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kottke.org posts about books

“Here” by Richard McGuire

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2018

“Here” is a comic by Richard McGuire that tells the story of a single room over the course of billions of years.

Here Mcguire

In 2014, McGuire expanded the comic into a very well-received graphic novel. In the NY Times, Luc Sante called the book “brilliant and revolutionary”:

The book originated as a 36-panel story published in 1989 in Raw, the comics journal edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. No one who saw that story ever forgot it: a chronicle of a life, running from 1957 to 2027, as situated in one room, with kaleidoscopic intrusions from various pasts and a wisp of a future — the house burns in 2029 and is torn down in 2030; a time capsule is interred on the site in 2033. The time capsule, perhaps too neat a detail, has not survived the translation to the book, and the story no longer follows a single human life but fully widens its scope to the life of the place. You might say that the book is “Fantasia” to the story’s “Steamboat Willie,” for example, considering the latter’s black-and-white panels that draw their style from generically jocular 1950s illustration.

(via @davextreme)

Are these photographs of moons or pancakes?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

Pancake Moons

Pancake Moons

Pancake Moons

Nadine Schlieper and Robert Pufleb have published a book called Alternative Moons. The book is filled with photographs of pancakes that look like moons.

See also Christopher Jonassen’s photos of frying pans that look like Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Oh, and don’t forget about the world’s best pancake recipe.

Supercut of cliched Instagram travel photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Now that leisure travel is widely accesible, the internet connects everyone, and most people have connected cameras on them 24/7, one of the side effects is that everyone’s vacation snaps look pretty much the same. Oliver KMIA collected hundreds of travel photos from Instagram, grouped them together by subject — passport shot, Mona Lisa, side mirror selfie, Leaning Tower, ramen bowl — and assembled them into this two-minute video of our collective homogenized travel experience. And it’s not just travel…vast swaths of Instagram are just variations on a theme:

Of course, my Instagram feed has no such cliches*ahem*. (via @choitotheworld)

Update: In his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain De Botton talks about the difficulty with cliches.

We may ask why Proust objected to phrases that had been used too often. After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have been proved rightly popular?

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject. Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

In other words, taking a photo of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or jumping in the middle of the road in Utah are really good ideas — that’s why lots of people do it — but each successive photo of the same thing doesn’t tell us anything new about those places, experiences, or people. (via mark larson)

My recent media diet for January 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I worked so much in January, mostly on getting the Noticing newsletter launched, that by the time the evening rolled around, all I wanted to do was collapse and watch a little TV or maybe go to a movie (I’ve seen all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year). But I still managed to read a couple books and am currently working my way through two more: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield at ICP Museum. A retrospective of Greenfield’s photographic survey of wealth. Also available in book form. (A-)

Lady Bird. This one’s been growing on me since I saw it. (B+/A-)

The Post. My main problem with this movie is that Streep, while otherwise excellent, does not properly sell the transformation of her character at the end. (A-)

The Farthest - Voyager in Space. I had no idea about many of the amazing things about the Voyager program. If I’d seen this as a kid, I might work for NASA right now. (A-)

Black Mirror season four. Perhaps not as strong as some of the previous seasons, but USS Callister is one of the best episodes of the series. (B+)

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. A compelling argument that Buddhists figured out thousands of years ago how to route around a human brain designed to delude us, a tendency that neuroscientists and psychologists have only learned of more recently. (B+)

Call Me By Your Name. A touching love story. One of the best movies of the year. (A)

Jane. Jane Goodall is a remarkable person, one of the best scientific researchers of our time. The footage in this movie of her early career is stunning, like it was filmed specifically for the documentary. (A-)

Jane soundtrack. Philip Glass. What more needs to be said? (A-)

Darkest Hour. Churchill is over-acted by Oldman, like an SNL character. I much prefer Lithgow’s take in The Crown. (C+)

The Shape of Water. This was ok, I suppose. (B)

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: interview with Errol Morris. I could listen to Errol Morris talk about film and truth all day. (A-)

Phantom Thread. One of those movies that gets better once you read about it afterwards. (B+)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand is amazing in this. I’m also unconvinced of the straightforward reading of the movie as the redemption of a racist cop. (B+)

Slow Burn. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. (A)

The New York Times For Kids. The rest of the paper should be more like this. (A-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Ursula K. Le Guin and “gender ghetto” of the Golden Age of science fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2018

Science fiction great Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday at age 88. Le Guin was the subject of this long New Yorker piece from a couple of years back, but I’d like to also direct your attention to a short piece Le Guin wrote for the magazine in 2012. In it, she describes how her editor submitted a short story of hers to Playboy under the name of U.K. Le Guin and then informed them after it was accepted that the writer was a woman. Playboy then requested to run the article under her initials so as not to frighten their male readership.

Unwilling to terrify these vulnerable people, I told Virginia to tell them sure, that’s fine. Playboy thanked us with touching gratitude. Then, after a couple of weeks, they asked for an author biography.

At once, I saw the whole panorama of U.K.’s life as a gaucho in Patagonia, a stevedore in Marseilles, a safari leader in Kenya, a light-heavyweight prizefighter in Chicago, and the abbot of a Coptic monastery in Algeria.

We’d tricked them slightly, though, and I didn’t want to continue the trickery. But what could I say? “He is a housewife and the mother of three children”?

I wrote, “It is commonly suspected that the writings of U.K. Le Guin are not actually written by U.K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.”

Game to the last, Playboy printed that. And my husband and I bought a red VW bus, cash down, with the check.

Yessss. BTW, if you’re wondering where to start with Le Guin, both the NYPL and Jo Walton at Tor recommend A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, the description of which reads:

A lone human ambassador is sent to Winter, an alien world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants can change their gender whenever they choose. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…

Foreclosing on the future of the book

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 12, 2018

Microsoft Reader Ad - 1999.jpg

At Wired, my old colleague David Pierce writes about a topic near and dear to my heart: Amazon’s Kindle, and its effects on how we buy and read books:

For a decade, Amazon’s relentlessly offered new ways for people to read books. But even as platforms change, books haven’t, and the incompatibility is beginning to show. Phones and tablets contain nothing of what makes a paperback wonderful. They’re full of distractions, eye-wrecking backlights, and batteries that die in a few hours. They also open up massive new opportunities. On a tablet, books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row. They can be easily navigable, endlessly searchable, and constantly updated. They can use images, video, even games to augment the experience….

The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all. Instead, the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading. Just as filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh are experimenting with what it means to make a “movie” that’s really an app on a totally interactive device with a smaller screen, Amazon and the book world are beginning to figure out what’s possible when you’re not dealing with paper anymore.

Except… not really.

Very few people have held out more hope for the digital transformation of the book than me. I used to run a website called Bookfuturism. I wrote, at length, in The Atlantic, at Wired, at The Verge, at any magazine or website that would have me, about the possibility of a new reading avant-garde. And it just never happened. For reasons.

For one thing, almost every kind of forward-looking reading technology can be put to more lucrative uses than making e-books. Facebook will buy your company. Google will buy your company. Some games publisher will buy your company. You will not be making books any more. You will be making something else. It might be cool! But it won’t be books.

Second, and more importantly, the main way that the Kindle and other digital devices have transformed books is to make them as liquid as possible. By liquid, I mean, they take the shape of their container, rather than dictating the container’s shape. You need a single book to read in much the same way on a Kindle as on an iPhone, a full-sized tablet, a PC, and on whatever device you’re using to read your audiobook. Plus, you know-printed books, which are still huge. And part of the value of the digital book is that it’s a reasonable facsimile of the printed book.

While all of these devices are more multimedia-capable than an analog printed book, the differences between their capabilities is vast, and designing around those differences is no easy task. So Amazon has done what I think any of us might do given those requirements, and basically de-formed the book, deemphasizing page design and anything else that might not cross over to devices with different screen sizes, media capabilities, and affordances.

Getting wild with digital design in 2018 means getting wild in 2018 with responsive design that’s agnostic to the kind of device you’re rocking. That’s doable, probably, but it’s really, really hard.

“If Amazon wanted to, it could with a single act bring a new form of book into being,” Pierce writes. It’s true that Amazon is probably the only company that could do so. But it has good reasons, not least the overall conservative nature of the book market writ large, to move exceedingly slowly.

Every generation deserves to have its own dreams for the future of the book dashed against the wall. For reference, here is a timeline Microsoft-nice, safe, Word-and-Office Microsoft!-put forward back in 1999.

2003- eBook devices weigh less than a pound and run for eight hours on a charge. Costs run from $99 for a simple black and white device to about $899 for the most powerful, color magazine-sized machine.

2005- eBook title and ePeriodical sales top $1 billion. Many serial publications are given away free with advertising support that now also totals more than $1 billion. An estimated 250 million people regularly read books and newspapers on their PCs, laptops, and palm machines.

2006- eNewstands (kiosks) proliferate on street corners, airports, etc. As usual, airlines offer customers old magazines on the flight, but the magazines are now downloaded to eBook devices.

2009- Several top authors now publish directly to their audiences, many of whom subscribe to their favorite authors rather than buy book-by-book. Some authors join genre cooperatives, in which they hold an ownership stake, to cover the costs of marketing, handle group advertising sales and sell “ancillary” (that is, non-electronic) rights, including “paper rights.” Major publishing houses survive and prosper by offering authors editing and marketing services, rather than arranging for book printing. Printing firms diversify into eBook preparation and converting old paper titles to electronic formats.

2011- Advances in non-volatile chip storage, including Hitachi’s Single Electron terabit chip, allow eBooks to store 4 million books - more than many university libraries - or every newspaper ever printed in America.

2012- The pulp industry mounts its pro-paper “Real Books” ad campaign, featuring a friendly logger who urges consumers to “Buy the real thing - real books printed on real paper.”

2018- In common parlance, eBook titles are simply called “books.” The old kinds are increasingly called “paper books.”

2020- Ninety percent of all titles are now sold in electronic rather than paper form. Webster alters its First Definition of “book” to mean, “a substantial piece of writing commonly displayed on a computer or other personal viewing device.”.

The technology has never been the issue. The willingness of big players in the industry to move quickly has never been the issue. I never thought Kindles were going to be wildly experimental, but I thought they might start doing everything that text does, or that paper does. But people don’t really want to even do Sudoku on their Kindles. What they seem to want to do is read (and in some cases, listen to) books. Books, and the enormous and enormously complex interconnected nature of the book market and book readership, seem to be the issue. You just can’t make that barge turn on a hairpin.

(Thanks to John Overholt and Catablogger for a photo of the Microsoft ad.)

Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2018

As he did in the years when he was President1, Barack Obama shared a list of his favorite books that he read in 2017:

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Grant by Ron Chernow
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Coach Wooden and Me by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Basketball (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano

As I’ve said before, Obama was our most widely read President. See also more lists of the best books of 2017.

  1. Remember when we had a grownup in the White House instead of an insecure and petulant manbaby? I barely do…

Noticing, a new weekly newsletter from kottke.org

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2018

As kottke.org enters its 21st calendar year of activity (!!!!), it’s time for something new. And old. Email was invented in 1972, the year before I was born, but is still going strong. The email newsletter has re-emerged in recent years as a unique way to connect with readers, distinct from social media or publishing on the web. So Tim Carmody and I have teamed up to launch Noticing, a free email newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Written by Tim Carmody and published by me every Friday, Noticing will contain a curated roundup of the week’s posts from kottke.org as well as some extra stuff that we’ll be introducing in the weeks to come. It most definitely won’t be a replacement for kottke.org…more like something to read alongside it.

Initial funding for the newsletter comes from two sources: the bulk of it from kottke.org (made possible through the support of members) but also from Tim’s supporters on Patreon. Noticing is an experiment in unlocking the commons.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.

P.S. A quick note on the name. I thought of it while listening to the last part of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook on the drive home from NYC last week. One of Isaacson’s main points in the book was that Leonardo’s accomplishments were due in no small part to his extraordinary powers of observation. By observing things closely and from all possible angles, he was able to make connections and find details that other people didn’t and express them in his work. Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

I also thought about one of my favorite scenes from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. From A.O. Scott’s review:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

I agree. Drawing honest & straightforward attention to things I love is much of what I do here on kottke.org, so I thought Noticing was a natural name for its newsletter extension.

P.P.S. An additional programming note. In addition to doing the newsletter, Tim is also taking over the posting duties on kottke.org most Fridays. This will free me up to work on other site-related things that I haven’t been able to tackle due to the daily scramble. Again, thanks to member support for making this possible!

The best of my media diet for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2018

EOY Media 2017

In 2017, I kept track of almost everything I read, listened to, watched, and experienced. I don’t know about “the best”, but as the year draws to a close, these are the things that I thought about the most, that made me see things in a slightly different way, or taught me a little something about myself. I marked my very favorites with a (*). (Above, my #bestnine images of 2017 from Instagram.)

Books. I don’t know how many books I read this year, but it was fewer than I wanted. My work demands a lot of reading online, so when I’ve finished with that most days, reading for leisure or enrichment is often not enticing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann were perhaps the best books I read…you’ll hardly find anyone who speaks ill of either one.

Wonderland by Steven Johnson pulls together technology, culture, and science in a way that I aspire to.

I enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem when I read it early on in 2017 but it grew in my esteem as the year went on. Crazy, but I might reread soon?

The Devil in the White City. A masterful dual tale of two men who seized the opportunity due to cultural and technological changes in late 1800s America, told through the events of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

I reread Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote…no recent book has helped me more in figuring out a path forward in life.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 2 blew my doors off. I have never felt so uncannily like a writer has been rummaging around in my brain. *

Television. What even is television anymore? To paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And I saw a lot of it this year. And much of it was excellent.

The Crown (season two). I kept expecting this to falter as it went on, but it never did. A keen portrait of changing times and a dying empire.

Mad Men. Rewatched it all the way through for the first time since it aired. One of the all-time great TV shows.

Halt and Catch Fire (season four). Very strong finish to a great series. I kind of want a season five in about 5 or 6 years that’s set in 2002. Still can’t believe I got to be on the show for like 2 seconds.

The Vietnam War. I feel like this didn’t get the attention it deserved. Along with OJ: Made in America, one of the best documentaries of recent years in terms of understanding the United States culturally and politically.

Wormwood. What the hell is even a documentary anyway? Errol Morris is at the top of his game with this one.

The Handmaid’s Tale. My favorite drama series of the year. So hard to watch but also essential and so well done. *

Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Incredible. Aside from the eclipse, these are the best things on this list. *

Honorable mentions: I anticipated Game of Thrones more than anything each week, but I’ve already forgotten most of what happened. There were dragons? Big Little Lies was very solid and enjoyable, but the last episode was some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Zoom out a little, and The Defiant Ones was actually about creativity, collaboration, and management.

Movies: Though I haven’t seen many of the end-of-the-year movies yet, I felt like this was a strong-ish movie year. But only four films stuck with me.

The Handmaiden. I don’t even know how to classify this film, but I wish they’d make more like it.

Maybe Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t great, but I saw it twice and have thought about it often since. Amazing visual experience.

Paths of the Soul. A window into the lives of people very unlike mine. Underscores how much living “the simple life” in wealthy countries is made possible by good infrastructure, social safety nets, and privilege. The simple life in most of the world is neither a choice nor easy.

Dunkirk. Absolutely thrilling. My favorite movie of the year. *

Music. Let’s be honest, Lemonade was probably the album of the year. But I guess some good music came out in 2017 as well. Oh, and I’m old so I still listen to albums.

Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples got the most airplay in my car this summer and fall. Early fave track was Crabs in a Bucket but BagBak came on strong later in the year.

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. Probably my favorite album of the year…every track hits the mark. *

4:44 by Jay-Z. The contrast between his last album (lazy, full of swagger) and this one (introspective, urgent) could not be more stark. This wasn’t the best or even my favorite album of the year, but I thought about it more than any of the others I listened to this year. Worth noting this album was only possible because of Beyonce’s superior Lemonade…imagine the hypothetical Jay-Z album had she not slammed him to the wall with that.

Experiences, etc. As I said on Instagram, I prioritized experiences over things this year. But because things like books, movies, and TV shows are easier to summarize and review, I kept most of the experiences for myself. You have to hold some things back or you lose your edges.

Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists and I’m grateful I got to spend a few hours witnessing how his career came together and his life fell apart. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to.

D3 Traveller. I travelled quite a bit this year, and it would have been more difficult without this bag. Worth the huge splurge.

Sainte-Chapelle. I am not religious at all, but you can’t help but feel something in this wonderful building.

iPhone X. A remarkable machine.

Rijksmuseum. I keep going back to two works I saw here: Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (I spent a good 15 minutes with this one) and this early self-portrait by Rembrandt (the lighting! the curls!).

The total solar eclipse. By far the best thing that I witnessed this year…or maybe in my life. It still gives me chills just thinking about it. *

The Most Beautiful Flowers

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2017

Beautiful Flowers

Beautiful Flowers

Beautiful Flowers

Photographer Kenji Toma makes these hyperrealistic images of flowers that are so detailed that they almost look fake because every part of each flower is in sharp focus. Johnny of Spoon & Tamago explains:

To create photographs, which both hyper-realistic to the point of looking artificial, Toma utilized a process called focus-bracket shooting. It’s a method of photography often employed to shoot close-up, macro photos in which the final photograph is a composite of several images of the subject with each element in full focus. “Hyper-realism allows him to capture the specimen’s idealized beauty, creating a work that is deeply modern, yet in harmony with a rich Japanese history and tradition.”

Toma’s images are available in a book called The Most Beautiful Flowers.

My recent media diet, special Star Wars edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I’ve been busy with work, so leisure reading time has been hard to come by…but I’m still working my way through Why Buddhism is True. Lots of great TV and movies though.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I’ve been watching Star Wars for almost 40 years, and I can’t tell if any of the movies are any good anymore. At this point, Star Wars just is. Even so, I really enjoyed seeing this and will try to catch it again in a week or two. This is a favorite review that mirrors many of my feelings. (A-)

Wormwood. Errol Morris is almost 70 years old, and this 6-part Netflix series is perhaps his most ambitious creation yet: is it a true crime documentary or a historical drama? Or both? Stylistically and thematically fascinating. See also Morris’s interview with Matt Zoller Seitz. (A)

Flipflop Solitaire. Oh man, this game sucked me waaaaay in. My best time for single suit so far is 1:25. (B+)

The Hateful Eight. I liked this way more than I expected based on the reviews, but it lacks the mastery of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino at his self-indulgent best though. (B+)

Our Ex-Life podcast. A divorced couple, who live almost next door to each other in a small town, talks about the good old days, the bad old days, and co-parenting their three kids. (B+)

Paths of the Soul. A documentary about a group of Tibetan villagers who undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa that has a genre-bending scripted feel to it. I’ve been thinking about this film since watching it…it’s full of incredible little moments. What do I believe in enough to undertake such a journey? Anything? (A)

Stranger Things 2. The plot of this show is fairly straight-forward, but the 80s vibe, soundtrack, and the young actors elevate it. (B+)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. As I was saying… (A-)

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. Huge Errol Morris fan (see above), but I was a bit bored by this. (C+)

The Crown, season two. This is one of my favorite new shows. I know she’s not the actual Queen, but I still want to have Claire Foy ‘round for tea. (A)

Blue Planet II. Just as good as Planet Earth II. Incredible stories and visuals. Premiering in the US in January. (A+)

The Moon 1968-1972. A charming little book of snapshots taken by astronauts on the Moon. (B+)

Donnie Darko. This one maybe hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps my commitment to Sparkle Motion is wavering? (B)

Part-Time Genius: Was Mister Rogers the Best Neighbor Ever? Yes, he was. (B+)

The Circle. This hit way way way way too close to home, and I couldn’t finish it. Also, not the best acting. (C)

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. Really interesting, but I stopped listening to the audiobook because I wasn’t in the mood. (B)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. You know, for the kids. (B)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Charming, perhaps my favorite holiday short. (B+)

xXx. An un-ironic favorite. Sometimes, dumb fun is just the thing. (B)

Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Tim’s recent post about smell reminded me of this book, which is a masterclass in criticism. (A-)

Young Frankenstein. I’d only seen this once before, but I wasn’t feeling it this time around. (B-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Mortal Engines

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2017

Mortal Engines is a forthcoming post-apocalyptic movie about giant mobile cities roaming the Earth in search of smaller cities to scavenge.

Thousands of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, humankind has adapted and a new way of living has evolved. Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns.

The Lord of the Rings team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson wrote the screenplay, adapted from the first book in Philip Reeve’s series of the same name. Here’s concept of the book from Wikipedia:

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, ravaged by a “Sixty Minute War”, which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes, and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus installed huge engines and wheels on London, and enabled it to dismantle (or eat) other cities for resources. The technology rapidly spread, and evolved into what is known as “Municipal Darwinism”. Although the planet has since become stable, Municipal Darwinism has spread to most of the world except for Asia and parts of Africa. Much technological and scientific knowledge was lost during the war. Because scientific progress has almost completely halted, “Old Tech” is highly prized and recovered by scavengers and archaeologists. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica, and the Arctic are dominated by Traction Cities, whereas North America was so ravaged by the war that it is often identified as “the dead continent”, and the rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League, which seeks to keep cities from moving and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet’s remaining resources.

This sounds like it could be great…if they don’t muck it up.

The best design books that aren’t specifically about design

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2017

The other day, Google Ventures’ Daniel Burka asked his followers for suggestions on the best design books that aren’t about design. Burka offered up How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand as his selection. Agreed! Here are the responses I found most interesting (some of which actually are about design, more or less):

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, a reminder to put humans at the center of city planning.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I read this ages ago and still think about it all the time.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, a book that takes place entirely on an escalator ride.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, about leadership, creativity, and storytelling at Pixar.

Read Burka’s summary of the thread at Medium (please clap).

The trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2017

The first full-length trailer for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One is out. I enjoyed the book, but the teaser trailer was awful. This trailer’s much better and it’ll be interesting to see late Spielberg’s remix of early Spielberg in action.

“Airport Novella? Sounds interesting,” he said with a nod.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Airport Novella by Tom Comitta is what he calls a “literary supercut”. Constructed exclusively from the kinds of novels one normally finds in airport bookshops, the 48-page book contains four chapters, one each for the gestures most often found in airport prose: nodding, shrugging, odd looks, and gasps. An short excerpt from the shrugging chapter:

Jeremy was silent for a moment before finally shrugging.

She shrugged without answering. “Can I be frank now?”

He shrugged. “Anything that might help me with the history of the cemetery and the town.”

She shrugged. “Shows me what I know. Being that you’re a journalist from the big city.”

He shrugged, acting innocent.

She suddenly remembered that he’d been trying to guess her age yesterday. “Yep,” she said with a shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug, and she had a sudden vision of what he must have looked like as a small boy. “Hey, I know it’s none of my business, but how did it go with Rodney?”

She hesitated before finally shrugging. “You’re right. It is none of your business.” He could almost hear her shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug. “I suppose that depends on the perspective.”

For source material, Comitta used books like The Da Vinci Code, the Twilight series, and a novel commissioned by Donald Trump (tagline: “Leave your modesty downstairs. Trump Tower is the sexiest novel of the decade.”)

The best books of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

Best Books 2017

If you’re anything like me, there were so very many books published this year that looked amazing but you didn’t get around to reading. Well, thanks to all the best-of-the-year lists coming out, we’re getting a second crack at the ol’ onion. (Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.) Without further ado, etc. etc…

Tyler Cowen, who samples (but doesn’t finish) over 1800 books a year, shared his Must Reads of 2017, a list that is mostly nonfiction and dominated by male authors. He recommends Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (“this book teaches you to think of John and Paul as a management team, and was the most enjoyable read I had all year”), Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, and Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla.

The NY Times whittled down their long list of 100 Notable Books to just The 10 Best Books of 2017, including The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us by Richard Prum and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (which Roxane Gay declared her favorite book of 2017).

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.”

From the longer list, I noticed The Idiot by Elif Batuman, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (the National Book Award winner for nonfiction), and Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patricia Lockwood.

Amazon’s editors picked their top 100 books of the year and then narrowed that list down to 10. Their tippy top pick appeared on several other lists as well: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, which I read and very much enjoyed. Also on their list was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Robin Sloan’s well-reviewed Sourdough, and Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, the rawness of which had me on the floor at one point.

From Bustle comes a list of 17 Books Every Woman Should Read From 2017. Their picks include The Power by Naomi Alderman and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, both of which I’ve seen on several other lists…the latter won the National Book Award for fiction.

More to come as the lists roll in.

Update: Bill Gates famously loves to read and has published a list of five “amazing books” he read this year. Not all of his choices were published in 2017, but The Best We Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui about her family’s escape from Vietnam, and Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil sound super good in completely different ways.

Tyler Cowen followed up his mostly nonfiction list for Bloomberg with one of just fiction. He highlights Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation. He also calls out Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy as his favorite sci-fi reading of the year. I read them earlier this year and while I enjoyed them at the time, my esteem has grown steadily throughout the year.

Publisher’s Weekly’s top 10 includes White Tears by Hari Kunzru and The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. For their kids picks, they recommend A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui (her second book…see Gates’ picks above), Fault Lines in the Constitution by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson, and Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (the first in The Book of Dust trilogy).

Update: I’m never going to get around to all of the book lists, but here are a few more that caught my eye.

The book critics of the NY Times offer their top books of 2017. The picks include Richard Nixon: The Life by John Farrell (“the parallels between Nixon and our current president leap off the page like crickets”), John Green’s well-reviewed Turtles All the Way Down, and Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (“my vote for science book of the year”).

For their Year in Reading 2017, The Millions asked some of their favorite readers and writers for their book recommendations. They returned with the likes of My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris and Morgan Parker’s collection of poetry, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.

The Goodreads Best Books of 2017 is a bit different than the other lists in that the books are chosen exclusively by readers, not critics or writers. The very well-reviewed The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas topped both the debut author and young adult fiction categories while the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them dominated the fantasy category.

At GQ, Kevin Nguyen highlighted Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love (that cover!). Nylon’s Kristin Iversen rec’d Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose. Among Pitchfork’s favorite music books of the year is, yes, that book on the Beatles mentioned above but also Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 made the Guardian’s list of the best science fiction and fantasy of 2017.

Update: A quick addition of two more lists. Quartzy combined 21 best-of-2017 books lists to come up with the most popular picks by reviewers. For fiction, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid got the most mentions. For nonfiction, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon and We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates topped the list.

The Smithsonian magazine chose the ten best history books of the year, which includes One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer.

“Whumph”: the sound of settling Antarctic snow

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

My recent media diet, special Amsterdam edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past three weeks or so. I was in Amsterdam recently to speak at a conference. I had some free time and as it was my first time there, I took in some obvious sights. No books this time…Scale is currently on hold (and perhaps abandoned permanently) while I read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and listen to Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook.

Thor: Ragnarok. Henceforth, all superhero movies should be as fun as this. (B+)

Mindhunter. This one had a slow burn to it and got better as the season went on. Also, now that I know what to look for, the David Fincher camera thing was impossible to ignore. (B+)

Requiem for a Dream. The last 30 minutes of this movie is relentless. (A)

The Book of Life. I tried to steer the kids away from this one to no avail. (C)

On Margins with Kevin Kelly. The bits about how much of the world used to be pre-industrial until fairly recently and how most people only took 20-30 photos per year in the 70s were especially interesting. (B+)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel (season two). Not quite as good as the first season, but my kids are still riveted. (B+)

Doctor Who. I’ve been slowly introducing the kids to Doctor Who, which I watched as a kid with my dad. So far, we’ve seen Jon Pertwee’s final episode and a handful of early Tom Baker episodes…probably the show’s sweet spot. I didn’t want to throw them into the deep end with William Hartnell right off the bat. (B+)

The Dark Knight Rises. A parable for our times: a white, female Bernie supporter (Selina Kyle) votes for Trump because she believes the system needs a reset but comes to appreciate what a terrible fucking idea that was. (A-)

Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum. Kevin Kelly recommended this impressive little magazine shop to me…they must have carried over 1000 different titles. (B+)

Whisky Café L & B. They stock more than 2300 whiskies (!!)…but the space is so small that I don’t know where they keep it all. (B+)

Van Gogh Museum. Maybe the best small museum I’ve ever been to? Utterly fascinating to see how his entire life and career unfolded. (A)

Rijksmuseum. I missed a lot of this one, but what I did see was great. Gaping at the impossibly exquisite lighting in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid for 15 minutes was itself worth the price of admission. (A-)

Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Really conflicting feelings on this. On the one hand, there were hordes of drunken men walking the streets literally shopping for women’s bodies…anyone unclear on what the male gaze means only need spend a few minutes in De Wallen on a weekend night to fully grasp the concept. On the other hand, it can be empowering, economically and otherwise, for women to engage in sex work. Is the RLD sex-positive? I… (-)

Schiphol. Much faster wifi than at my house. Really lovely airport…it would get an “A” if it weren’t actually an airport. (B)

Amsterdam (generally). Visit if you’re a process and infrastructure nerd. Van Gogh Museum and a boat ride in the canals are musts. Didn’t have enough time to sample as much food as I wanted, but I will definitely be back. (A-)

Michael Clayton. I liked this a little less than I remember, even though its star has been on the rise lately. (B+)

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I knew next to nothing about Didion before watching this — aside from her hiring Harrison Ford when he was a carpenter. It’s probably better if you’re already a fan? (B)

Heavyweight: Jesse. One man in a car hits another man on a bike and both are changed forever. And for the better? (B+)

Arrival. Maybe my fourth time watching this? A friend commented on the economy of the storytelling…not a second is wasted. (A)

iPhone X. Most of my early impressions still hold. Still don’t like the notch, it is ridiculous. (A-)

Transparent (season four). The recent allegations against Tambour took the shine off of this season for me, but this is still one of the best TV shows in recent years. (A-)

Coco. I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did, and I don’t know why. (B+)

The 21-minute Frozen “short” that played before Coco. Total unimaginative and cynical garbage. This is what happens when marketing has too much pull. (F)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. The music is the best part of the show IMO. (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

How to Design a Comic Book Page

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2017

Using a single page from Art Spiegelman’s Maus (considered by many as one of the finest graphic novels ever written), Evan Puschak considers how Spiegelman used the page (and not the individual panel) as the atomic unit of the narrative of his father surviving the Holocaust. Designing the page is the thing. In making this point, he quotes the cartoonist Seth (Gregory Gallant):

The ‘words & pictures’ that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seems more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around — designing — then it is about drawing.

Emergence: how many stupid things become smart together

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2017

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

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

The top 10 bestselling Kindle books of all time

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2017

Top Kindle Books All Time

The Kindle debuted 10 years ago this month and Amazon marked its anniversary with top 10 lists of the bestselling fiction and nonfiction books for the device. The fiction list is fairly predictable (I’ll get to it in a moment), but the nonfiction list is a little more interesting in spots:

1. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
2. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo, Sonja Burpo, and Lynn Vincent
3. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
4. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
5. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
6. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman
7. Bossypants by Tina Fey
8. American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice
9. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
10. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

It’s really nice to see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on there…I would not have guessed that one, although with HBO and Oprah involved, perhaps I should have. Here’s the fiction list, dominated by Shades of Grey and Katniss Everdeen.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
5. Fifty Shades Darker by E L James
6. Fifty Shades Freed by E L James
7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
8. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
9. The Help by Katherine Stockett
10. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

There are some fine books on both lists, but looking at them, you get an inkling of why the IRL Amazon stores are a bit lackluster.

The populism of Amazon’s real-world bookstores

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultimately, I didn’t buy anything either.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

True Stories Beaches Hodgman

John Hodgman, formerly of The Daily Show and those Apple commercials, is out with a memoir of his middle-aged wanderings through New England called Vacationland.

Disarmed of falsehood, he was left only with the awful truth: John Hodgman is an older white male monster with bad facial hair, wandering like a privileged Sasquatch through three wildernesses: the hills of Western Massachusetts where he spent much of his youth; the painful beaches of Maine that want to kill him (and some day will); and the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects them.

Vacationland collects these real life wanderings, and through them you learn of the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, and which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison. There is also some advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Some of this hits remarkably close to the bone:

Though wildly, Hodgmaniacally funny as usual, it is also a poignant and sincere account of one human facing his forties, those years when men in particular must stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weird dads that they are.

I don’t know about wiser, but weird dad with a failing body is pretty much right on the money. And I love that cover by Aaron James Draplin. *kisses fingers*

The Future Library

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2017

A few years ago, in a forest just outside of Oslo, 1000 trees were planted. In 2114, after a century of growth, the trees will be cut down and made into paper for an anthology of books. Meet the Future Library, an artwork by Katie Paterson.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

The first three writers to contribute texts are Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Icelandic novelist Sjón. Atwood said of her participation:

How strange it is to think of my own voice — silent by then for a long time — suddenly being awakened, after a hundred years. What is the first thing that voice will say, as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page?

See also the John Malkovich movie that no one will see for 100 years. The Future Library also has something in common with the (possibly apocryphal) story of the grove of oak trees specifically planted to replace the massive ceiling beams in the dining hall at Oxford hundreds of years in the future. Stewart Brand told the story in the TV adaptation of How Buildings Learn.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

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 had 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 over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

The tension between creativity and productivity

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

Cory Doctorow was an early adopter of the lifehacking lifestyle and toolkit, including David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

Allen’s book is a fantastic and inspiring read. The core of his philosophy is to recognize that there are more things in the world that you want to do than you could do, and that, in the absence of a deliberate approach to this conundrum, you are likely to default to doing things that are easy to scratch off your to-do list, which are also the most trivial. After a lifetime of this, you’ll have accomplished a lot of very little.

Allen counsels deliberate, mindful prioritization of this list, jettisoning things on the basis that they are less satisfying or important than the other things you’d like to do - even if those other things are harder, more time consuming and less likely to result in a satisfying chance to scratch an item off the list.

After living and working this way for more than a decade, Doctorow reports that there’s a conflict between the optimization of your time via getting things done and the sort of experimental playtime you often need to do creative work.

The corollary of this is that it gets much, much harder to winnow out activities over time. Anything I remove from the Jenga stack of my day disturbs the whole tower.

And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification.

Quinn Norton wrote an essay called Against Productivity in which she moves to Puerto Rico to focus on working productively but ends up goofing off and discovering a new career & life path in the process.

I visited with new friends, and tooled around on the net (albeit always at 2G speeds). I watched rain fall. I cooked. I considered the shape of the buildings a lot, and looked after cats periodically. I walked to old forts and lookouts. At one point I took pictures of doors for no reason I could discern. I berated myself for being unproductive, for wasting this precious time I’d set aside to put my professional life together. I spent hours anxious to craft my time to be quantitatively better for writing. Then it all collapsed, and the only habit I fell into was depressive empty afternoons when I was alone with the cats and the rain. But I also, and wholly by accident, thought the thoughts that would take my career and life in a new and unimagined direction.

I was chatting with a friend on the phone today about a talk we’re doing together in a couple weeks and she brought up the same issue, unprompted. She’s a naturally productive person who finds herself with some free time, yet she’s finding it difficult to not stay busy, even though she knows she needs the mind-wandering time to replenish her creative reserves. I struggle with the same thing. I get more done in less time than I ever have, but sometimes I feel like there’s nothing creative about my work anymore. Sure, I make the doughnuts every day but am not inventing the cronut. How do you accomplish your work but also leave ample time for letting your creative mind off the leash?

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

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the origin of time travel in fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

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

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

The Lost Words

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Lost Words

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

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

The various approaches to time travel in movies & books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

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

Salvador Dali’s surreal wine guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Wines Of Gala

Wines Of Gala

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

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

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

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

(via colossal)