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kottke.org posts about books

What Can Americans Learn from Germany’s Reckoning with the Holocaust?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2019

For The New Republic, Heather Souvaine Horn reviews Susan Neiman’s book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, about the successes and failures of Germany in coming to terms with the Holocaust and what the United States can learn from them in dealing with our history of slavery and genocide.

She sees the murder of nine black Charleston churchgoers in 2015, and the events of the following years, as prime examples of conservative backlash in white communities: “The 2016 election resulted, in large part,” Neiman writes, “from America’s failure to confront its own history.” Her book, Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, offers a possible answer to one of the questions The New York Times’ 1619 Project, published in the same month and focusing on slavery’s centrality to the American nation, has prompted: What now? It is a book about how Americans could better confront their racist past, by looking at the way Germany has come to terms with Holocaust guilt.

After a trip to Berlin last year, I wrote about what I observed of the German remembrance of the Holocaust and its relevance to America:

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

You might think the Civil War & the oppression of African Americans is too far in the past for the US to truly reckon with it, but Neiman argues that we should be looking much closer to the present day:

But this, Neiman holds, is the wrong timeline to be looking at: Americans are only now in the early stages of their reckoning, for the simple fact that the Civil War did not really end in 1865. Due to Reconstruction, due to Jim Crow, and as evidenced by the appalling violence and state-federal standoffs of the 1960s, the appropriate point to mark the South’s “zero hour,” she believes, is not 1865 but 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. According to this timeline, Americans are a bit behind the Germans, but not by much — “about the place where Germany was when the Wehrmacht Exhibit provoked the kind of backlash that the removal of Confederate monuments provoked in New Orleans.”

Plus, systemic discrimination continues to this day, as does the US government’s poor treatment of indigenous communities. There is plenty of reckoning to go around and no time like the present to begin.

Astrology and Wishful Thinking

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2019

In the Guardian, former astrologer Felicity Carter writes about how fortune telling really works and why she had to quit.

I also learned that intelligence and education do not protect against superstition. Many customers were stockbrokers, advertising executives or politicians, dealing with issues whose outcomes couldn’t be controlled. It’s uncertainty that drives people into woo, not stupidity, so I’m not surprised millennials are into astrology. They grew up with Harry Potter and graduated into a precarious economy, making them the ideal customers.

What broke the spell for me was, oddly, people swearing by my gift. Some repeat customers claimed I’d made very specific predictions, of a kind I never made. It dawned on me that my readings were a co-creation — I would weave a story and, later, the customer’s memory would add new elements. I got to test this theory after a friend raved about a reading she’d had, full of astonishingly accurate predictions. She had a tape of the session, so I asked her to play it.

The clairvoyant had said none of the things my friend claimed. Not a single one. My friend’s imagination had done all the work.

The last paragraph, on VC-funded astrology apps, was particularly interesting. I’m reading Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century right now and one of his main points is that AI + biotech will combine to produce an unprecedented revolution in human society.

For we are now at the confluence of two immense revolutions. Biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body, and in particular of the brain and human feelings. At the same time computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers. My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I daily encounter institutions, corporations, and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was until now my inaccessible inner realm.

I hadn’t thought that astrology apps could be a major pathway to AI’s control of humanity, but Carter’s assertion makes sense.

Highlights from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2019

The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy of fantasy/science fiction novels by N.K. Jemisin. Each book in the trilogy won the Hugo Award for best novel the year after its release. It took me awhile to get into, but once I was hooked the book went pretty quickly. Here are the passages I highlighted on my Kindle for one reason or another. (See past book highlights.)

Note: This ebook didn’t have real page numbers, only Kindle location markers. Sorry about that.

Further note: I’ve been reading Kindle books checked out from my local library via Libby. It’s been challenging because the loan period is typically not long enough for how slowly I read. But I did discover that you can view your notes and highlights for all of your Kindle books, including expired ones, so I don’t need to worry about exporting them before my loan ends.

Location 52 (I like the obviousness of the opening lines):

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

Location 102:

There is an art to smiling in a way that others will believe. It is always important to include the eyes; otherwise, people will know you hate them.

Location 208 (see Addressing Climate Change Is Not About Saving the Planet):

When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.

Location 1,161:

The people we love are the ones who hurt us the most, after all.”

Location 1,488 (saving this for the next time someone argues about the “natural order of things” or similar bullshit):

Survival doesn’t mean rightness. I could kill you right now, but that wouldn’t make me a better person for doing so.”

Location 2,061 (on surviving in the immediate aftermath of loss):

So you must stay Essun, and Essun will have to make do with the broken bits of herself that Jija has left behind. You’ll jigsaw them together however you can, caulk in the odd bits with willpower wherever they don’t quite fit, ignore the occasional sounds of grinding and cracking. As long as nothing important breaks, right? You’ll get by. You have no choice.

Location 2,298 (emphasis mine):

Once Damaya would have protested the unfairness of such judgments. The children of the Fulcrum are all different: different ages, different colors, different shapes. Some speak Sanze-mat with different accents, having originated from different parts of the world. One girl has sharp teeth because it is her race’s custom to file them; another boy has no penis, though he stuffs a sock into his underwear after every shower; another girl has rarely had regular meals and wolfs down every one like she’s still starving. (The instructors keep finding food hidden in and around her bed. They make her eat it, all of it, in front of them, even if it makes her sick.) One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.

Location 2,311:

The world is not fair, and sometimes it makes no sense.

Location 2,703:

“Home is people,” she says to Asael, softly. Asael blinks. “Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.”

Location 3,359 (the uncanny valley of hyper-graceful motion):

The stone eater’s arm rises, so steadily that the motion surpasses graceful and edges into unnatural.

Location 3,546:

Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.

Location 4,155 (out of context this is weird but it made me lol):

Did you need a dick — any dick, even my mediocre, boring one — that bad?”

Location 4,314:

We are creatures born of heat and pressure and grinding, ceaseless movement. To be still is to be… not alive.

Location 4,369:

She loves her son. But that doesn’t mean she wants to spend every hour of every rusting day in his presence.

Location 4,446 (ISO an affection dihedron):

They can’t stand sex with each other directly, but vicariously it’s amazing. And what do they even call this? It’s not a threesome, or a love triangle. It’s a two-and-a-half-some, an affection dihedron.

Fewer highlights than usual…lots of plot = fewer highlights, I think. I enjoyed reading this book, but it also didn’t propel me right into the next book in the series (unlike The Three-Body Problem). Maybe in a month or two?

An Animated Version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2019

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was one of my absolute favorite books as a kid and one of first books that we read to our kids (and that they read back to us). I didn’t know this animated version existed until I ran across it on YouTube just now. I just went into the kids’ room to look for the book on the shelf and got a little teary as I searched.

My kids are 12 & 10 now and in an in-between phase of reading. They occasionally still pick up the picture books they loved as little kids but mostly are into graphic novels and chapter books now — Ollie just read Ready Player One and they’ve both been through all 7 Harry Potter books more times than I can count. We haven’t read a picture book together in months and I really miss snuggling up with them and reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, Oh Say Can You Say?, or In the Night Kitchen. We’ll likely never read any of those books together again. It reminds me of one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard about parenting: one day you’ll pick up your kid, put them down, and never pick them up again…and you won’t remember it happening. *sobs*

Kurt Vonnegut: “There Are Six Seasons Instead of Four”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2019

In 1978, Kurt Vonnegut gave the commencement speech at Fredonia State College in upstate New York. The speech was published under the title “How to Make Money and Find Love!” in a collection of the author’s commencement addresses, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? In the speech, Vonnegut suggested to the graduating class that the traditional four seasons don’t make sense for northern areas of the country.

One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize that there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, spring doesn’t feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on.

Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. November and December aren’t winter. They’re Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold!

What comes next? Not spring. ‘Unlocking’ comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be? March and April are not spring. They’re Unlocking.

Vermonters know these six seasons all too well, although they give the two extra seasons different names. What’s going on right now and will continue into mid-to-late December is “stick season”. All the beautiful fall foliage has fallen off of the trees and we’re left with not-so-beautiful sticks until the snow flies regularly enough to call it winter. Between winter and spring — what Vonnegut calls “Unlocking” — is called “mud season” here. That’s when the dozens of feet of snow that fell during the winter, rapidly thawing ground, and Vermont’s rainy season collude to wreak havoc on unpaved roads and driveways, turning them into mud pits, some of which are impassable for a month or more.

Neither of these seasons is particularly pleasant here. Outdoor activities are curtailed — it’s too cold or warm or wet or muddy for your sport of choice — and restaurants and other local businesses often take a break, leaving residents even less to do. “This may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time”, indeed.

Highlights from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2019

A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale published 30 years later, piggybacking on a successful TV adaptation? It could have been a disaster. The Testaments is anything but — it’s seen rave reviews (to which I will add my own) and won the Booker Prize. I read it over the course of the last month or so and wanted to share with you some passages I highlighted on my Kindle.

Having done this exercise with three books now (Normal People & In the Garden of Beasts were the others), I noticed that I highlight mostly ideas, passages that resonate with me personally, and beautiful writing. Spoilers are minimal…I weed those out.

In the case of The Testaments, obviously a lot of the book is about totalitarianism & fascism — see for instance how many of Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism you can spot in the excerpts below. #12 figures heavily.

Page 3 (great opening passage):

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

Page 9 (You see this most obviously in contemporary religious countries & cultures — women’s bodies are dangerous and must be kept out of sight — but also e.g. in American offices and schools.):

Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us — of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust, so that they’d stagger and lurch and topple over the verge — The verge of what? we wondered. Was it like a cliff? — and go plunging down in flames, like snowballs made of burning sulphur hurled by the angry hand of God. We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.

Page 14:

What a lot of lies she had to tell for my sake! To keep me safe! But she was up to it. She had a very inventive mind.

Page 24:

Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.

Page 31:

I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like.

Page 44:

I was the age at which parents suddenly transform from people who know everything into people who know nothing.

Page 46:

We’d had three modules in school on Gilead: it was a terrible, terrible place, where women couldn’t have jobs or drive cars, and where the Handmaids were forced to get pregnant like cows, except that cows had a better deal. What sort of people could be on the side of Gilead and not be some kind of monsters? Especially female people.

Page 57:

By this time I was feeling glum, which is one of the effects a birthday can have: you’re expecting a magic transformation but then it doesn’t happen.

Page 63:

“Dear Aunt Lydia,” he said, beaming from behind his enormous desk. “Thank you for gracing my humble office. You are well, I hope?”

He did not hope that, but I let it pass. “Praise be,” I said. “And you? And your Wife?” This Wife has lasted longer than usual. His Wives have a habit of dying: Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords. After each respectable period of mourning, he has let it be known that he is in the market for another child bride. To be clear: he has let it be known to me.

Page 66:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.

Page 73:

They didn’t make a big fuss over the funerals of women in Gilead, even high-ranking ones.

Page 82:

More alarmingly, my breasts were swelling, and I had begun to sprout hair on areas of my body that we were not supposed to dwell on: legs, armpits, and the shameful part of many elusive names. Once that happened to a girl, she was no longer a precious flower but a much more dangerous creature.

Page 83:

The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it.

Page 87:

Cleaning up things such as blood and other substances that came out of bodies was part of women’s duty of caring for other people, especially little children and the elderly, said Aunt Estée, who always put things in a positive light. That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? She didn’t finish the sentence.

Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.

Page 106 (This reminded me of the disturbing games invented by children in Nazi concentration camps.):

The most popular singing game among the younger girls was called “Hanging.” It went like this:

Who’s that hanging on the Wall? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

It’s a Handmaid, what’s she called? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She was (here we would put in the name of one of us), now she’s not. Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She had a baby in the pot (here we would slap our little flat stomachs). Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

The girls would file under the uplifted hands of two other girls while everyone chanted: One for murder, Two for kissing, Three for a baby, Four gone missing, Five for alive and Six for dead, And Seven we caught you, Red Red Red!

And the seventh girl would be caught by the two counters, and paraded around in a circle before being given a slap on the head. Now she was “dead,” and was allowed to choose the next two executioners. I realize this sounds both sinister and frivolous, but children will make games out of whatever is available to them.

The Aunts probably thought this game contained a beneficial amount of warning and threat. Why was it “One for murder,” though? Why did murder have to come before kissing? Why not after, which would seem more natural? I have often thought about that since, but I have never found any answer.

Page 124:

They said calm things like You need to be strong. They were trying to make things better. But it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong.

Page 143 (another form of the banality of evil):

Hour by hour we watched vans arrive, discharge their quota of women, depart empty. The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards. How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.

Page 144:

All that was necessary was a law degree and a uterus: a lethal combination.

Page 148:

You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.

Page 148:

Every once in a while there would be a scream or a series of shrieks from nearby: brutalization on parade. Sometimes there would be a prolonged moaning; sometimes a series of grunts and breathy gasps that sounded sexual, and probably were. The powerless are so tempting.

Page 158:

You must understand that I was not anybody in my own right — although of the privileged class, I was just a young girl about to be confined to wedlock. Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut.

Page 212 (this made me laugh out loud):

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, as used to be said; though in the present day the idea of God laughing is next door to blasphemy. An ultra-serious fellow, God is now.

Page 215:

“Yes, the thought-experiment penises can get out of control,” I said. “They take on a life of their own.”

Page 226:

The Commander advanced, arranged his face into a jowly smile, and stuck his mouth onto my forehead in a chaste kiss. His lips were unpleasantly warm; they made a sucking sound as they pulled away. I pictured a tiny morsel of my brain being sucked through the skin of my forehead into his mouth. A thousand such kisses later and my skull would be emptied of brain.

Page 236:

This was comforting to me as far as it went, but I was on the verge of crying again. Kindness sometimes has that effect. “How?” I said. “How can it ever be well?” “I don’t know,” said Aunt Estée. “But it will be. I have faith.” She sighed. “Having faith is hard work sometimes.”

Page 272:

Standing on the tarmac there was a double line of men in black uniforms, and we walked between the lines, arm in arm. “Don’t look at their faces,” she whispered.

So I focused on their uniforms, but I could sense eyes, eyes, eyes, all over me like hands. I’d never felt so much at risk in that way — not even under the bridge with Garth, and with strangers all around.

Page 272 (a character’s initial impression of Gilead):

What am I doing here? I thought. This place is weird as fuck.

Page 279:

Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.

Page 316:

He has another kind of book, less respectable: vintage pornography, as I knew from having examined it. It is a genre that is tedious in bulk. The mistreatment of the human body has a limited repertoire.

Page 317:

And how easily a hand becomes a fist.

Page 343 (I thought “gang aft agley” might have been some sort of weird Kindle typo, but it’s a reference to a Robert Burns poem.):

I’d thought I had everything in order, but the best-laid plans gang aft agley, and trouble comes in threes.

Page 388:

I was buying time. One is always buying something.

And finally, a short passage from Atwood’s acknowledgements, in which she reminds the reader that all of the events in this book and in The Handmaid’s Tale have actually happened somewhere in the world before:

The television series has respected one of the axioms of the novel: no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.

That’s what makes these books truly chilling and essential.

My Recent Media Diet, Decorative Gourd Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2019

Every month or two 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 last month. It’s a little light because I’ve been working and a full rewatch of The Wire took some time. Stuff in progress includes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the kids and I are reading it together), The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, and the second season of Abstract.

The Wire. Over the past two months, I rewatched all 5 seasons of The Wire. It very much holds up and is still the best TV show I’ve ever watched. Season 4 in particular is fantastic and devastating. Even season 5, which seemed a bit outlandish at the time with the serial killer plot, is great. (A+)

Downtown Abbey. Not great but it’s always nice spending some quality time with the Crowley family. (B+)

Mario Kart Tour. There’s something deeply un-Nintendo about this game. The use of all of the casino-like iOS tricks to keep you playing (and hopefully spending money on in-game currency) runs counter to the DNA of the company. $70 for 135 rubies is $20 more than the Switch version of Kart is going for right now on Amazon — ridiculous. And remember that the original Wii periodically suggested taking a break if you’d been playing for awhile? Still, racing in Mario Kart is always fun. When they turn networked multiplayer on, it might be a game-changer. (B+)

Peanut Butter Falcon. Feel-good? Eh. More like heavy-handed treacle. And LeBeouf’s character treats the kid with Down syndrome like a normal person but is creepy and borderline abusive to a girl he likes? Yuck. (C)

Succession. I hate that I love this show so much. (A)

1619. Very good podcast, particularly the third episode about the birth of American music. (A-)

Transparent Musicale Finale. I was skeptical about watching a 2-hour musical to end the series, but I ended up liking it a lot. My god, that last song though… (B+)

Parasite. Downton Abbey a la Bong Joon Ho. (A-)

Bottle Rocket. Rough but many of Anderson’s trademarks are already on display here. (A-)

Diego Maradona. Another examination by Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) of how talent and fame can go wrong. (A-)

Kevin Alexander on the Beginning and End of America’s Culinary Revolution (House of Carbs). Listened on a rec from a friend because Alexander’s book sounded interesting, but the bro-ness of the host is almost unbearable. What if the discussion about food was more like sports radio? No thank you. (C-)

Joker. The pre-release coverage of this movie being dangerous or problematic was mostly overblown. (B)

The new MoMA. Full review here. (A-)

Silence and the Presence of Everything (On Being). Really interesting interview with an acoustic ecologist. More here. (A-)

The Testaments. A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale could have easily gone wrong. This very much did not. (A-)

Tonic. I used this for a few days but the recs weren’t great so I stopped. (C-)

Amazon Go. A marvelous and unnerving experience for this law-abiding introvert. Shopping without interaction was cool, but walking out without paying felt like shoplifting. (B+)

Machine Hallucination. Impressive display, like being immersed in an IMAX movie. But not sure it’s worth the $25 entry fee. (B)

Liberté, Égalité and French Fries (Rough Translation). How do we define work and community in the age of global mega-corporations? This story takes an amazing turn about 20 minutes in. (B+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2019

Birds Of America

Birds Of America

Birds Of America

Birds Of America

One of the (several dozen) posts I started writing ages ago but never finished was a collection of the hundreds of bird illustrations pictured in John James Audubon’s seminal Birds of America. The images have been floating around on the web forever, in various sizes and collections, and I wanted to group (or at least link to) all of them in one place. But now I don’t have to because the Audubon Society has put them up on their website.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America is a portal into the natural world. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds (Havell edition), all reproduced from hand-engraved plates, and is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.

Thumbnails of all 435 illustrations are presented on a single page (sortable alphabetically or chronologically by their creation date) and then each illustration is given its own page with Audubon’s notes on the bird pictured, a link to the bird in Audubon’s Bird Guide (where you can see photos and hear bird calls, etc.), and a link to download a high resolution image (if you sign up for their mailing list). The barred owl image is 111-megapixels. What a resource!

You can also see online copies of Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh and Meisei University.

And if you’ve never had a chance to see some of these illustrations in real life, you should keep your eyes peeled for the opportunity. They really are something. (via open culture, which has been particularly great lately)

Bill Cunningham: On the Street

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2019

Bill Cunningham Book

Until his death in 2016, Bill Cunningham captured the fashions of people walking the streets and catwalks of NYC and elsewhere, mostly for the NY Times over the past five decades. A new book, Bill Cunningham: On the Street, is the first published collection of his work and includes more than 700 photos along with a number of essays by friends, subjects, and cultural critics.

Bill Cunningham Book

You can read more about Cunningham and the photos in the book in a pair of Times articles: The Amazing Treasure Trove of Bill Cunningham and Seeing What Bill Cunningham Saw, the latter of which describes so good ol’ fashioned digging through the archives to find some gems:

Then there were “black hole” years, when his photos ended up in the database with gibberish on them. Someone created a template to make things easier for captioning, but it wasn’t used properly. Hundreds of photos just have the template on them, over and over again.

Large chunks of Bill’s work simply could not be found.

When I was going through the files for 2009, I was unable to find his photos from Barack Obama’s inauguration. (Bill went down to Washington for the day and devoted his column to it.) This material would have been completely lost had it not been for the Times archivist Jeffrey Roth, who just happened to have saved a few boxes of seemingly unnecessary paper printouts of Bill’s photos from 2009 and a few other years. It was one of those “I’ve been meaning to throw these out …” kind of things.

I looked through one of the boxes and, astoundingly, unearthed printouts of the inauguration photos. The printouts led me, via a tortuous back-roads path, to the digital files. As it turned out, not even Bill’s name was on many hundreds of his images. I would go on to find other must-have images in those boxes as well.

You can order the book on Amazon.

The Odyssey in Limerick Form

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2019

Emily Wilson, whose translation of The Odyssey recently reintroduced the epic to a wider non-classics audience, has now cheekily translated the tale of Odysseus into a series of limericks. She starts off:

There was a young man called Telemachus
who was bullied and in a dilemma ‘cause
he missed his lost dad
and his mom made him mad
and he almost got killed by Eurymachus.

And here’s the bit about Odysseus’ men eating the cattle of Helios, which earns them a thunderbolt from Zeus.

The men were fed up with their boss,
the rich guy, who’d gone for a doss.
They ate up the cattle,
which shortly proved fatal,
and all of their short lives were lost.

So good.

The BBC’s Abridged Reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2019

BBC Radio 4 has done an abridged audio reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her followup to The Handmaid’s Tale. The series is composed of 15 episodes that run 14 minutes each — a total of 3.5 hours compared to the full 13+ hour audiobook. The episodes are only going to be available online for a short time though — the first one expires Oct 15 — so get in there if you’re going to listen. I’m reading the book right now, otherwise I’d be right there with you. (via open culture)

Jeff Bridges Takes Photographs

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2019

Jeff Bridges Photos

Jeff Bridges Photos

Ever since Starman in 1984, Jeff Bridges has taken photos on the set of every film he’s acted in using his Widelux F8 camera. Sometimes he compiles them into picture books for the cast and crew. Sometimes he posts them to his charmingly old school website. And sometimes he compiles them into coffee table books that you and I can have in our homes. Nick Chen recently interviewed Bridges about his photography.

Dazed: You did The Big Lebowski and True Grit with the Coen Brothers. What do they make of your photography?

Jeff Bridges: I think they get a kick out of it. They’re pretty cool cats. They don’t go overboard with praise or anything. They’re certainly wonderful to work with, and they’re true masters, so I was happy that they gave a stamp of approval on my book. That was nice.

Dazed: Does Roger Deakins ever want a co-credit for doing the lighting?

Jeff Bridges: (laughs) No, he did not ask me. But wow, talk about masters. Isn’t he terrific? My God, he does it just right.

Pictures by Jeff Bridges was released in 2003 and now a follow-up is coming out in mid-October 2019: Jeff Bridges: Pictures Volume 2. (thx, david)

Update: The International Center of Photography honored Bridges with an award in 2013 and produced this video about his photography.

My Recent Media Diet, the “Is It Fall 2019 Already?!” Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2019

Every month or two 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 late June. I’d tell you not to pay too much attention to the letter grades but you’re going to pay too much attention to the letter grades anyway so… (p.s. This list was shared last week in Noticing, kottke.org’s weekly newsletter.)

Fiasco (season one). Slow Burn co-creator Leon Neyfakh explores the Florida recount in the 2000 Presidential election. My key takeaway is not that anyone stole the election but that any halfway close election in the US is fundamentally unfair, can easily be swayed in one direction or another, and violates our 14th Amendment rights. I didn’t enjoy this as much as either season of Slow Burn…perhaps it was too recent for me to emotionally detach. (B+)

The Impossible Whopper. All the people saying that the Impossible patty tastes just like a real burger have either never tasted meat before or don’t pay a whole lot of attention when they eat. It’s the best veggie burger patty I’ve ever had, but it sure ain’t beef. (B)

American Factory. Completely fascinating and straight-forward look at what happens when a Chinese company takes over an old GM factory in Dayton, Ohio. Give this just 5 minutes and you’ll watch the whole thing. (A)

XOXO Festival. Always a creative shot in the arm. (A)

Norman Fucking Rockwell! I tried with this, I really did. I don’t think Lana Del Rey is my cup of tea. (C)

The Handmaid’s Tale (season 3). The show’s producers noticed how much critics praised Elisabeth Moss’s emotional closeups and now season 3 is like 80% just that. Way too much of a good thing. Still, there’s still a good show in here somewhere. (B+)

Do the Right Thing. Somehow still bold and controversial after 30 years. But I confess…I am not sure exactly what the takeaway from this movie is supposed to be. (B+)

Tycho’s 2019 Burning Man Sunrise Set. Always a treat when the latest installment of this series pops online. (A-)

Spider-Man: Far From Home. It was fine but I kept waiting for an extra gear that never came. (B)

Existing Conditions. The drinks here are very precise and well-balanced. Hit ‘em up if you miss Booker & Dax. (B+)

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Excellent and rhymes with the present in a number of ways. I previously shared a bunch of my highlights from the book. (A)

Keep Going by Austin Kleon. A timely little book. (A-)

Stranger Things (season 3). The best part of this show is the 80s nostalgia and they overdid it this season. (B)

Weather. Tycho switched it up with this album by adding vocals. I hated them at first but they’ve grown on me. (B+)

Apollo 11. The first time around I watched this in a terrible theater with bad audio and didn’t care for it. The second time, at home, was so much better. The footage is stunning. (A)

Apollo 11 soundtrack. Love the first track on this. (A-)

Ex Machina. Still gloriously weird. (A-)

Planet Money: So, Should We Recycle? I don’t 100% agree with their conclusions, but it was interesting to think that recycling might not be the most efficient use of our resources. Pair with an earlier episode on how recycling got started in the US. (B)

Chef’s Table (Virgilio Martinez). Central sounds absolutely bonkers. I hope to make it there someday. (B+)

Silicon Cowboys. Compaq took on IBM in the personal computer space and won. The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was inspired in part by their story. (A-)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Needed more plot. (B)

To Kill a Mockingbird. I listened to this on audiobook and am convinced that Sissy Spacek’s narration made it like 20% more compelling. (A)

Metropolis II. I could have watched this for hours. (A)

redwoods

Redwood trees. (A+++)

The Dahlia Garden in Golden Gate Park. One of my favorite places on Earth. (A+)

Mindhunter (season 2). I love this show. (A)

The Clearing. Not the strongest true crime podcast but still worth a listen. (B)

5G. On my phone (iPhone XS, AT&T), anything less than 4 bars of “5GE” basically equals no service. And there’s no way to revert to LTE. (D+)

Atlanta Monster. Started this after watching Mindhunter s02. Too much filler and poor editing in parts. When they started talking to a conspiracy theorist who has been brainwashed by the convicted killer (or something), I had to stop listening. A pity…this story could use a good podcast. (C)

Booksmart. Second viewing and this may be my favorite movie of the year. So fun. (A)

I’ve also been watching Succession and rewatching all five seasons of The Wire (to test a hypothesis that with the hindsight of the past decade, the fifth season is not as outlandish as everyone thought it was at the time). I’ve slowed way down on listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel on audiobook and reading SPQR — both are interesting but not holding my attention so I may end up abandoning them. I watched the first episode of the second season of Big Little Lies when it was first released but might not finish the rest of it; the reviews of this season have not been great.

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Is As Relevant As Ever

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2019

In light of the recent news of almost 30% of America’s birds disappearing in the past 50 years and the ongoing news of the climate crisis, it’s worth reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a serialized version of which was published by the New Yorker in 1962 in three parts (one, two, three). From the opening of the first NYer piece:

Then, one spring, a strange blight crept over the area, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death. The farmers told of much illness among their families. In the town, the doctors were becoming more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness that had appeared among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among the adults but also among the children, who would be stricken while they were at play, and would die within a few hours.

And there was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone? Many people, baffled and disturbed, spoke of them. The feeding stations in the back yards were deserted. The few birds to be seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.

On the farms, the hens brooded but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs; the litters were small, and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom, but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.

The roadsides were lined with brown and withered vegetation, and were silent, too, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves, and between the shingles of the roofs, a few patches of white granular powder could be seen; some weeks earlier this powder had been dropped, like snow, upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and the streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had snuffed out life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

To call Carson’s words prescient would be a huge understatement. “The people had done it themselves” indeed.

The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century (So Far)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2019

Best Books 21st Guardian

The Guardian recently compiled a list of the best books of the century (with a British bent). Here are a few of the picks that caught my eye:

87. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood — “This may not be the only account of living in a religious household in the American midwest (in her youth, the author joined a group called God’s Gang, where they spoke in tongues), but it is surely the funniest. The author started out as the “poet laureate of Twitter”; her language is brilliant, and she has a completely original mind.”

82. Coraline by Neil Gaiman — “From the Sandman comics to his fantasy epic American Gods to Twitter, Gaiman towers over the world of books. But this perfectly achieved children’s novella, in which a plucky young girl enters a parallel world where her “Other Mother” is a spooky copy of her real-life mum, with buttons for eyes, might be his finest hour: a properly scary modern myth which cuts right to the heart of childhood fears and desires.”

78. The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin — “Jemisin became the first African American author to win the best novel category at the Hugo awards for her first book in the Broken Earth trilogy. In her intricate and richly imagined far future universe, the world is ending, ripped apart by relentless earthquakes and volcanoes. Against this apocalyptic backdrop she explores urgent questions of power and enslavement through the eyes of three women. ‘As this genre finally acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalised matter and that all of us have a future,’ she said in her acceptance speech, ‘so will go the world. (Soon, I hope.)’”

71. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware — “At the time when Ware won the Guardian first book award, no graphic novel had previously won a generalist literary prize. Emotional and artistic complexity are perfectly poised in this account of a listless 36-year-old office dogsbody who is thrown into an existential crisis by an encounter with his estranged dad.”

42. Moneyball by Michael Lewis — “The author of The Big Short has made a career out of rendering the most opaque subject matter entertaining and comprehensible: Moneyball tells the story of how geeks outsmarted jocks to revolutionise baseball using maths. But you do not need to know or care about the sport, because — as with all Lewis’s best writing — it’s all about how the story is told.”

32. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee — “‘Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.’ In adapting the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Mukherjee sets out the breathtaking ambition of his study of cancer: not only to share the knowledge of a practising oncologist but to take his readers on a literary and historical journey.”

13. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich — “In this modern classic of reportage, Ehrenreich chronicled her attempts to live on the minimum wage in three American states. Working first as a waitress, then a cleaner and a nursing home aide, she still struggled to survive, and the stories of her co-workers are shocking. The US economy as she experienced it is full of routine humiliation, with demands as high as the rewards are low. Two decades on, this still reads like urgent news.”

11. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante — “Powerfully intimate and unashamedly domestic, the first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series established her as a literary sensation. This and the three novels that followed documented the ways misogyny and violence could determine lives, as well as the history of Italy in the late 20th century.”

Ok, that ended up being more than a few, but there’s so much good stuff on that list! You’ll have to click through to see the #1 choice but needless to say, I was pleased.

Creativity Takes Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2019

I love this advice from Jenny Odell (author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy):

I can’t give my students more time in their lives; but what I try to do is change the way they think about and value it in the first place. My class typically includes students who aren’t art majors, some of whom may never have made art before. I give them the same advice every quarter: Leave yourself twice as much time as you think you need for a project, knowing that half of that may not look like “making” anything at all. There is no Soylent version of thought and reflection — creativity is unpredictable, and it simply takes time.

(via austin kleon)

Milton’s Annotated Copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio Discovered

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2019

Milton Shakespeare

Based on handwriting analysis, Jason Scott-Warren, the Director of the Cambridge Centre for Material Texts, has discovered that a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623 was owned by John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, who annotated it with copious notes.

It’s always annoying when someone tries to claim that they’ve discovered a lost literary artefact. I was myself a little bit brutal when, five years ago, we were treated to the supposed rediscovery of Shakespeare’s dictionary. In this as in other cases, there’s usually a lot of wishful thinking, plus copious spinning of the evidence to make it seem plausible, and elision of anything that doesn’t seem to fit. However, I’m going to make my own unwise pronouncement on the basis of just a few hours of research. I’m going to claim to have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623.

There already seems to be a consensus developing that Scott-Warren’s analysis rings true.

But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”

(via open culture)

Capital and Ideology

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2019

French economist Thomas Piketty has come out with a new book. The 1200-page Capital and Ideology is a followup to Capital in the 21st Century, a surprise bestseller when it was released a few years ago. The book just came out in French (English readers will need to wait until March) so details are still sparse, but The Guardian has a short preview.

Among the proposals in the book are that employees should have 50% of the seats on company boards; that the voting power of even the largest shareholders should be capped at 10%; much higher taxes on property, rising to 90% for the largest estates; a lump sum capital allocation of €120,000 (just over £107,000) to everyone when they reach 25; and an individualised carbon tax calculated by a personalised card that would track each person’s contribution to global heating.

In an interview with the French weekly news magazine L’Obs, Piketty made no apologies for the impact his ideas would have on the stock market. He said: “[Yes], it will also affect the price of real estate that is crazy in Paris, and it will allow new social groups to become owners and shareholders.”

Branko Milanovic, an expert on global inequality, has written an early review.

This part of the book looks empirically at the reasons that left-wing, or social democratic parties have gradually transformed themselves from being the parties of the less-educated and poorer classes to become the parties of the educated and affluent middle and upper-middle classes. To a large extent, traditionally left parties have changed because their original social-democratic agenda was so successful in opening up education and high-income possibilities to the people who in the 1950s and 1960s came from modest backgrounds. These people, the “winners” of social democracy, continued voting for left-wing parties but their interests and worldview were no longer the same as that of their (less-educated) parents. The parties’ internal social structure thus changed — the product of their own political and social success. In Piketty’s terms, they became the parties of the “Brahmin left” (La gauche Brahmane), as opposed to the conservative right-wing parties, which remained the parties of the “merchant right” (La droite marchande).

To simplify, the elite became divided between the educated “Brahmins” and the more commercially-minded “investors,” or capitalists. This development, however, left the people who failed to experience upward educational and income mobility unrepresented, and those people are the ones that feed the current “populist” wave. Quite extraordinarily, Piketty shows the education and income shifts of left-wing parties’ voters using very similar long-term data from all major developed democracies (and India). The fact that the story is so consistent across countries lends an almost uncanny plausibility to his hypothesis.

How to Be an Antiracist

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 10, 2019

Historian Ibram X. Kendi first crossed my radar as a frequent contributor on the podcast series Seeing White (which I loved and urge you all to listen to). Kendi’s new book, How to Be an Antiracist, looks like one we all should be reading this fall.

Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and reenergizes the conversation about racism — and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas — from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities — that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves.

In a NY Times review, Jeffrey Stewart called the book “a 21st-century manual of racial ethics”.

Kendi is on a mission to push those of us who believe we are not racists to become something else: antiracists, who support ideas and policies affirming that “the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences — that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.” For Kendi, the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, there are no nonracists; there are only racists — people who allow racist ideas to proliferate without opposition — and antiracists, those who expose and eradicate such ideas wherever they encounter them.

“My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes”

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2019

Filmmaker Charlie Tyrell’s father passed away when Charlie was in film school. Feeling like he never really knew his father all that well, he went through his stuff after he died, looking for clues as to who he really was. His tools, his police uniform, his cancer diagnosis. Charlie made a short film about his dad: My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.

We hold onto our loved ones when they pass. Objects can become talismans, and memories become mythic. Some objects become sacred for no reason and are just as impenetrable as the people who left them. I came to a conclusion during my process: You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on.

The tapes mentioned in the title don’t feature all that much in the film; it’s actually about family secrets, breaking a generational cycle of abuse, and parenting. In talking about her husband’s difficulty connecting with his children, Charlie’s mom says: “you bring what you know to parenting”. As someone who often struggles as a parent, that line hit me hard. From a post I wrote a few years ago:

I worry about my children, about my relationships with them. I worry about being a good parent, about being a good parenting partner with their mom. How much of me do I really want to impart to them? I want them to be better than me, but I can’t tell them or show them how to do that because I’m me. I took my best shot at being better and me is all I came up with. What if I’m just giving them the bad parts, without even realizing it?

And from Madeline Miller’s Circe:

Two children he had had and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2019

I love cross-disciplinary lists like this: The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years.

We polled critics and other culture obsessives from Slate and beyond to assemble an enormous master list of influential characters. They were animated and live-action, wizard and Muggle, human and avian, fictional and based on actual persons, living and dead. They came from movies, books, TV series, video games, tweets, podcasts, comics, songs, and (in a surprise to us) more than one musical. Reflecting our franchise-driven time, many of them came from many of those media at once. The only rule was that they must have originated in a work of culture sometime in the past quarter-century, which meant no Simpsons or hobbits or diner-dwelling New Yorkers who argue about nothing. Then we ruthlessly winnowed down the list to the most crucial of those characters, the ones who have left an outsize mark on our planet circa 2019, to assemble this new pantheon.

Hermione Granger

Many of my favorite characters made it on there: Thomas Cromwell from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies; Omar Little from The Wire; Tracy Flick from Election; and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, a much more inspired pick than the titular hero for reasons I’ve already articulated. The full list is worth a read.

How to Mail a Package (From Space)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2019

Randall Munroe’s new book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, just came out and Wired has a lengthy excerpt: How to Mail a Package (From Space).

How to Mail a Package (From Space)

Getting an object down to Earth from the International Space Station is easy: you can just toss it out the door and wait. Eventually, it will fall to Earth.

There’s a very small amount of atmosphere at the ISS’s altitude. It’s not much, but it’s enough to produce a tiny but measurable amount of drag. This drag sooner or later causes objects to slow down, fall into a lower and lower orbit, and eventually hit the atmosphere and (usually) burn up. The ISS also feels this drag; it uses thrusters to compensate, periodically boosting itself up into a higher orbit to make up for lost altitude. If it didn’t, its orbit would gradually decay until it fell back to Earth.

This shipping method has two big problems: First, your package will burn up in the atmosphere before it ever reaches the ground. And second, if it does survive, you’ll have no way to know where it will land. To deliver your package, you’ll have to solve both these problems.

Fun fact: a piece of paper drifting down from orbit might move slowly enough not to burn up on reentry.

The Making of Prince’s Memoir

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2019

The Beautiful Ones, a memoir/autobiography/scrapbook by the artist forever after known as Prince, comes out next month. Prince wanted the tome to be “the biggest music book of all time”, a treasured object that would be “passed around from friend to friend”. The actual book is not that — Prince died in the early days of making it — but he had selected an editor/co-author to assist him. In a piece for the New Yorker, Dan Piepenbring recalls how he came to meet Prince and the early days of working with him on the book.

Behind his sphinxlike features, I could sense, there was an air of skepticism. I tried to calm my nerves by making as much eye contact as possible. Though his face was unlined and his skin glowed, there was a fleeting glassiness in his eyes. We spoke about diction. “Certain words don’t describe me,” he said. White critics bandied about terms that demonstrated a lack of awareness of who he was. “Alchemy” was one. When writers ascribed alchemical qualities to his music, they were ignoring the literal meaning of the word, the dark art of turning base metal into gold. He would never do something like that. He reserved a special disdain for the word “magical.” I’d used some version of it in my statement. “Funk is the opposite of magic,” he said. “Funk is about rules.”

The book, which includes “never-before-seen photos, original scrapbooks and lyric sheets, and the exquisite memoir he began writing before his tragic death”, comes out on October 29th — preorder here.

The Symbiotic & Toxic Relationship Between Houses and Cars in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2019

Since reading Gregory Shill’s writing about how heavily subsidized cars are in the United States, I’ve been on the lookout for different frameworks for thinking about America’s relationship to cars. I recently ran across a pair of interesting things about cars & housing. First, a refresher on what Shill had to say about how our nation’s laws have made cars all but mandatory:

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions — laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards — zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Aaron Bady shared a few meaty pages from Nathanael Lauster’s The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City about houses being urban parasites and their symbiotic relationship with cars. Here’s an excerpt (italics mine):

Returning to the metaphor provided by the pine beetle and blue stain fungus, one parasite often works with another. In similar form, houses cultivate cars. Integrated through planning, they displace vastly more habitat than either could manage alone. Because houses consume space and tend to surround themselves with other houses, which also consume space, people often cannot walk to where they need to go. Because all that space results in a relatively low population density, it is also not very efficient to run public transit lines to areas with many houses. Low-density areas tend to end up with very few riders for what are often very expensive systems to maintain. In short, public transit loves density. The relationship between urban density and public transit use is exceptionally strong, with some suggestion of a cutoff — perhaps around twelve persons per acre (or about three thousand per square kilometer) — below which ridership drops off and expense per user makes transit impractical. By contrast, cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back.

Houses cultivate cars. Cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back. Lauster continues with the nature metaphor:

Altogether, house habitat displaces alternatives. The establishment of a Great House Reserve has protected house habitat even as it continues to expand in size. Agricultural and wild lands suffer in an immediate sense, as do the more urban habitats prevented from expanding beyond a constrained Urban Core. The house allies itself with the car at the same time as both contribute to global warming, potentially risking the displacement of everyone and everything. The house habitat excludes the poor. But even for those who can afford to live there, the Great House Reserve is a troublesome place to live. By its nature it leads to disengagement, contributes to inequality, and encourages a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

And so on:

Houses are not just unaffordable for most people; they’re ultimately unaffordable for cities too. The fiscal situation of cities varies from place to place, but overall, houses tend to create a drain on municipal coffers. They are often taxed at lower rates than other properties, reflecting zoning restrictions on what could be built on single-family lots and how they can be used. But houses are more expensive to service on a per-unit basis, both in terms of the basic utilities infrastructure and, as previously noted, in terms of transit and transportation infrastructure. This could mean that my modestly wealthy neighbors and I, living in low-rises and town houses, end up supporting the very wealthy house owner nearby by paying more property tax relative to the amount of urban land and services we receive. The disparity becomes more notable as one crosses municipal boundaries into nearby house-dominated suburbs, where residents frequently enjoy the services (e.g., roads, commerce, employment opportunities) provided by the city without paying into the municipal tax base at all.

Josh Vredevoogd’s No Parking Here is about the poor parking policy in LA and leads with the statement: “Let’s build houses for people, not cars.”

For commercial buildings, it’s common to see a parking space required for every 100-200 sq ft. Meaning that parking is built at an almost 2:1 ratio to actual retail space, marginalizing the place that actually creates value and prioritizing temporary car storage. This inefficiency is carried into rent, groceries, meals, and overall raises the floor for cost of living.

Per City of LA code, a set of storefronts like above are illegal to build, instead they are required to be surrounded with empty pavement at the cost of walkability and comfort.

This forces people into driving. Parking requirements increase the density of cars but reduce the density of people. It also puts pressure on businesses by taking up useful real estate and replacing it with car storage.

Certainly a lot of food for thought here. See also Cars! What’s the Matter with Cars Today? and on a lighter note, What On Earth!, Kal Pindal’s Oscar-nominated short film about Martians visiting Earth and their observations about the dominant form of life here, the automobile.

A Collection of 100 Years of US National Parks’ Graphical Ephemera

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2019

From the folks that produced the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual and the NASA Standards Manual comes a new book, Parks, about the art, maps, and printed materials produced to support American’s national parks.

Parks Book

Parks Book

Parks Book

From the book’s introduction by Lyz Nagan-Powell:

If, as Wallace Stegner famously declared, the national parks are “America’s best idea,” how can we explore this idea? There is the historical aspect: America invented the concept of nationally owned and operated parks in 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into existence. But there is more to Stegner’s sentiment than just the invention of the parks. The rest of the quote goes on to say that the parks are “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

The national parks story isn’t simple or easy. It’s full of splendor and glory, as well as greed and exploitation. For every person who loves one of the parks like it’s their own home, there is another who resents the federal government for owning it. Even before Yellowstone became the first national park, park history was fraught with tension. Tension between preservation and use, between indigenous people and white explorers, between local rights and federal oversight, between wild freedom and human control, between park purists and park recreationists, and between commercial exploitation and historic value.

With this tense backdrop, or maybe because of it, art, imagery, writing, and design have played a vital role in the history of the national parks. Compelling creative materials that celebrated the land — including books, paintings, performances, and advertisements — have marked developments and milestones. These items have brought the rich landscapes and their scientific and historical significance to life.

Perhaps together, the tension and celebration make the National Park System - parks, monuments, natural areas, historic sites, and more - the perfect embodiment of America itself, and what the “best idea” of the parks is really all about.

Parks is out in October but you can pre-order it now.

Le Corbuffet

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2019

Le Corbuffet was a series of performances by artist Esther Choi that sought to bring together food with notable artists and designers, along with a healthy dose of puns. A cookbook based on the project will be out in October: Le Corbuffet: Edible Art and Design Classics. Here’s the page for Quiche Haring:

Le Corbuffet

Other dishes include Rhubarbara Kruger Compote, Shigeru Banchan Two Ways, Yokonomiyaki, Rem Brûlée, and the Robert Rauschenburger. Here’s the full menu/table of contents:

Le Corbuffet

Says Choi about where the idea for the project came from:

In 2014, I stumbled across an elaborate menu crafted by László Moholy-Nagy. The multi-panelled bill of fare was for a dinner held in tribute to the Bauhaus founder and architect, Walter Gropius, in 1937. Inspired by the menu for Gropius’s dinner, and the questions that it raised about the elitism of cultural production, I decided to conduct a social experiment a year later.

Overview, Young Explorer’s Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2019

In 2016, Benjamin Grant published Overview, a book of high-definition satellite photos of the Earth that were drawn from his site, Daily Overview (also on Instagram). This fall, a version for younger readers is coming out: Overview, Young Explorer’s Edition: A New Way of Seeing Earth.

Overview, Young Explorer's Edition

When astronauts look down at our planet and see its vibrant surface shining against the blackness of space, they experience the Overview Effect — a sense of awe, an awareness that everything is interconnected, and an overwhelming desire to take care of our one and only home.

This is a no-brainer pre-order…my kids often pull Overview off the shelf just to look at the photos. I’m also adding this to the list of Adult Nonfiction Adapted for Younger Readers.

Barack Obama’s Summer 2019 Reading List

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2019

As he does every so often, President Obama shared a list of the books that he’s reading this summer in this Facebook post. I am not ashamed to admit that Obama’s recs have pushed me to read quite a few books, including Pachinko and the Three-Body Problem trilogy, and not once have I been disappointed. This time around, he recommends anything and everything by Toni Morrison and a few other things.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang is a collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s epic fictionalized look at Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power, came out in 2009, but I was a little busy back then, so I missed it. Still great today.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a beautifully written memoir about the life of a woman in science, a brilliant friendship, and the profundity of trees. Terrific.

I still recommend Wolf Hall (and her follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies) to almost everyone who asks me what they should read next and am looking forward to tackling Chiang’s collection soon.

Urban Nudges

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2019

Urban Nudges is a site that documents small efforts by cities and the people who live in them to slightly change the behaviors of their inhabitants in some way. A 2008 book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein defines a nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. That sounds a bit academic but some examples from the site clarify things. For instance, protected bike lanes encourage bike riding:

The study “Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S.” was conducted in eight protected bike lanes in Austin, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington, DC and the major findings were that bike lanes induced new bikers, mostly because they feel safer about the experience.

The researchers interviewed 2,283 cyclists using the bike lanes and found out that nearly ten percent of the users would have taken another mode of transportation if the bike lane hadn’t existed and around one percent of the interviewed said they would not have taken the trip at all.

Dancing zebras in Bolivia cajole motorists into minding crosswalks and other rules of the street:

Zebra Bolivia

Inspired by the Colombian experience, in Bolivia the Department of transportation developed a program where urban educators get dressed as zebras, teaching children and adults urban values through empathy and comedy. The project’s initial concept was to teach pedestrians and drivers the appropriate use of the pedestrian crossing and reduce congestion: urban zebras rejoice when pedestrians wait for green light and grab their head in agony when pedestrians jaywalk. Empathy, humility and comedy made them popular.

A speedometer in Amsterdam raises money for the neighborhood when drivers do the speed limit:

Every driver that passes by the speedometer below the speed limit of 30 km per hour raises EUR0,03 for the neighborhood. “The city’s slogan: Max 30 — Save for the Neighborhood” (Pop Up City). The money raised by this initiative is granted by the city of Amsterdam and is meant to be invested in local community projects.

What kind of nudges could you imagine in your town or city?

The Mosquito: Humanity’s Greatest Enemy

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2019

For the New Yorker, Brooke Jarvis reviews Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.

It turns out that, if you’re looking for them, the words “mosquitoes,” “fever,” “ague,” and “death” are repeated to the point of nausea throughout human history. (And before: Winegard suggests that, when the asteroid hit, dinosaurs were already in decline from mosquito-borne diseases.) Malaria laid waste to prehistoric Africa to such a degree that people evolved sickle-shaped red blood cells to survive it. The disease killed the ancient Greeks and Romans — as well as the peoples who tried to conquer them — by the hundreds of thousands, playing a major role in the outcomes of their wars. Hippocrates associated malaria’s late-summer surge with the Dog Star, calling the sickly time the “dog days of summer.” In 94 B.C., the Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote, “In the area south of the Yangtze the land is low and the climate humid; adult males die young.” In the third century, malaria epidemics helped drive people to a small, much persecuted faith that emphasized healing and care of the sick, propelling Christianity into a world-altering religion.

And then there’s this:

In total, Winegard estimates that mosquitoes have killed more people than any other single cause — fifty-two billion of us, nearly half of all humans who have ever lived. He calls them “our apex predator,” “the destroyer of worlds,” and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”

Two other recent reviews of the book: In ‘The Mosquito,’ Humans Face A Predator More Deadly Than The Rest (NPR) and The mosquito isn’t just annoying — Timothy C. Winegard says we’re at war (LA Times).