Hiring fixers is not something most of us will ever need to do, but creatively and respectfully choosing guides when interacting and intersecting with cultures different from our own is always going to be relevant.

You can order The Little Book of Fixers directly from Studio D or via Amazon (which I’m assuming is written in English and not “Middle English” as Amazon says).

The Rise of Selective Empathy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2019

Over the past 20 years, the kind of empathy practiced by many Americans has shifted from a universal empathy — putting yourself into the shoes of someone you don’t know and might even dislike — to a more selective empathy that only works with people “on your team”.

Researchers who study empathy have noticed that it’s actually really hard to do what we were striving for in my generation: empathize with people who are different than you are, much less people you don’t like. But if researchers set up a conflict, people get into automatic empathy overdrive, with their own team. This new research has scrambled notions of how empathy works as a force in the world. For example, we often think of terrorists as shockingly blind to the suffering of innocents. But Breithaupt and other researchers think of them as classic examples of people afflicted with an “excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.”

Breithaupt called his new book The Dark Sides of Empathy, because there’s a point at which empathy doesn’t even look like the kind of universal empathy I was taught in school. There is a natural way that empathy gets triggered in the brain — your pain centers light up when you see another person suffering. But out in the world it starts to look more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others.

Here’s the description of Breithaupt’s book:

Many consider empathy to be the basis of moral action. However, the ability to empathize with others is also a prerequisite for deliberate acts of humiliation and cruelty. In The Dark Sides of Empathy, Fritz Breithaupt contends that people often commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of over-identification and a desire to increase empathy. Even well-meaning compassion can have many unintended consequences, such as intensifying conflicts or exploiting others.

(via tmn)

The Devil and the Explicit Lyrics Sticker

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2019

In the first episode of season two of Earworm, Estelle Caswell explains where the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker found on many of your favorite music albums came from. The story involves heavy metal, Prince, the rise of the religious right, the Satanic panic, Tipper Gore, and lots of amazing hair.

The very public discussion around the advisory label involved the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by the wives of Washington politicians, and a few musicians including Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver.

While the PMRC’s involvement was allegedly sparked by some raunchy lyrics from Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain, the debate over rock lyrics had been infiltrating American culture and politics for a decade. The driving force behind that debate was the rise of heavy metal, a genre that saw explosive popularity with the launch of MTV in 1981, and the growing influence of the religious right, who saw rock music as a powerful threat to Christianity.

One of the main sources for the video is Eric Nuzum’s book, Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.

The Historical Precedents for the Excessive Violence in Game of Thrones

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2019

Game of Thrones made its return to HBO last night and, surprise, someone died! According to this compilation video, over 174,000 people have died on the show in seven seasons. The sheer numbers and the fact that some of the deaths have been, shall we say, a little creative (even for a fantasy show) sometimes interfered with my ability to fully suspend my disbelief when watching. Take Khal Drogo killing Viserys Targaryen by pouring molten gold on his head in the first season:

That’s a pretty outlandish death, an over-the-top display of sadism for the benefit of a TV audience. Right? Well, I’ve been reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World and I’ve discovered that Game of Thrones hews close to historical precedent when it comes to inventive murder.

According to some sources, after the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured in battle in the 3rd century, he was subjected to something much worse than a simple death at the hands of the Persian Emperor, Shapur I:

The Emperor Valerian was humiliated after being taken prisoner and held in “the abject form of slavery”: used as a human footstool for the Persian ruler “by bending his back to raise the king as he was about to mount his horse,” his body was eventually flayed “and his skin, stripped from the flesh, was dyed with vermilion, and placed in the temple of the gods of the barbarians, that the remembrance of a victory so signal might be perpetuated and that this spectacle might always be exhibited for our ambassadors.” He was stuffed so all could see the folly and shame of Rome.

Around the end of the 10th century, a leader of the Rus’ was ritually executed by Pecheneg steppe nomads:

The capture of the prince was gleefully celebrated, and his skull was lined with gold and kept as a victory trophy, to be used to celebrate ceremonial toasts.

In 1182, rising tension between the Byzantine Empire and the rising Italian city-states like Venice resulted in attacks against citizens of the city-states who were living in Constantinople:

Many were killed, including the representative of the Latin church, whose head was dragged through the city’s streets behind a dog.

The Mongols, under Genghis Khan and subsequent rulers, used brutality as a tool to shock and awe local populations into peaceful submission, making examples of those who resisted their advances:

Nīshāpūr was one of the locations that suffered total devastation. Every living being — from women, children and the elderly to livestock and domestic animals — was butchered as the order was given that not even dogs or cats should be left alive. All the corpses were piled up in a series of enormous pyramids as gruesome warnings of the consequences of standing up to the Mongols.

It was a very effective technique:

In 1241, the Mongols struck into the heart of Europe, splitting their forces into two, with one spur attacking Poland and the other heading for the plains of Hungary. Panic spread through the entire continent, especially after a large army led by the King of Poland and the Duke of Silesia was destroyed, and the head of the latter paraded on the end of a lance, together with nine sacks filled with “the ears of the dead.”

When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they moved through the city “like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep,”

The city’s inhabitants were dragged through the streets and alleys, like toys, “each of them becoming a plaything.” The Caliph al-Mustaʿṣim was captured, rolled up in fabric and trampled to death by horses. It was a highly symbolic moment that showed who held real power in the world.

And finally, if there was any remaining doubt that George R.R. Martin modelled the Dothraki on the Mongols and Khal Drogo on Genghis Khan, consider the death of Inalchuq, a 13th-century Persian governor:

Stories such as that of a high-ranking official who was ordered into the presence of a newly arrived Mongol warlord and had molten gold poured into his eyes and ears became widely known — as was the fact that this murder was accompanied by the announcement that this was fitting punishment for a man “whose disgraceful behaviour, barbarous acts and previous cruelties deserved the condemnation of all.”

Perhaps Game of Thrones doesn’t seem so fantastical after all…