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kottke.org posts about obituaries

RIP, Pablo Ferro

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2018

Film & design legend Pablo Ferro died this weekend at the age of 83. Ferro was known for designing the iconic opening title sequences for Dr. Strangelove and Bullitt (among others).

He also designed what is probably my favorite movie trailer, for A Clockwork Orange:

I wrote about Ferro’s work with Stanley Kubrick in this post 10 years ago. From a piece by Steven Heller that I linked to in the post:

Kubrick wanted to film it all using small airplane models (doubtless prefiguring his classic space ship ballet in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Ferro dissuaded him and located the official stock footage that they used instead. Ferro further conceived the idea to fill the entire screen with lettering (which incidentally had never been done before), requiring the setting of credits at different sizes and weights, which potentially ran counter to legal contractual obligations. But Kubrick supported it regardless. On the other hand, Ferro was prepared to have the titles refined by a lettering artist, but Kubrick correctly felt that the rough hewn quality of the hand-drawn comp was more effective. So he carefully lettered the entire thing himself with a thin pen.

The Art of the Title also interviewed Ferro about the Strangelove opening credits.

The titles for Strangelove were last-minute; I didn’t have much time to produce it. It came up because of a conversation between Stanley and I. Two weeks after I finished with everything, he and I were talking. He asked me what I thought about human beings. I said one thing about human beings is that everything that is mechanical, that is invented, is very sexual. We looked at each other and realized — the B-52, refueling in mid-air, of course, how much more sexual can you get?! He loved the idea. He wanted to shoot it with models we had, but I said let me take a look at the stock footage, I am sure that [the makers of those planes] are very proud of what they did and, sure enough, they had shot the plane from every possible angle.

Update: The Art of the Title also did a huge three-part interview with Ferro as a career retrospective. Great deep dive into a substantial career.

RIP Paul Allen

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2018

Tech titan Paul Allen died yesterday at the age of 65 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates remembered his friend in a short piece called “What I loved about Paul Allen”.

Paul foresaw that computers would change the world. Even in high school, before any of us knew what a personal computer was, he was predicting that computer chips would get super-powerful and would eventually give rise to a whole new industry. That insight of his was the cornerstone of everything we did together.

In fact, Microsoft would never have happened without Paul. In December 1974, he and I were both living in the Boston area — he was working, and I was going to college. One day he came and got me, insisting that I rush over to a nearby newsstand with him. When we arrived, he showed me the cover of the January issue of Popular Electronics. It featured a new computer called the Altair 8800, which ran on a powerful new chip. Paul looked at me and said: “This is happening without us!” That moment marked the end of my college career and the beginning of our new company, Microsoft. It happened because of Paul.

Gates also noted Allen’s love of music. In an interview earlier this year, legendary producer Quincy Jones said Allen “sings and plays just like Hendrix”.

Yeah, man. I went on a trip on his yacht, and he had David Crosby, Joe Walsh, Sean Lennon — all those crazy motherfuckers. Then on the last two days, Stevie Wonder came on with his band and made Paul come up and play with him — he’s good, man.

Here’s a short clip of Allen melting some faces:

The Death of a Loved One from Opiate Addiction, Plainly & Honestly Told

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2018

From an independent newspaper here in Vermont, the heartbreaking and brutally honest obituary of Madelyn Linsenmeir, a 30-year-old mother who died from a drug addiction to opiates that lasted for more a decade.

When she was 16, she moved with her parents from Vermont to Florida to attend a performing arts high school. Soon after she tried OxyContin for the first time at a high school party, and so began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life.

It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction. To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient. She could and would talk to anyone, and when you were in her company you wanted to stay. In a system that seems to have hardened itself against addicts and is failing them every day, she befriended and delighted cops, social workers, public defenders and doctors, who advocated for and believed in her ‘til the end. She was adored as a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and mother, and being loved by Madelyn was a constantly astonishing gift.

This is powerfully straightforward writing by Linsenmeir’s family…my condolences are with them. They devoted a few paragraphs at the end of her obit to address addiction and its place in our society:

If you are reading this with judgment, educate yourself about this disease, because that is what it is. It is not a choice or a weakness. And chances are very good that someone you know is struggling with it, and that person needs and deserves your empathy and support.

If you work in one of the many institutions through which addicts often pass — rehabs, hospitals, jails, courts — and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve, thank you. If instead you see a junkie or thief or liar in front of you rather than a human being in need of help, consider a new profession.

As in many other states, more and more people are dying of opiate overdoses in Vermont even as doctors cut the number of opioid prescriptions they write faster than other areas of the country.

Update: On Facebook, Burlington, VT’s chief of police Brandon del Pozo wrote a response to Linsenmeir’s obituary that is very much worth reading.

Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?

Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.

She died just like my wife’s cousin Meredith died in Bethesda, herself a young mother, but if Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn’t matter if the guy’s obituary writer had won the Booker Prize, there wouldn’t be a weepy article in People about it.

Why not?

But if there had been, early enough on, and we acted swiftly, humanely, and accordingly, maybe Maddie would still be here. Make no mistake, no matter who you are or what you look like: Maddie’s bell tolls for someone close to you, and maybe someone you love. Ask the cops and they will tell you: Maddie’s death was nothing special at all. It happens all the time, to people no less loved and needed and human.

(thx, caroline)

The Best Obituary Ever?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2018

A Wilmington, Delaware man named Rick Stein recently died and his obituary is one of the most unique and entertaining I have ever read.

Stein’s location isn’t the only mystery. It seems no one in his life knew his exact occupation.

His daughter, Alex Walsh of Wilmington appeared shocked by the news. “My dad couldn’t even fly a plane. He owned restaurants in Boulder, Colorado and knew every answer on Jeopardy. He did the New York Times crossword in pen. I talked to him that day and he told me he was going out to get some grappa. All he ever wanted was a glass of grappa.”

Stein’s brother, Jim echoed similar confusion. “Rick and I owned Stuart Kingston Galleries together. He was a jeweler and oriental rug dealer, not a pilot.” Meanwhile, Missel Leddington of Charlottesville claimed her brother was a cartoonist and freelance television critic for the New Yorker.

One thing is certain: Stein and his family have a good sense of humor. My condolences to them on their loss. (via @mkonnikova)

The last living human link to the 19th century is gone

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2018

For the past few years, because of my interest in The Great Span of human history, I’ve been tracking the last remaining people who were alive in the 1800s and the 19th century. As of 2015, only two women born in the 1800s and two others born in 1900 (the last year of the 19th century) were still alive. In the next two years, three of those women passed away, including Jamaican Violet Brown, the last living subject of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the British Empire starting in 1837.

Yesterday Nabi Tajima, the last known survivor of the 19th century, died in Japan at age 117.

Tajima was born in a village on Kikaijima on August 4, 1900. She had 9 children and more than 160 descendants, including great-great-great-grandchildren, according to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), which verified her date of birth.

At the time of her death, Tajima was 117 years and 280 days old, making her the third oldest person in recorded human history. She said that her secret to longevity was eating delicious things and sleeping well, but she also enjoyed hand-dancing to the sound of the shamisen.

Tajima was born at a time when Emperor Meiji ruled Japan as the nation rose from an isolationist feudal state to become a world power. William McKinley served as president of the United States and Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom. The world’s population was just 1.6 billion.

Tajima was already 45 years old when World War II ended…amazing. According to the Gerontology Research Group’s World Supercentenarian Rankings List, the oldest living person is Chiyo Miyako of Japan, who will hopefully turn 117 in a week and a half.

Rewriting the NY Times Obit section

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 08, 2018

The paper of record somehow failed to note the passing of Diane Arbus, Nella Larsen, Sylvia Plath, and twelve other equally influential women over their 167 years of publication. They updated this for International Women’s Day in their series Overlooked.

1885-tennis-staten-island.png

The whole package is worth a read, but I love the story of Mary Ewing Outerbridge who (probably) brought tennis to the US.

Outerbridge explained that the items were for a game called Sphairistiké, which is Greek for “playing at ball.” She had seen British Army officers engaged in a match during a vacation in Bermuda and was entranced by the graceful strokes and fluid motions. She told the agents she was taking the gear back home, to Staten Island, to teach her friends and family to play.

Also noteworthy: Jane Eyre author Charlotte Brontë.

While Brontë did not get an obituary in The New York Times, her husband, who died 51 years later, did. The article was just five lines long, and the headline said it all: “Charlotte Bronte’s Husband Dead.”

Rest in peace, Dean Allen

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

I heard a couple of days ago that Dean Allen died last weekend. His friend Om Malik has a fine remembrance of him here.

Who was Dean? There are so many ways to answer that question. You could call him a text designer, who loved the web and wanted to make it beautiful, long before others thought of making typography an essential part of the online reading experience. You could call him a Canadian, even though he spent a large part of his life in Avignon, South of France, with his partner. A writer whose prose could make your soul ache who stopped writing, because, it didn’t matter. Or you could think of him as like an old-fashioned: sweet, bitter and strong, who left you intoxicated because of his friendship.

Dean was a web person…someone who could do all of the things necessary to make a website — design, write, code — and damn him, he did them all really well. I got to know him through a pair of sites he built, Textism and Cardigan. His writing was clever and pithy and engaging and you wanted to hate him but couldn’t because he was the nicest guy, the sort of person who would invite you to stay at his house even if you’d never even met him before. He also built Favrd, which was a direct inspiration for Stellar.

Weirdly, or maybe not, my two biggest memories of Dean involve food. One of my favorite little pieces of writing by him (or anyone else for that matter), is How to Cook Soup:

First, you need some water. Fuse two hydrogen with one oxygen and repeat until you have enough. While the water is heating, raise some cattle. Pay a man with grim eyes to do the slaughtering, preferably while you are away. Roast the bones, then add to the water. Go away again. Come back once in awhile to skim. When the bones begin to float, lash together into booms and tow up the coast. Reduce. Keep reducing. When you think you have reduced enough, reduce some more. Raise some barley. When the broth coats the back of a spoon and light cannot escape it, you are nearly there. Pause to mop your brow as you harvest the barley. Search in vain for a cloud in the sky. Soak the barley overnight (you will need more water here), then add to the broth. When, out of the blue, you remember the first person you truly loved, the soup is ready. Serve.

In 2002, when Meg and I were staying in France for a month between moves, Dean and his partner invited us down to their house for a couple of days. Like I said, we’d never actually met and he collected us at the train station all the same. We ate like kings while we were there, but the thing I remember most (aside from their house being in the middle of a beautiful vineyard in Avignon) is after lunch one day, he just left the pot with the leftover soup on the stove. (Soup, again! No barley though.) “Oh, you forgot to put the soup away. Do you think it’s still good?” we said. Dean just shrugged and replied gently, so as not imply we were idiot germaphobic Americans for always putting any leftover food into the fridge immediately, that you don’t really need to refrigerate stuff like that, not if you’re going to reheat it and finish it in a day or two. Even now, whenever I have stovetop leftovers, I always just leave them out and think of Dean whenever I do.

I hope you find some peace, my friend.

Update: John Gruber wrote a nice piece about Dean on Daring Fireball. And a few food microbiology experts in my inbox would like you to know that you should not leave your soup out unrefrigerated. I texted this to John last night, and he replied, “Dean would’ve loved that.”

Update: Dean’s obituary in The Globe and Mail.

Renaissance man, trailblazer and autodidact extraordinaire, Dean was a person of dazzling wit, charm and erudition.

Graphic designer, typographer, teacher, web pilgrim, critic, author, Weimaraner tamer, song and dance man, chef… he brought titanic intelligence, insight and humour to everything he did. And whatever room he was in, he was the weather.

He would have been appalled at the poor layout and typography of that page. (thx, gail)

How the NY Times prepared for Castro’s death

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2016

In a peek at how the media sausage is made, the NY Times has documented how the newspaper prepared for the death of Fidel Castro. For instance, they’ve had an advance obituary on hand for him since 1959, which has been revised and rewritten dozens of times before it was finally published over the weekend.

Fidel Castro’s obituary cost us more man/woman hours over the years than any piece we’ve ever run.

Every time there was a rumor of death, we’d pull the obit off the shelf, dust it off, send it back to the writer, Tony DePalma, for any necessary updates, maybe add a little more polish here and there and then send it on to be copy-edited and made ready — yet again — for publication.

Even deep into his 70s and 80s, the Cuban dictator outlived the broadsheet size of the paper and digital media formats.

One piece that didn’t make it into this weekend’s digital coverage was a four-part, 20-plus-minute-long audio slide show on Mr. Castro’s life. The audio slide show — a mostly bygone format intended to marry photos and audio in an age when slow dial-up connections couldn’t handle video — was originally produced around 2006 by Geoff McGhee, Lisa Iaboni and Eric Owles and featured narration from Anthony DePalma, who wrote The Times’s obituary.

With over 80 photos and several audio files, the slide show was managed with a custom-made program called “configurator” that lived on a single, aging Macintosh in a windowless room on the ninth floor of the Times building.

That Mac and the program it housed died 7 years before Castro did.

Update: The Miami Herald also wrote up their preparations for Castro’s death, which they called The Cuba Plan.

I have a bulging file filled with various iterations of The Cuba Plan, before we relied on a shared Google Doc.

The plan changed drastically over the decades, driven by both changes in the industry and politics on the island.

Early in our planning, the document was 60 pages long.

Fidel Castro was still healthy and in power, and we planned for a possible political revolution. We played out the most extreme scenario, espoused by many experts, of unrest in the island, and Cubans on both sides of the straits taking to the seas. We thought carefully about the multiple ways we might get reporters into Cuba, knowing that at the time the government would not permit a Miami Herald journalist on the island. One plan might even have involved renting a boat.

(via @Julisa_Marie)

RIP Seymour Papert

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2016

Seymour Papert, a giant in the worlds of computing and education, died on Sunday aged 88.

Dr. Papert, who was born in South Africa, was one of the leading educational theorists of the last half-century and a co-director of the renowned Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In some circles he was considered the world’s foremost expert on how technology can provide new ways for children to learn.

In the pencil-and-paper world of the 1960s classroom, Dr. Papert envisioned a computing device on every desk and an internetlike environment in which vast amounts of printed material would be available to children. He put his ideas into practice, creating in the late ’60s a computer programming language, called Logo, to teach children how to use computers.

I missed out on using Logo as a kid, but I know many people for whom Logo was their introduction to computers and programming. The MIT Media Lab has a short remembrance of Papert as well.

The oppression of silence

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2016

Elie Wiesel died yesterday in NYC aged 87. He survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald during WWII and later wrote and spoke extensively about the experience, not letting the world forget what happened to so many Jews under Hitler’s boot. For his efforts, Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and this part of his acceptance speech remains as vital as when he spoke it:

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

I am going to be thinking about that paragraph a lot in the next few months, I think.

NY Times-style obituary of Jesus of Nazareth

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2016

Vanity Fair had Sam Roberts, an obituary writer from the NY Times, come up with an obit for Jesus, as it might have been written 2000 or so years ago.

His father was named Joseph, although references to him are scarce after Jesus’s birth. His mother was Miriam, or Mary, and because he was sometimes referred to as “Mary’s son,” questions had been raised about his paternity.

He is believed to have been the eldest of at least six siblings, including four brothers-James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon-and several sisters. He never married-unusual for a man of his age, but not surprising for a Jew with an apocalyptic vision.

The “about 33” in reference to his age is a nice touch.

Alan Rickman, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2016

In this short video (oh just be patient and watch the whole damn thing), Alan Rickman demonstrates how I feel this morning that he has died of cancer at the age of 69. (Same age and affliction as Bowie, you’ll note.)

That Rickman never won an Oscar (he did receive a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a Bafta and many more) became a perennial topic in interviews but did not seem to trouble the actor himself. “Parts win prizes, not actors,” he said in 2008. It was the wider worth of his art to which Rickman remained committed, saying that he found it easier to treat the work seriously if he could look upon himself with levity.

“Actors are agents of change,” he said. “A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”

I loved Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and as Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest, but I’ll remember his turn as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films the most. Among several fantastic actors in that series, Rickman’s performance was arguably the best. Many characters in Potter struggled between the good and not-so-good sides of themselves (including Harry and Dumbledore) but none of them carried that battle off as well as Rickman’s Snape.

RIP David Bowie, 1947-2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2016

Bowie Hair

David Bowie died Sunday from cancer. Dave Pell at Nextdraft has a nice roundup of links, writing:

In the NYT obituary, Jon Pareles writes: “Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut.” Maybe that’s why there is such an outpouring of emotion at the news of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69. Everyone feels like an outsider and Bowie made being an outsider feel more like being ahead of the curve. Today, there are people who are famous for nothing. David Bowie was famous for everything.

Bowie was also quite keen on the Internet:

Quartz calls him a tech visionary, and there’s this from a 1999 Rolling Stone article: “David Bowie has pulled another cyber-coup by becoming the first major-label artist to sell a complete album online in download form.”

He didn’t get the future exactly right, but authorship and intellectual property has been “in for such a bashing” lately and music sales are down down down:

“Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he added. “So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”

Spotify is the running water and YouTube is the electricity. (Illustration by Helen Green.)

Obituary for an infamous madam

posted by Susannah Breslin   Dec 24, 2015

madame-claude.jpg

One of the world’s most famous madams, Madame Claude (real name: Fernande Grudet), has died at 92, leaving behind a colorful obituary in which it’s hard to discern what the real story was behind the mere maquerelle to the world’s most powerful men.

In 1975, the French tax authorities, who had begun taking an interest in Ms. Grudet’s business, estimated that she was taking in 100,000 to 140,000 francs a month. Her clients, whom she called “friends,” were a catalog of the rich and famous.

The soul of discretion in her heyday, Ms. Grudet became a heavy name-dropper when the time came to tell her life story, which she did in two memoirs: “Allo Oui, or the Memoirs of Madame Claude” (1975), written with Jacques Quoirez, the brother of her good friend Francoise Sagan and one of her testers; and “Madam,” published in 1994 under the name Claude Grudet.

By her account, the “friends” included John F. Kennedy, the shah of Iran, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Gianni Agnelli, Moshe Dayan, Marc Chagall, Rex Harrison and King Hussein of Jordan, who, she said, once told a Claude girl: “You and I are in the same business. We have to smile even when we don’t feel like it.”

Only two people born in the 1800s are still alive today

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2015

The two oldest living people in the world, American Susannah Mushatt Jones and Italian Emma Morano-Martinuzzi, were both born in 1899, making them the last living human links to the 1800s. The USA Today profiled both women back in June. Here are the oldest people in the world right now:

Susannah Mushatt Jones; 6 July 1899; 116 years, 134 days
Emma Morano-Martinuzzi; 29 November 1899; 115 years, 353 days
Violet Brown; 10 March 1900; 115 years, 252 days
Nabi Tajima; 4 August 1900; 115 years, 105 days
Kiyoko Ishiguro; 4 March 1901; 114 years, 258 days

Since it includes the entire year of 1900, the 19th century has four total survivors. A couple more years and our living connection to that era will be gone.

Update: Susannah Mushatt Jones died in May 2016, leaving Emma Morano-Martinuzzi as the oldest living person as well as the last person alive who was born in the 1800s.

Update: The NY Times, reporting on Jones’ death, contains a small error (italics mine):

Mr. Young said Ms. Jones’s presumed successor is a 116-year-old woman from Italy named Emma Morano. Ms. Morano, who was born in November 1899, is the last person alive who is verified to have been born in the 19th century. The next-oldest American, Mr. Young said, is “only 113.”

Morano-Martinuzzi is indeed the last verified person to be born before 1900, but there are two others (Violet Brown and Nabi Tajima) who were born in the 19th century. Since the first century AD began on Jan 1, 1 (and not 0) and ended on Dec 31, 100, each subsequent century follows the same pattern. So the 19th century includes the year 1900 (but “the 1800s” do not). If you’re interested enough to read further, Stephen J. Gould wrote a whole book about this issue back in 1997 called Questioning the Millennium. Anyway, a little pedantry to annoy your loved ones with.

Update: Emma Morano died on April 15, 2017, aged 117 years, 137 days. She was the last documented human born in the 1800s still alive and the fifth oldest person ever.

She cooked for herself until she was 112, usually pasta to which she added raw ground beef. Until she was 115, she did not have live-in caregivers, and she laid out a place setting for herself at her small kitchen table at every meal.

That leaves Violet Brown and Nabi Tajima as the last two living humans born in the 19th century.

Update: And we’re down to one last living link to the 19th century…Violet Brown has died at 117 years old.

In an interview with the Jamaican Observer to celebrate her 110th birthday, she said her secrets to living to such an old age were eating cows feet, not drinking rum and reading the bible.

“Really and truly, when people ask what me eat and drink to live so long, I say to them that I eat everything, except pork and chicken, and I don’t drink rum and them things,” she said.

(via @robertsharp59)

Oliver Sacks, human treasure, 1933-2015

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks was a champion of one of humankind’s most admirable qualities: Curiosity. The neurologist and writer died on Monday. He wrote beautifully about his impending death in a piece published a couple weeks ago:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life…

Longform has a collection of links to some of Sacks’ most popular essays.

MoMA adds the LGBT rainbow flag to their collection

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2015

MoMA Rainbow Flag

MoMA has announced that they’ve acquired the Rainbow Flag for their permanent collection. The flag has been a symbol of the LGBT community around the world since its creation in 1978. As part of the acquisition, MoMA Curatorial Assistant Michelle Millar Fisher interviewed the man who designed the flag, artist Gilbert Baker.

And I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a just logo — it functions in so many different ways. I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. [The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word “Gay,” and it doesn’t say “the United States” on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.

So the American flag was my introduction into that great big world of vexilography. But I didn’t really know that much about it. I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco. I knew how to sew. I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis — it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people]. It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had…

Update: Baker died at his home on March 30, 2017. He was 65 years old.

Mr. Baker replicated his flag dozens of times over the years. He crafted a mile-long banner to parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and he sent flags around the world in support of gay rights protests. He sewed the rainbow flag used in the movie “Milk,” along with a new flag for this year’s television miniseries “When We Rise.”

“I remember the most fabulous queen I’d ever seen in my life shows up in sequins with a sewing machine in his arms, and he insisted on creating that flag exactly the same way he’d created it then,” said Dustin Lance Black, who wrote “Milk” and wrote and directed “When We Rise,” which was based on Jones’ memoir of the same name.

Massimo Vignelli, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2014

Massimo Vignelli at his desk

A giant in the world of design, Massimo Vignelli, passed away this morning at the age of 83. Michael Bierut, who worked for Vignelli, has a nice remembrance of him.

Today there is an entire building in Rochester, New York, dedicated to preserving the Vignelli legacy. But in those days, it seemed to me that the whole city of New York was a permanent Vignelli exhibition. To get to the office, I rode in a subway with Vignelli-designed signage, shared the sidewalk with people holding Vignelli-designed Bloomingdale’s shopping bags, walked by St. Peter’s Church with its Vignelli-designed pipe organ visible through the window. At Vignelli Associates, at 23 years old, I felt I was at the center of the universe.

RIP, Kumar Pallana

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2013

Kumar Pallana, one of Wes Anderson’s cast of regulars, has died at age 94. Pallana appears as Kumar in Bottle Rocket, Mr. Littlejeans in Rushmore, and as Pagoda in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Pallana led a massively interesting life before hitting the big screen at nearly 80. Born in colonial India, he lived all around the world, and first made a name for himself as an entertainer in America in the 1950s. Back then he was known as Kumar Of India, and his specialty was spinning plates-he even appeared on Captain Kangaroo in 1961. (Other feats included magic, balancing, swordplay, and juggling-you can see him do a handstand in The Royal Tenenbaums.)

Mad Jack Churchill

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2013

Every few months on the web, a new candidate emerges for the Bad-Ass Hall of Fame, a collection of amazing people who lived large, walked their own path, and left their mark on history with flair. Today’s candidate is Mad Jack Churchill, a British Commando leader during World War II who died in 1996. Churchill fought in the war armed with a bow & arrows, a broadsword, and occasionally even bagpipes. Here’s a photo of him (far right) during a training exercise in Scotland, sword in hand as he storms the beach:

Mad Jack Churchill

What a sight he must have been, leading charges branishing a sword and sucking on his pipes. Churchill even killed a German soldier in France with an arrow, recording the only known kill by bow in the war for the British. From a profile in WWII History magazine:

During the BEF’s fighting retreat, Churchill remained aggressive, unwilling to give up a yard of ground while extracting the maximum cost from the enemy. He was especially fond of raids and counterattacks, leading small groups of picked soldiers against the advancing Germans. He presented a strange, almost medieval figure at the head of his men, carrying not only his war bow and arrows, but his sword as well.

As befitted his love of things Scottish, Churchill carried the basket-hilted claymore (technically a claybeg, the true claymore being an enormous two-handed sword). Later on, asked by a general who awarded him a decoration why he carried a sword in action, Churchill is said to have answered: “In my opinion, sir, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.”

The war-diary of 4th Infantry Brigade, to which Churchill’s battalion belonged, commented on this extraordinary figure. “One of the most reassuring sights of the embarkation [from Dunkirk] was the sight of Captain Churchill passing down the beach with his bows and arrows. His high example and his great work … were a great help to the 4th Infantry Brigade.”

And this bit sounds totally made up:

Churchill himself was far in front of his troopers. Sword in hand, accompanied only by a corporal named Ruffell, he advanced into the town itself. Undiscovered by the enemy, he and Ruffell heard German soldiers digging in all around them in the gloom. The glow of a cigarette in the darkness told them the location of a German sentry post. What followed, even Churchill later admitted, was “a bit Errol Flynn-ish.”

The first German sentry post, manned by two men, was taken in silence. Churchill, his sword blade gleaming in the night, appeared like a demon from the darkness, ordered “haende hoch!” and got results. He gave one German prisoner to Ruffell, then slipped his revolver lanyard around the second sentry’s neck and led him off to make the rounds of the other guards. Each post, lulled into a sense of security by the voice of their captive comrade, surrendered to this fearsome apparition with the ferocious mustache and the naked sword.

Altogether, Churchill and Corporal Ruffell collected 42 prisoners, complete with their personal weapons and a mortar they were manning in the village. Churchill and his claymore took the surrender of ten men in a bunch around the mortar. He and his NCO then marched the whole lot back into the British lines.

As Churchill himself described the event, it all sounded rather routine: “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons; it weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…”

Crazy! After the war, he took up boat refurbishing, river surfing, and freaking out train passengers:

In his last job he would sometimes stand up on a train journey from London to his home, open the window and hurl out his briefcase, then calmly resume his seat. Fellow passengers looked on aghast, unaware that he had flung the briefcase into his own back garden.

Rest in peace, Mad Jack. (via today i found out)

Seamus Heaney, RIP

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 30, 2013

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74. The Guardian has a brief account of his life; The Telegraph grapples more directly with the work There’s also his long, insightful interview with The Paris Review, from 1997.
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“Heaney’s volumes make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain,” the BBC wrote in 2007, calling him “arguably, the English language’s greatest living bard.”

One of his best-known poems, “Digging,” compares his trade to that of his father and grandfather, who were farmers and cattle-raisers. These are its last two stanzas:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

One of Heaney’s great later achievements was his translation of Beowulf, which I bought and read along with his Selected Poems when I was in college.

Heaney’s take on the Anglo-Saxon most reminds me of the first of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a weird mix of old epic and contemporary free-verse imagery and meters, a translation of a translation of Homer that begins “And then” and ends “So that:”

When Swinburne died, W.B. Yeats is said to have told his sister, “Now I am King of the Cats.” When Robert Frost died, John Berryman asked, “who’s number one?”

I note this not to pose the question “who’s number one?” now that Heaney has died, but to observe that just as champion boxers and sprinters often have outsized competitive personalities that seem like caricatures compared to other athletes, even among writers, and even when they resist, as Heaney did, being drawn into literary feuds or political debate, great poets are often magnificent and terrible and troubling and glorious and weird.

Douglas Engelbart, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2013

Douglas Engelbart died at his home in California yesterday at the age of 88. Engelbart invented the mouse, among other things. In 1968, Engelbart gave what was later called The Mother of All Demos, in which he demonstrated “the computer mouse, video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time editor”.

Not bad for a single demo. Truly one of the giants of our age.

Update: Bret Victor urges us to remember Engelbart not for the technology he created but for his vision of how people could collaborate and create together using technology.

The least important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What did he build?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to admire him, to stand in awe his achievements, to worship him as a hero. But worship isn’t useful to anyone. Not you, not him.

The most important question you can ask about Engelbart is, “What world was he trying to create?” By asking that question, you put yourself in a position to create that world yourself.

(thx, andy)

Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence As ‘A Triumph’

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2013

From the Onion:

Calling the overall human experience “poignant,” “thought-provoking,” and a “complete tour de force,” film critic Roger Ebert praised existence Thursday as “an audacious and thrilling triumph.”

Roger Ebert, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2013

Earlier today, I linked to a post by Roger Ebert announcing his leave of presence. The Chicago Sun-Times has announced that Ebert died today at 70.

Ebert, 70, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, and who was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic, died Thursday in Chicago. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.

He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. “No point in denying it,” he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.

Always technically savvy - he was an early investor in Google - Ebert let the Internet be his voice. His rogerebert.com had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 “Person of the Year” from the Webby Awards, which noted that “his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.” His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers.

Ebert was both widely popular and professionally respected. He not only won a Pulitzer Prize - the first film critic to do so - but his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, among the movie stars he wrote about so well for so long. His reviews were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide.

Rest in peace, Roger. And fuck cancer.

Lester Bangs’ obituary for Elvis Presley

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2013

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a piece on the singer for the Village Voice.

I got taken too the one time I saw Elvis, but in a totally different way. It was the autumn of 1971, and two tickets to an Elvis show turned up at the offices of Creem magazine, where I was then employed. It was decided that those staff members who had never had the privilege of witnessing Elvis should get the tickets, which was how me and art director Charlie Auringer ended up in nearly the front row of the biggest arena in Detroit. Earlier Charlie had said, “Do you realize how much we could get if we sold these fucking things?” I didn’t, but how precious they were became totally clear the instant Elvis sauntered onto the stage. He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, whom I saw as far back as 1964 and twice in ‘65, never even came close.

(via @gavinpurcell)

Ed Koch, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2013

Former three-term mayor of NYC Ed Koch died this morning at 88. Worth reading are obituaries by Robert McFadden in the NY Times:

Mr. Koch’s 12-year mayoralty encompassed the fiscal austerity of the late 1970s and the racial conflicts and municipal corruption scandals of the 1980s, an era of almost continuous discord that found Mr. Koch at the vortex of a maelstrom day after day.

But out among the people or facing a news media circus in the Blue Room at City Hall, he was a feisty, slippery egoist who could not be pinned down by questioners and who could outtalk anybody in the authentic voice of New York: as opinionated as a Flatbush cabby, as loud as the scrums on 42nd Street, as pugnacious as a West Side reform Democrat mother.

“I’m the sort of person who will never get ulcers,” the mayor - eyebrows devilishly up, grinning wickedly at his own wit - enlightened the reporters at his $475 rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village on Inauguration Day in 1978. “Why? Because I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.”

and Ben Smith at Buzzfeed:

Koch, New York City’s dominant political figure of the 1980s and the architect of what remains its governing political coalition, stayed politically relevant through his long political twilight, courted aggressively by figures including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for his role as a proxy for pro-Israel Democrats willing, but not eager, to cross party lines.

But Koch’s later years of quips, movie reviews, and presidential politics remain secondary to his central legacy, which is in New York’s City Hall. Tall and gangly with a domed, bald head and a knowing smile, Koch was New York’s mayor and its mascot from 1978 to 1989. Through three terms, he repeated one question like a mantra: “How’m I doing?” At first, the answer was clear to observers who had watched the city slide toward bankruptcy: exceptionally well. Koch managed New York back from the brink, drove hard bargains with municipal unions, cut jobs where he had to and reduced taxes where he could. He presided over a boom in Manhattan, and spent his new revenues on renewing the south Bronx.

But as the Koch administration moved its third term, the mayor lost his momentum. As Wall Street boomed in the 1980s, Koch took advantage of the new revenues to double New York City’s budget and offer tax breaks to real estate developers. But the largesse couldn’t buy him friends: he clashed with black leaders and his old allies among Manhattan’s liberal democrats. New York became famous for its racial tensions and rising crime. He courted the Democratic Party bosses of Queens and the Bronx only to be tarnished by the corruption scandals that surrounded them.

Here’s the trailer for Koch, a documentary on the former mayor that coincidentally opens today in limited release:

Aaron Swartz, rest in peace

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2013

According to his uncle, internet hacker and activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday. He was 26 years old.

The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded DemandProgress.org, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”

John Gruber has a short remembrance:

He had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken.

And Cory Doctorow has a longer tribute to his friend at Boing Boing:

I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.

I didn’t know Aaron very well, but this is just terrible. My thoughts are with his friends and family.

Update: A powerful post from Larry Lessig, blasting the prosecutor for his overzealous pursuit of the US government’s case against Swartz.

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” - with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Neil Armstrong, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong RIP

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, died today at the age of 82.

Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA’s forerunner and an astronaut, Mr. Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer,” he said in February 2000 in one a rare public appearance. “And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

A sad day; Armstrong was one of my few heroes. In my eyes, Armstrong safely guiding the LEM to the surface of the Moon, at times by the seat of his pants, is among the most impressive and important things ever done by a human being.

RIP DeAndre McCullough

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2012

David Simon remembers his friend DeAndre McCullough, who died last week. You might remember him as Lamar (Brother Mouzone’s assistant) from The Wire and was also profiled by Simon and Edward Burns in The Corner.

At fifteen, he was selling drugs on the corners of Fayette Street, but that doesn’t begin to explain who he was. For the boys of Franklin Square — too many of them at any rate — slinging was little more than an adolescent adventure, an inevitable right of passage. And whatever sinister vision you might conjure of a street corner drug trafficker, try to remember that a fifteen-year-old slinger is, well, fifteen years old.

He was funny. He could step back from himself and mock his own stances — “hard work,” he would say when I would catch him on a drug corner, “hard work being a black man in America.” And then he would catch my eye and laugh knowingly at his presumption. His imitations of white-authority voices — social workers, police officers, juvenile masters, teachers, reporters — were never less than pinpoint, playful savagery. The price of being a white man on Fayette Street and getting to know DeAndre McCullough was to have your from-the-other-America pontifications pulled and scalpeled apart by a manchild with an uncanny ear for hypocrisy and cant.

(via @mrgan)

Chris Marker, RIP

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 30, 2012

Chris Marker, best known as a filmmaker and for his film La jetée, has died aged 91.

Marker’s creative use of sound, images and text in his poetic, political and philosophical documentaries made him one of the most inventive of film-makers. They looked forward to what is called “the new documentary”, but also looked back to the literary essay in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne. Marker’s interests lay in transitional societies - “life in the process of becoming history,” as he put it. How do various cultures perceive and sustain themselves and each other in the increasingly intermingled modern world?

La jetée is available in its 28-minute entirety on YouTube and is well worth watching.