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The Most Important Pieces of Code in the History of Computing

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2019

Bitcoin Code

Slate recently asked a bunch of developers, journalists, computer scientists, and historians what they thought the most influential and consequential pieces of computer code were. They came up with a list of the 36 world-changing pieces of code, including the code responsible for the 1202 alarm thrown by the Apollo Guidance Computer during the first Moon landing, the HTML hyperlink, PageRank, the guidance system for the Roomba, and Bitcoin (above).

Here’s the entry for the three lines of code that helps cellular networks schedule and route calls efficiently and equitably:

At any given moment in a given area, there are often many more cellphones than there are base station towers. Unmediated, all of these transmissions would interfere with one another and prevent information from being received reliably. So the towers have a prioritization problem to solve: making sure all users can complete their calls, while taking into account the fact that users in noisier places need to be given more resources to receive the same quality of service. The solution? A compromise between the needs of individual users and the overall performance of the entire network. Proportional fair scheduling ensures all users have at least a minimal level of service while maximizing total network throughput. This is done by giving lower priority to users that are anticipated to require more resources. Just three lines of code that make all 3G and 4G cellular networks around the world work.

25 Fun Facts About Food from Gastropod

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 27, 2019

The Gastropod podcast turns five years old this month and to celebrate they’ve compiled a list of 25 of their favorite fun food facts from the show’s archives. Here’s the entire list with links to each of the shows (shared with permission):

1. The Mafia got its start in the 1860s, in the lemon groves of Sicily. At the time, growing lemons was the most lucrative form of agriculture in Europe, thanks to scurvy and the British Navy. (Museums and the Mafia: The Secret History of Citrus)

2. Using gold (or gold-plated) cutlery makes food taste sweeter. (Episode 1: The Golden Spoon)

3. Olive oil is fruit juice. (Green Gold: Our Love Affair with Olive Oil)

4. Saliva is filtered blood. (Guts and Glory)

5. The enamel on our teeth is the hardest tissue in our entire bodies — at 95 percent mineral, it’s basically a rock. (The Truth is in the Tooth: Braces, Cavities, and the Paleo Diet)

6. The invention of forks changed the shape of our jaws. (Episode 1: The Golden Spoon)

7. Medieval nuns used to get high on saffron, to help them get through their prayer marathons. (Meet Saffron: The World’s Most Expensive Spice)

8. In the absence of kitchen timers or affordable clocks, recipes in the earliest cookbooks gave timings in the form of prayers, like two Lord’s Prayers or four Hail Marys. (Cooking the Books with Yotam and Nigella)

9. True wasabi (most wasabi in the U.S. is just colored horseradish) has a flavor “window”: it has no taste for the first five minutes after being grated, then the flavor explodes — but it fades after another ten to fifteen minutes. You have only a few minutes to enjoy wasabi at its peak! (Espresso and Whisky: The Place of Time in Food)

10. The word “avocado” comes from the Nahuatl word for testicle. (Ripe for Global Domination: The Story of the Avocado)

11. The word “cocktail” comes from the practice of putting a piece of ginger up a horse’s butt to make it cock its tail up, and seem younger and friskier. (The Cocktail Hour)

12. Jell-O was originally sold as a patent medicine that was good for hair and nails. (Watch it Wiggle: The Jell-O Story)

13. The earliest recorded recipe for ice-cream was flavored with ambergris, which is a salt- and air-cured whale excretion (no one is quite sure whether it’s vomit or poo). (The Scoop on Ice Cream)

14. New York City’s first soda fountains used marble scraps left over from building St. Patrick’s cathedral to produce their carbonation. (Gettin’ Fizzy With It)

15. The superiority of New York City’s bagels has nothing to do with the city’s water. (The Bagelization of America)

16. Donald Rumsfeld was the man behind the launch of Nutrasweet. (Sweet and Low (Calorie): The Story of Artificial Sweeteners)

17. George W. Bush and a trade deal involving Harley Davidsons were the reason that the Indian Alphonso, the so-called “king of mangoes,” can now finally be imported to the U.S. (Mango Mania: How the American Mango Lost its Flavor — and How it Might Just Get it Back)

18. Jack Daniel learned how to make whiskey from an enslaved African, Nearest Green, who went on to become the company’s first master distiller. (The Secret History of the Slave Behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey)

19. The first pasta machine was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. (Remembrance of Things Pasta: A Saucy Tale)

20. In England in the 1600s, a special breed of dogs were used to turn spits of roasted meat in front of the open fire. These turnspit dogs are now extinct; their closest relation is thought to be a corgi. (Hotbox: The Oven from Turnspit Dog to Microwave)

21. In America in the early 1900s, the pawpaw was voted the native fruit most likely to succeed, ahead of the blueberry. (Pick a Pawpaw: America’s Forgotten Fruit)

22. The story that carrots are good for eyesight was World War II military disinformation, spread by the British to prevent the Germans from realizing that the Royal Air Force were shooting down so many enemy planes because their cockpits were now equipped with radar and red lighting. (How the Carrot Became Orange, and Other Stories)

23. Mustard became spicy over the course of a 90-million-year evolutionary arms race against caterpillars. (Cutting the Mustard)

24. Plants can hear themselves being eaten. (Field Recordings)

25. A raw human male contains, on average, 143,770 calories. (Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru)

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.

Nine Things a Woman Couldn’t Do in 1971 in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2019

Twitter user @WPCelebration recently compiled a list of nine activities and rights denied to women in America in 1971, just 48 years ago. The list includes:

Ms magazine published a similar list back in 2013 that also included the difficulty in getting a divorce without cause and obtain a safe & legal abortion in all 50 states. Bustle talked to several women about what discrimination was like before many of these changes took place.

I was denied a job in 1970 because I was newly pregnant. They actually had a question on the application regarding the date of your last menstrual period. Also, with my second child in 1974, they were not required to hold your position while you were on maternity leave, and I was told that my job was no longer open and I had to file for unemployment.

As a reminder, women only gained the right to vote in America fewer than 100 years ago.

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.

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.

The Greta Thunberg Effect

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2019

According to recent statistics, the number of books published about the climate crisis & the natural world aimed at children has more than doubled over the last year. Children’s publishers are crediting climate activist Greta Thunberg with igniting interest in the climate among the younger set.

“I absolutely would say there has been a Greta Thunberg effect,” says Rachel Kellehar, head of nonfiction. “She has galvanised the appetite of young people for change, and that has galvanised our appetite, as publishers, for stories that empower our readers to make those changes.”

I’d give David Attenborough’s recent run of nature documentaries some credit as well…the young people in my household are big fans of Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II.

Here are a few recent and upcoming children’s books about climate and nature, in addition to Thunberg’s own No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, of course.

Climate Books Kids

A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals by Millie Marotta. “A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals highlights the plight of 43 endangered species from around the world, including rare and well-known animals living in freshwater, oceans, forests, mountains, tundras, deserts, grasslands, and wetlands.”

Earth Heroes: Twenty Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World by Lily Dyu. “With twenty inspirational stories celebrating the pioneering work of a selection of Earth Heroes from all around the globe, from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough to Yin Yuzhen and Isatou Ceesay, each tale is a beacon of hope in the fight for the future of our planet, proving that one person, no matter how small, can make a difference.”

Ninita’s Big World: The True Story of a Deaf Pygmy Marmoset by Sarah Glenn Marsh. “Published in partnership with the RSCF, this charming true story of how one little orphaned monkey got a second chance to have a family gently introduces kids to disability, biodiversity, and wildlife conservation.”

Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari. “The few live in luxury, whilst the millions like them crowd together in compounds, surviving on meagre rations and governed by Freedom Fields — the organisation that looks after you, as long as you opt in. The bees have long disappeared; instead children must labour on farms, pollinating crops by hand so that the nation can eat.”

America’s National Parks by Lonely Planet Kids. “With awesome facts, photos and illustrations on every page, you’ll discover erupting geysers, exploding volcanoes, howling wolves, soaring eagles, mountains, glaciers, rainforests and more throughout the continental USA, Hawaii, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands.”

Climate Books Kids

Kids Fight Plastic: How to be a #2minute Superhero by Martin Dorey. “Read this essential book and find out how you can become a #2minutesuperhero by completing 50 missions to fight plastic at home, school and on your days out.”

Don’t Let Them Disappear by Chelsea Clinton. “Taking readers through the course of a day, Don’t Let Them Disappear talks about rhinos, tigers, whales, pandas and more, and provides helpful tips on what we all can do to help prevent these animals from disappearing from our world entirely.”

Evie and the Animals by Matt Haig. “Eleven-year-old Evie has a talent. A SUPERTALENT. A talent that can let her HEAR the thoughts of an elephant, and make friends with a dog and a sparrow. The only problem is, this talent is dangerous. VERY dangerous. That’s what her dad says.”

If Thunberg doesn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize in the next few years for her efforts, I’ll be very surprised.

Climate Change Is a Humanitarian Crisis

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2019

From The New Humanitarian, a mid-year update on 10 humanitarian trends and crises to watch in 2019 (here’s their initial post). The #1 item on the list, deservedly so, is climate displacement:

Vulnerable communities around the world have long known what the aid sector is just beginning to articulate: climate change is a humanitarian issue, and its fingerprints are all over today’s emergencies.

Climate shocks and disasters continued to fuel displacement around the globe through the first half of the year, from tropical cyclones to slow-burning droughts. Pacific Island nations were on high alert early in the year as storm after storm swept through the region in quick succession. Conflict is as dangerous as ever in Afghanistan, yet the number of people displaced by drought and floods in recent months is on par with the numbers fleeing war. Drought has left 45 million in need in eastern, southern, and the Horn of Africa. This, along with conflict, has spurred new displacement in countries like Somalia, where at least 49,000 people have fled their homes so far this year, according to UNHCR. The UN’s refugee agency warns of “growing climate-related displacement” - a sign of the continuing shift in the aid sector as humanitarian-focused agencies increasingly underline the links between climate change and crises.

Our rapidly changing climate has either caused or exacerbated several of the other crises on the list — Syria, Ethiopia, infectious diseases, the global refugee population. This isn’t stuff that’s going to happen…it is happening, it has happened. And it’s going to get worse. (via tmn)

101 Things Changing How We Work

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2019

From the BBC, a list of the 101 people, ideas, and things changing how we work today. I pulled out a few of things I thought were interesting.

5G — So the whole 5G thing seems like a marketing gimmick to me, but I used its inclusion on this list to finally read about why anyone should care. From this PC Magazine article:

5G brings three new aspects to the table: greater speed (to move more data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).

Ok, I get it now. Sounds good.

Adaptability quotient (AQ) — One of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my adult life is that people have all sorts of different abilities that contribute to how “smart” they are, and most of those things have little to do with how well they did in school or what their IQ is.

The good news is that scientists agree AQ is not fixed — it can be developed. Theory U by Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests three elements can help provide a framework: keeping an open mind, so you see the world with fresh eyes and remain open to possibilities; keeping an open heart, so you can try to see any situation through another person’s eyes; and keeping an open will, letting go of identity and ego to sit with the discomfort of the unknown.

The ‘FIRE’ (financial independence, retire early) movement — You obviously need a certain type of job (and likely a privileged background to obtain that job) to do this. And perhaps no children. Oh and maybe a social safety net…one significant medical issue and you can kiss your savings goodbye.

The ‘FIRE’ (financial independence, retire early) movement sees its adherents live as cheaply as possible in their 20s and 30s, squirreling enough money away to retire by middle age. These extreme savers are working longer hours to save up overtime payments while also spending less leisure time out of home to avoid costly activities.

Ghost work — Tech companies employ millions of people who are often underpaid & mistreated to do menial work.

Workers crowdsourced over the internet are paid below minimum wage to label data to train algorithms. Contractors at risk of immediate termination screen our social media feeds to keep them free of violence, hate speech and sexual exploitation. But a technology industry keen to portray itself as based on technical wizardry rather than human labour has kept its crucial contributions hidden, aided by automated workflows that treat humans as just another step in a computational pipeline.

Reverse mentoring — Mentors can and should be found anywhere, up and down the chain of wisdom and experience.

Mentoring used to mean older colleagues guiding younger workers up the career ladder. But the earliest adopters of new technologies are often young people, and so big names like Microsoft, Roche and Atkins have embraced reverse mentoring; harnessing young people to close knowledge gaps within organisations. Other benefits include promoting inclusion, increasing discussion across peer groups, and empowering future leaders.

Office farming — I am in favor of more plants in offices and more urban farms. Buildings in major cities should all have rooftop gardens.

With advances in hydroponics — growing plants in something other than soil — New York firm Kono Designs created an urban farm inside a nine-story office building in Tokyo that harvests over 280 types of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. Tomato vines are suspended above conference tables, lemon and passionfruit trees are used as partitions for meeting spaces, salad leaves are grown inside seminar rooms and bean sprouts are grown under benches. With support from agricultural specialists, the employees assist in its daily upkeep that contribute to the preparation of ingredients served at its on-site cafeterias.

The 100 Best Movies of the 2010s

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2019

Indiewire is early out of the gate with their list of the 100 best movies of the decade, betting that anything coming out in the next 5 months will not be worthy of inclusion. There are a few eyebrow raisers on there — 75. A Star Is Born? 26. Magic Mike XXL?? 5. Inside Llewyn Davis??? 2. Under the Skin?????!!? (reader, I didn’t like it) — but mostly this list is a goldmine for good movies I haven’t seen. Here are some that I have seen and enjoyed seeing on the list:

92. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
78. Inside Out
72. The Handmaiden
63. Inception
60. Black Panther
37. Roma
32. The Grand Budapest Hotel
23. O.J.: Made in America
13. The Tree of Life
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
7. Carol

I love that Fury Road made its way into the top 10…it might be my favorite film of the past decade.

Update: Also from Indiewire, the 25 Best Movie Scenes of the Decade.

Oh, and I thought of some films that definitely should be on that list but weren’t: Arrival, Dunkirk, Selma, Upstream Color, Senna. And I will continue to stubbornly go to bat for Cloud Atlas.

25 Essential Artworks of the Past 50 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2019

The NY Times convened a group of curators and artists to decide on a list of the 25 artworks made since 1970 “that define the contemporary age”. At various times, the panelists objected to the futility of such an exercise, but eventually ended up with a list that’s highly subjective, grossly incomplete, and full of great work.

Essential Artworks

Essential Artworks

Essential Artworks

Nan Goldin, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Kara Walker all made the list. Jeff Koons is listed, somewhat reluctantly both by the panel and himself: “The artist did not grant permission for the named work to be published.”

Perhaps just as interesting as the artworks is the panelists’ discussion, a mini-tour of recent art history. Artist Martha Rosler said of Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”:

“A Subtlety” made lots of people furious because it was about the history of labor and sugar in a place that was already about to be gentrified. It was this gigantic, mammy-like, sphinxlike, female object, and then it had all these little melting children. “A Subtlety” is part of a very longstanding tradition that began in the Arab world that had to do with creating objects out of clay but also out of sugar. So it’s the impacted value of extractive mining, but it’s also the impacted value of the labor of slaves. And it’s also on the site where wage slavery had occurred — sugar work was the worst. The Domino Sugar factory was once owned by the Havemeyers, and Henry Havemeyer was one of the main donors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sugar king was the art king. So it had all of these things — and then there’s the idea of all these people taking selfies in front of it. It was extremely brilliant without having to say a thing.

(via @sippey)

The Most Influential Black Americans in History

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2019

Influential Black Americans

The Undefeated has complied a list of some of the most influential black Americans — 44 African Americans Who Shook Up the World.

This is a list of The Undefeated 44, a collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

A dashing lawyer who redefined fearlessness and broke Jim Crow’s back. The most gravity-defying, emulated athlete the world has ever produced. A brilliant folklorist of fierce independence who was a proudly “outrageous woman.”

This is not a list of The Greatest African-Americans of All Time or The Most Influential Blacks in History. Or even The Dopest Brothers and Sisters Who Matter Most This Week. It is a list — fervently debated among our staff, chiseled and refined — of 44 blacks who shook up the world or at least their corner of it. We recognize that this is not a complete list of jaw-dropping black achievers; we know that such a list would never run out of names. Why limit ours to 44? It’s an homage to the first African-American president, whose own stunning accomplishment was something our mothers and grandfathers and great-grandmothers never thought they’d see in their lifetimes.

The list includes many household names like Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, and Jean-Michel Basquiat but also some lesser-celebrated people like Dr. Charles Drew:

After becoming the first African-American to get his doctorate from Columbia University in 1940, Drew was the world’s leading authority on blood transfusions and storage, just as the United States and Great Britain were becoming deeply involved in World War II. His research established protocols on how blood should be collected and refrigerated, how donors should be recruited and screened, and training methods for people who would collect and test blood.

As medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service, Drew led the collection of tens of thousands of pints of blood for U.S. troops. Some historians say his work might have saved the world from Nazism, since battlefield blood storage and transfusions didn’t exist before he was asked to manage two of the largest blood banks during the war.

And Madam C.J. Walker:

As she traveled throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Central America, teaching her Walker System and training sales agents, she shared her personal story: her birth on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved, her struggles as a young widow, her desperate poverty. If she could transform herself, so could they. In place of washtubs and cotton fields, Walker offered them beauty culture, education, financial freedom and confidence. “You have made it possible for a colored woman to make more money in a day selling your products than she could in a week working in white folks’ kitchens,” one agent wrote to her.

The 50 Best Memoirs of the Last 50 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2019

Best Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 Films You Should Watch According to Christopher Nolan

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2019

Christopher Nolan will be out with his latest film next year, Tenet. To celebrate, IndieWire has collected a list of 30 films that Nolan has mentioned in the past as having an impact on his filmmaking. The title of that post calls these his “favorite” movies, but it’s perhaps more fair to call it his list of blockbuster influences, films that are grand in scale, personal in nature, and a little cerebral…with some quirky oddballs thrown in for good measure. Here’s a selection:

2001: A Space Odyssey
Blade Runner
Alien
For All Mankind
Koyaanisqatsi
Star Wars
Street of Crocodiles
The Tree Of Life

100 Fun Facts About Language

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2019

To celebrate their 100th episode, The Allusionist podcast shared 100 Things We’ve Learned About Language from The Allusionist (transcript). Here are a few of my favorites from the list:

3. ‘Girl’ could originally be used to refer to a child of any gender — it didn’t specifically denote a female child until the late 14th century.

12. The best thing I’ve learned from the Allusionist is that the dictionary is a record and not a rule book! And language is too dynamic and complex for there to be a right and a wrong.

14. Dictionaries: can’t trust them, they’ve got deliberately fake words, or mountweazels, as copyright traps.

20. A few more quick eponyms: the saxophone is named after its inventor Adolphe Sax. He also invented the saxhorn, saxotromba, and saxtuba which didn’t all catch on.

27. Words like laser, scuba, taser — and the care in ‘care package’, those are all acronyms. [Whoa, I did not know about CARE package! -j]

45. I looked up the step in stepchild or stepparent and found it meant ‘grief’. I know some of you use different terms; since the episode, I’ve been borrowing ‘bonus’.

54. My favourite portmanteau discovery: ‘Velcro’ is a portmanteau — of velour and crochet.

56. Also very literal: ‘log in’, after the log on a knotted rope that would be thrown overboard from a ship to measure its speed — calculated by the length of rope unspooled over a particular time — and that would be logged in the log book.

100. ‘Arseropes’. What a wonderful word for the human intestines! Why don’t we use it still? [From John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible -j]

(via recs)

The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Word Book Titles

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

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

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

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

And Jeffrey Eugenides on Middlesex:

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

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

(via @john_overholt)

Barack Obama’s Spring 2019 Book Recommendations

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2019

Moment Of Lift

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

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

From a short excerpt of the book:

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

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

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

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

The Most Influential Academic Books in the Last 20 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2019

The Chronicle of Higher Education has assembled The New Canon, a list of the most influential books written by academics in the past 20 years or so. The books were chosen by a panel that included sociologist Eric Klinenberg, classics professor Johanna Hanink, and professor of business Sheena Iyengar.

Their picks included Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined:

It was a best seller, discussed and praised and criticized by both scholars and public intellectuals. Better Angels defends, at great length, a controversial claim, which is that violence is declining, both in the short run and the long run — and so, in a very important way, the world is getting better. Pinker is far from the first to make this argument, but he presents the most persuasive case. Better Angels also explores, at equally great length, psychological and social theories for why this is so, and illustrates that an evolutionary-psychology approach to the mind can give us considerable insight into how societies change over time.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander:

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, activist, and now a columnist for The New York Times, argues that the “war on drugs,” beginning with the Nixon administration and flourishing under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, shifted antipoverty resources into an infinite war on crime that disproportionately targets black communities and robs the majority of black men in urban areas of their full citizenship. Fusing legal studies and history, Alexander demonstrates how America’s prison-industrial complex is the latest chapter in the nation’s tragic racial history. Her thesis not only touched scholars but also transformed the public’s understanding of structural racism in the American justice system.

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth Armstrong & Laura Hamilton is a timely choice given the unfolding college admissions investigation by the FBI:

The book is an ethnographic account of the lives of first-year women college students living on a “party floor” at a selective public university they call Midwest U. Varied in their social-class backgrounds, the students have profoundly different pathways through college. Poor and working-class young women face formidable obstacles to completing their degrees, while the children of upper middle class professionals pursue meaningful majors and vocations. At the same time, the daughters of the wealthiest, socialite families join sororities, and party their way through easy majors, graduation, and, beyond that, socially connected jobs.

If this were a book about no more than individual-level educational inequalities, the story might end there. But this is not that book. Instead, the authors use a cultural and organizational lens to show how the university itself is complicit in shaping students’ academic pursuits, social lives, and job opportunities in socially patterned ways.

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community:

Americans participate less in group activities that entail coordination and cooperation toward a common purpose. Instead they engage more in activities that take place less regularly, in smaller groups or in isolation. They are less likely to play sports on teams, more likely to watch sports or to exercise at home. The book identifies trends that scholars and journalists continue to analyze and dissect 18 years later, culminating in the recent avalanche of books and essays describing how handheld devices now contribute to the breakdown of community.

Bowling Alone inspired my pal Scott Heiferman to start Meetup.

Gradually, Then Suddenly

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2019

Using one of my recent favorite mental models,1Tim O’Reilly writes about some technology-related changes happening in the world where incremental advances in recent years are set to soon become pervasive.

2) The rest of the world is leapfrogging the US. The volume of mobile payments in China is $13 trillion versus the US’s $50 billion, while credit cards never took hold. Already Zipline’s on-demand drones are delivering 20% of all blood supplies in Rwanda and will be coming soon to other countries (including the US). In each case, the lack of existing infrastructure turned out to be an advantage in adopting a radically new model. Expect to see this pattern recur, as incumbents and old thinking hold back the adoption of new models.

  1. I’ve referenced “gradually, then suddenly” in recent posts about what living in a dictatorship feels like and climate change.

The Healthiest Vegetables, Ranked

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2019

MEL Magazine’s Ian Lecklitner talked to clinical nutritionist David Friedman (author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction) about which vegetables Friedman thinks are the healthiest. Happy to see that asparagus is #1:

“This tasty green stalk comes in first place on my vegetable ranking,” Friedman says. “Asparagus is a great source of vitamin K, which helps with blood clotting and building strong bones.” Friedman also mentions that asparagus provides vitamin A (which prevents heart disease), vitamin C (which supports the immune system), vitamin E (which acts as an antioxidant) and vitamin B6 (which, like vitamin A, also prevents heart disease).

Asparagus is also loaded with minerals, including iron (which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells), copper (which improves energy production) and calcium (which improves bone health). “Asparagus increases your energy levels, protects your skin from sun damage and helps with weight loss,” Friedman continues. “It’s also an excellent source of inulin, a type of carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic, supporting the growth of health-promoting bacteria in the colon.”

Personal faves brussels sprouts, beets, and broccoli also rank pretty high.

A List of the 100 Most Important Technologies Ever

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2019

From Paleofuture, “Technology, Ranked”, a list of the 100 most important technologies ever invented by humans. Among the items on the list (one of which is the top pick) are the fork, the electric guitar, cotton gin, nuclear weapons, anesthesia, GPS, Prozac, and the wheel. Fire is #2:

Ancient peoples harnessed fire in ways that allowed them to control their environment. For example, aboriginal Australians were able to keep bushfires under control by shaping and manipulating what they destroyed-reinvigorating the land and limiting the number of fires that had the potential to get out of control.

It’s fire. It’s kinda important.

14 Rules for Maintaining Your Sanity Online

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 31, 2018

In an issue of The Discourse, Sean Blanda shared a list of rules for interacting with others online while maintaining your sanity. Among them are:

4. Take a second.

6. If an online space makes more money the more time you spend on it, use sparingly.

8. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt, be charitable in how you read people’s ideas.

10. Create the kind of communities and ideas you want people to talk about.

12. You don’t always have the moral high ground. You are not always right.

Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2018

As he does every year, President Obama shared his favorite reads of the year on Facebook, books that he found “thought-provoking, inspiring, or just plain loved”. Among them are:

Becoming by Michelle Obama.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.
How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

This year, Obama also shared his favorite movies and songs. The movie list contains some pretty interesting entries: Annihilation, The Death of Stalin, Shoplifters, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I wonder if he sees these in the theater or via Netflix/Apple/Amazon or he just gets a ton of screeners from the studios?

And Mr. President, let me know if you ever want to contribute a guest media diet post…I will try to squeeze you into my editorial calendar.

The Best Movie Posters of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2018

Movie Posters 2018

Movie Posters 2018

Movie Posters 2018

Movie Posters 2018

Check out these and many other top posters of the year at Creative Review, The Playlist, Little White Lies, and MUBI Notebook.

The Top 10 Title Sequences of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2018

From the Art of the Title, the picks for the best opening credits sequences of the year. Their #1 is Babylon Berlin, which would have been my pick as well.

Babylon Berlin Titles

The list also includes the titles for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which might be the most visually inventive box office #1 in recent memory.

Interestingly, two of the sequences on the list aren’t from film or TV but from conferences: Semi Permanent 2018 and Made In The Middle 2018. Only three out of the ten were from movies.

The Best Book Covers of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2018

Book covers have long been one of my favorite design objects and with all the talented cover designers at work out there, 2018 produced a number of notable covers. In choosing some of my favorites below, I consulted Literary Hub’s 75 Best Books Covers of 2018 (according a panel of book designers), Paste’s 18 Best Book Covers of 2018, and The Casual Optimist’s Book Covers of Note 2018.

Book Cover Design 2018

Book Cover Design 2018

Book Cover Design 2018

Book Cover Design 2018

Book Cover Design 2018

From top to bottom, Cherry by Nico Walker (designed by Janet Hansen), Hippie by Paulo Coelho (designed by Tyler Comrie), My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (designed by Darren Haggar), Circe by Madeline Miller (designed by Will Staehle), and Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (designed by Lauren Wakefield).

How to Be an Artist

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2018

From Jerry Saltz, failed artist and art critic for New York Magazine, a list of 33 rules on how to be a successful artist.

Lesson 3: Feel Free to Imitate. We all start as copycats, people who make pastiches of other people’s work. Fine! Do that. However, when you do this, focus, start to feel the sense of possibility in making all these things your own — even when the ideas, tools, and moves come from other artists. Whenever you make anything, think of yourself as entering a gigantic stadium filled with ideas, avenues, ways, means, and materials. And possibilities. Make these things yours. This is your house now.

And on the other side of the same coin:

Lesson 12: Know What You Hate. It is probably you. Make a list of three artists whose work you despise. Make a list of five things about each artist that you do not like; be as specific as possible. Often there’s something about what these artists do that you share. Really think about this.

A List of Weird Facts

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2018

Helmed by someone with a knack for asking good questions & telling interesting stories and followed by nearly 100,000 people who have fascinating tales to tell, Nicole Cliffe’s Twitter account is an internet gem. Last night, Cliffe tweeted “Tell me your fav weird fact” and the replies kept me busy for quite awhile. Here are a few of my favorites:

“The low German (plauttdeutch) word for vacuum is Huulbessen. Literally translated it means Screaming Broom.” -@JayelleMo

“From the time it was discovered until now, Pluto hasn’t completed a single orbit. And it won’t for another 160 years.” -@TylerMoody

“Male giraffes will headbutt female giraffes in the bladder in order to make them pee, so that they can smell their urine and determine if the females are in heat.” -@anannabananacan

“Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones were college roommates” -@msmessica

“The sound you think of Bald Eagles making is actually the screech of a Red Tailed Hawk. Eagles sound kind of like seagulls and that couldn’t stand, so they’ve been dubbed over forever.” -@Alison_Claire

“My grandfather grew up on coastal Maine, and said when he was a kid (1920s Maine at this point) the rich kids brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school and the poor kids brought lobster, since the lobstermen couldn’t afford to buy their kids peanut butter and jelly.” -@sgtjanedoe

“Samuel Beckett drove Andre the Giant to school sometimes.” -@WinchMD

“One of the foods with the highest amounts of naturally occurring umami (natural MSG) is BREAST MILK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” -@CiaoSamin

My weird fact would be that cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collard greens, and cauliflower are all the same species of plant.

The Winners of the Information Is Beautiful Awards for 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2018

Since 2012, Information Is Beautiful has picked the best data visualizations of the year. Here are the winners of the 2018 Awards, which includes the team at Northeastern University & National Geographic for their Simulated Dendrochronology of U.S. Immigration 1790-2016 project.

Immigration Dendrochronology

Nature has its own ways of organizing information: organisms grow and register information from the environment. This is particularly notable in trees, which, through their rings, tell the story of their growth. Drawing on this phenomenon as a visual metaphor, the United States can be envisioned as a tree, with shapes and growing patterns influenced by immigration. The nation, the tree, is hundreds of years old, and its cells are made out of immigrants. As time passes, the cells are deposited in decennial rings that capture waves of immigration.

A deserving winner in the “Most Beautiful” category. Here’s an animated view of US immigration’s “tree rings”: