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kottke.org posts about lists

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”:

The Best Books of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2018

Best Books 2018

2018 was the year that tsundoku entered our cultural vocabulary. It’s a Japanese word that doesn’t translate cleanly into English but it basically means you buy books and let them pile up unread. The end-of-the-year book lists coming out right now won’t help any of us with our tsundoku problems, but there are worse things in life than having too many books around. I took at look at a bunch of these lists and picked out some of the best book recommendations for 2018 from book editors, voracious readers, and retailers. Let’s dig in.

The NY Times published three different lists: The 10 Best Books of 2018 (as chosen by the editors of the Times Book Review), the 100 Notable Books of 2018, and the Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and David Blight’s Frederick Douglass both appear on these lists and I’ve seen them on many other lists as well.

I am delighted to see Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ memoir Small Fry on the Times’ top 10 list as well. I’m gonna have more to say about this in an upcoming post, but in an era where we’re re-evaluating the importance of the personal conduct and personalities of the people running massive tech and media companies, this book did not get the attention it deserved, particularly in the tech press.

Tyler Cowen, who samples upwards of 1800 books every year, has led me to many of my favorite reads over the years. He has two lists this year: the best non-fiction books of 2018 and the best fiction of 2018. His top fiction pick overall is Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, which I have been banging on about for several months as well. Another of his fiction picks is Circe by Madeline Miller, which is another contemporary reinterpretation of Greek mythology from the perspective of a woman. I’m 3/4s of the way through Circe right now and I might like it even more than The Odyssey. Among the nonfiction picks, I can testify to the greatness of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet (my review is here and the book’s topic also featured in Avengers: Infinity War) and am most interested in checking out W. J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History, having watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on it earlier this year.

Amazon’s editors selected Tara Westover’s Educated as their top book of the year. Also on the list is Tommy Orange’s There There, which appears on many other lists as well. Amazon’s This Year in Books is also worth a look…it is definitely not the critic’s view of what we read: the most-sold fiction book was Ready Player One and the most-sold nonfiction book was Michael Wolf’s book about Trump, Fire and Fury.

NPR’s 2018 Book Concierge contains hundreds of books in more than two dozen categories. The Rather Short filter appeals to me and I found on there Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk and Denis Johnson’s The Largess of the Sea Maiden.

Barbara Kiser, books columnist for Nature, picked The Best Science Books of 2018. I noticed one of her selections on a few other lists as well: The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen.

Eater calls Anita Lo’s Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One the best cookbook of the year. And from Book Riot’s The 25 Best Cookbooks of 2018 To Get You In The Kitchen, here’s Snoop Dogg’s cookbook From Crook to Cook. Bow wow wow, yummy yum.

For The Guardian’s Best Books of 2018, a group of authors including Hilary Mantel, Chris Ware, and Yuval Noah Harari share their top picks of the year. Mantel, the author of an excellent pair of books on Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) recommends Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Cromwell, who was Henry the VIII’s chief minister, a key figure of the English Reformation. Harari recommends Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, which also features on a number of other lists. Oh, and Yotam Ottolenghi highlights Lateral Cooking by Niki Segnit, a cookbook “designed to help creative cooks develop their own recipes”.

The National Book Award for fiction went to The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, the nonfiction award went to The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey Stewart, and the poetry award went to Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency. Check out the other winners and runners-up here. The Man Booker Prize went to Anna Burns for her novel Milkman.

Bill Gates’ 2018 list is pretty eclectic, with books about meditation and military AI. A more standard pick for him is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.

Update: Bloomberg asked “dozens of business leaders” about the best book they read this year. The top result was The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Most of the list is nonfiction (only three novels were chosen), which is a shame. Last month when Erika Hall asked: “If you could make tech CEOs read one book, what is it?”, I answered:

Something — anything! — fictional. Something as far away from Science Tells You How To Business Better by Dr. M.B.A. Smith as you can get.

Update: On Buzzfeed’s list of The Best Nonfiction Books of 2018 is Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. And Slate reviewed the 10 Best Audiobooks of 2018, including Kiese Laymon’s Heavy.

52 Things Learned in 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2018

Consultant Tom Whitwell is back this year with 52 things he learned in 2018.

4. 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]

13. US nuclear testing between the 1940s and 1970s may have killed as many Americans (from radioactive pollution) as were killed by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Tim Fernholz]

26. Men who’ve experienced earthquakes are willing to take more risks and gamble more. Women show no such effect. [Chie Hanaoka & co]

51. Vanilla pods now cost $500/kg, roughly the same as silver. Madagascan farmers have briefly become vanillionaires, causing chaos in areas where the nearest bank might be a day’s walk away. [Annah Zhu]

Check out his lists from 2017 and 2016.

The Top 25 Films of 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2018

My favorite end-of-the-year review of movies is always David Ehrlich’s video countdown of the top 25 best films. In this year’s review, I was surprised to see Annihilation on the list (I thought it was ok?) and also delighted by the high ranking of Paddington 2. Eighth Grade, The Favourite, and First Reformed all deservedly made the list, along with Mission: Impossible - Fallout, which I really liked. Would have liked to have seen Black Panther on there though.

Ehrlich shared the best moment from each of the 25 movies at Indiewire.

The 100 Best Pens

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2018

I’m certain the pen community has a lot to say about this New York Magazine list of the 100 best pens, but for the rest of us just looking for something good to write with, it appears like a solid place to start. Tip: skip right to the top 20…no need to buy a pen that’s 63rd best.

My current go-to pen, the Zebra F-301, is not on the list but was the first ballpoint or rollerball pen I found that I didn’t totally ruin because I was left-handed. Ballpoint pens are meant to be pulled over the paper so that the tiny ball rolls easily, dispensing ink along the way, which right-handers do naturally as they write from left to right. But lefties often push the pen across the paper, going against the grain…which eventually gums up the works and renders the pen useless. This list didn’t consider the durability of pens, especially under the brutal treatment of the left-handed, but I still might give the runner-up pen a shot: OHTO Horizon Needle Point Knock.

Adult Nonfiction Adapted for Younger Readers

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2018

Younger Readers

Lately I’ve been noticing that more and more authors seem to be adapting their adult nonfiction books for younger readers (typically for the middle grade set, ages 8-12). The young readers editions are shorter and often contain more illustrations, photos, graphs, and charts than their adult counterparts, distilling the story and information down into what would be in the movie versions of these books. Here are some of the young readers’ editions I’ve run across.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Readers Edition by Michael Pollan. “This young readers’ adaptation of Pollan’s famous food-chain exploration encourages kids to consider the personal and global health implications of their food choices.”

A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror by Howard Zinn (adapted by Rebecca Stefoff). “Zinn in the volumes of A Young People’s History of the United States presents a radical new way of understanding America’s history. In so doing, he reminds readers that America’s true greatness is shaped by our dissident voices, not our military generals.”

Notorious RBG Young Readers’ Edition: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, “mixes pop culture, humor, and expert analysis for a remarkable account of the indomitable Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Heroine. Trailblazer. Pioneer.”

Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles Mann. “A companion book for young readers based on 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the groundbreaking bestseller by Charles C. Mann.” See also Mann’s 1493 for Young People: From Columbus’s Voyage to Globalization.

Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly, “the powerful story of four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in our space program”.

On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition by Charles Darwin (adapted by Rebecca Stefoff). “Meticulously curated to honor Darwin’s original text, this compelling edition also provides contemporary insight, photographs, illustrations, and more.” (Having tried to read the original text once, I might recommend this version for everyone who isn’t a biologist.)

Code Girls: The True Story of the American Women Who Secretly Broke Codes in World War II (Young Readers Edition) by Liza Mundy. “Due to the top secret nature of their accomplishments, these women have never been able to talk about their story — until now.”

I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai. “In this Young Readers Edition of her bestselling memoir, which has been reimagined specifically for a younger audience and includes exclusive photos and material, we hear firsthand the remarkable story of a girl who knew from a young age that she wanted to change the world — and did.”

Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive by Laura Hillenbrand. “Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would respond to desperation with ingenuity, suffering with hope and humor, brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would hang on the fraying wire of his will.”

How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. “This adaptation of his adult book and popular PBS series explores the fascinating and interconnected stories of innovations — like clean drinking water and electricity — that changed the way people live.”

25 Reasons to Keep on Making Stuff in Times of Crisis

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2018

In an epic GIF-laden thread on Twitter, author Chuck Wendig lays out “25 REASONS TO KEEP ON MAKING STUFF IN THIS TIME OF RAMPANT ASSHOLERY”.

1. Because you need to escape the fuckery, and what you make is a door. A book, a piece of art, even an excellent meal — it’s a doorway out. It’s the tunnel dug out behind the Rita Hayworth poster in your prison cell.

3. Because creation is #resistance. Making things is additive. And in a subtractive time such as this, you must balance the void with its opposite. That is an act of defiance. And we need more defiance.

9. Because it’s therapy. It’s therapy first for you, and if you share it, eventually for us, too.

20. Because when you make stuff, you improve yourself. And we need you in fighting shape. YOU MUST BE A WHETTED BLADE READY TO SLICE THROUGH SHENANIGANS, CHICANERY, AND GARBAGE.

24. Because art is beauty. Stories, poetry, craftwork, food, it’s all beautiful and this ugly world needs a dollop of beauty. There is beauty in both the act and the result of making stuff. So kick the shitstorm out of the sky with an aggressive rainbow counterattack.

See also Austin Kleon’s upcoming book Keep Going (and related talk) and How to Be Productive in Terrible Times.

The Ubiquitous Collectivism that Enables America’s Fierce Individualism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2018

Forbes recently released their 2019 “30 Under 30” list of “the brashest entrepreneurs across the United States and Canada” who are also under 30 years old. A persistent criticism of the list is that many of the people on it are there because of family or other social advantages. As Helen Rosner tweeted of last year’s list:

My take is: all 30 Under 30 lists should include disclosure of parental assets

In a piece for Vox, Aditi Juneja, creator of the Resistance Manual and who was on the 30 Under 30 list last year, writes that Forbes does ask finalists a few questions about their background and finances but also notes they don’t publish those results. Juneja goes on to assert that no one in America is entirely self-made:

Most of us receive government support, for one thing. When asked, 71 percent of Americans say that they are part of a household that has used one of the six most commonly known government benefits — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, or unemployment benefits.

And many people who benefit from government largesse fail to realize it: Sixty percent of Americans who claim the mortgage-interest deduction, which applies to homeowners, say they have never used a government program. If you’ve driven on public roads, gone to public school, or used the postal service as part of your business — well, we all rely on collective infrastructure to get ahead.

And then she lists some of the ways in which she has specifically benefitted from things like government programs, having what sounds like a stable home environment, and her parents having sufficient income to save money for her higher education.

I went to public schools through eighth grade. My parents were able to save for some of my college costs through a plan that provides tax relief for those savings. I stayed on my parent’s health insurance until I was 26 under the Affordable Care Act. I have received the earned income tax credit, targeted at those with low or moderate income. I took out federal student loans to go to law school.

Juneja’s piece reminds me of this old post about how conservatives often gloss over all of the things that the government does for its citizens:

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issed by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

And also of mayor Pete Buttigieg’s idea of a more progressive definition of freedom:

Or think about the idea of family, in the context of everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about family values as a theme, or a wedge — but what’s it actually like to have a family? Your family does better if you get a fair wage, if there’s good public education, if there’s good health care when you need it. These things intuitively make sense, but we’re out of practice talking about them.

I also think we need to talk about a different kind of patriotism: a fidelity to American greatness in its truest sense. You think about this as a local official, of course, but a truly great country is made of great communities. What makes a country great isn’t chauvinism. It’s the kinds of lives you enable people to lead. I think about wastewater management as freedom. If a resident of our city doesn’t have to give it a second thought, she’s freer.

Lists like 30 Under 30 reinforce the idea of American individualism at the expense of the deep spirit & practice of collectivism that pervades daily American life. America’s fierce individuals need each other. Let’s celebrate and enable that.

How AI Agents Cheat

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

This spreadsheet lists a number of ways in which AI agents “cheat” in order to accomplish tasks or get higher scores instead of doing what their human programmers actually want them to. A few examples from the list:

Neural nets evolved to classify edible and poisonous mushrooms took advantage of the data being presented in alternating order, and didn’t actually learn any features of the input images.

In an artificial life simulation where survival required energy but giving birth had no energy cost, one species evolved a sedentary lifestyle that consisted mostly of mating in order to produce new children which could be eaten (or used as mates to produce more edible children).

Agent kills itself at the end of level 1 to avoid losing in level 2.

AI trained to classify skin lesions as potentially cancerous learns that lesions photographed next to a ruler are more likely to be malignant.

That second item is a doozy! Philosopher Nick Bostrom has warned of the dangers of superintelligent agents that exploit human error in programming them, describing a possible future where an innocent paperclip-making machine destroys the universe.

The “paperclip maximiser” is a thought experiment proposed by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University. Imagine an artificial intelligence, he says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”.

But some of this is The Lebowski Theorem of machine superintelligence in action. These agents didn’t necessarily hack their reward functions but they did take a far easiest path to their goals, e.g. the Tetris playing bot that “paused the game indefinitely to avoid losing”.

Update: A program that trained on a set of aerial photographs was asked to generate a map and then an aerial reconstruction of a previously unseen photograph. The reconstruction matched the photograph a little too closely…and it turned out that the program was hiding information about the photo in the map (kind of like in Magic Eye puzzles).

We claim that CycleGAN is learning an encoding scheme in which it “hides” information about the aerial photograph x within the generated map Fx. This strategy is not as surprising as it seems at first glance, since it is impossible for a CycleGAN model to learn a perfect one-to-one correspondence between aerial photographs and maps, when a single map can correspond to a vast number of aerial photos, differing for example in rooftop color or tree location.

Wes Anderson’s Movies, Ranked

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2018

Rushmore List

For NME, Sophie Charara ranks Wes Anderson’s nine feature films in order of greatness. Her top 3 picks are correct, I think, but I’d shift the order a little. Here’s my list, which is a tiny bit objective but mostly really really subjective.

1. Rushmore
2. The Royal Tenenbaums
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Fantastic Mr Fox
5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
6. Isle of Dogs
7. Bottle Rocket
8. Moonrise Kingdom
9. The Darjeeling Limited

Honestly, 4-8 could have gone in any order for me and The Darjeeling Limited is not that far off.

A List of the 100 Most Important Books of the 21st Century (So Far)

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2018

After consulting dozens of authors, critics, and voracious readers, Vulture has come up with A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon, aka a list of the 100 most important books of the 21st century (so far).

Any project like this is arbitrary, and ours is no exception. But the time frame is not quite as random as it may seem. The aughts and teens represent a fairly coherent cultural period, stretching from the eerie decadence of pre-9/11 America to the presidency of Donald Trump. This mini-era packed in the political, social, and cultural shifts of the average century, while following the arc of an epic narrative (perhaps a tragedy, though we pray for a happier sequel).

The top vote-getter is somewhat surprising: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. Also represented high on the list are The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Novels, and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. I spotted a bunch of my other favorites on the list as well: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, My Struggle: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and The Harry Potter books. You can imagine the rest of the list as well: Roth, Franzen, Jesmyn Ward, Didion, Atwood, Marlon James, etc.

Would love to see a similar non-fiction list. Off the top of my head: The Warmth of Other Suns, 1491, Sapiens, The Emperor of All Maladies, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, The Black Swan, The Sixth Extinction, The Devil in the White City, Between the World and Me, and Moneyball would all deserve consideration.

Every US President at their worst

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2018

On Twitter, @InstantSunrise wrote an entertaining thread “in which I drag every single US president in order”. She starts off with The Founding Fathers:

Thomas Jefferson: Motherfucker owned slaves, and was a rapist, committed forced removal against Native Americans. Started an actual war in North Africa and a trade war with Britain that would eventually escalate into an actual war.

Andrew Jackson is deservedly dragged more than most:

Ohhhhhh my god. This absolute motherfucker garbage president. Literally committed genocide. Owned slaves, gave govt. jobs to people who gave him money. Decided that a central bank was a bad idea and closed it in 1837, breaking the entire economy.

Teddy Roosevelt gets a B/B-:

Did some good busting trusts and monopolies with his big dick energy. Discovered that if you bait the media with “access” they’ll eat up whatever shit you say. Had a lot of policies that were racist as shit, like banning all Japanese ppl from entering the US.

Woodrow Wilson gets a Jackson-esque OMG:

Ohhhhhh my god. Dude was like super fucking racist. So racist that his election emboldened racists enough where they literally revived the KKK. His AG, Palmer, loved to deport leftists for no reason. There’s so much shit about Wilson I can’t fit it into 280 chars.

I think she could have gone in on Nixon a bit harder (for creating the war on drugs for example):

Created the southern strategy and stoked racial tensions. Sabotaged the peace negotiations for Vietnam in order to get elected, then prolonged the war. Bombed the shit out of Laos and Cambodia for no real reason. Also watergate.

Only Lincoln and John Quincy Adams get off relatively unscathed.

Barack Obama’s end-of-summer reading list for 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

Earlier this year, before a trip to Africa, President Obama shared a recommended reading list for this summer heavy on African authors.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the U.S. and the UK, raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.

With the end of summer approaching (**heavy sobbing**), Obama posted a list of books he’s personally been reading over the past few months.

Tara Westover’s Educated is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.

Set after WWII, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a meditation on the lingering effects of war on family.

With the recent passing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread A House for Mr Biswas, the Nobel Prize winner’s first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.

The 23 best films of the 2000s

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2018

The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday proposes a list of movies made in the 2000s that should be added to the canon of the best films ever made. Many of my favorites are on there — The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fog of War, Spirited Away, There Will Be Blood, Children of Men.

Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of the P.D. James novel evinced the perfect balance of technical prowess, propulsive storytelling, complex character development and timeliness when it was released in 2006. But its depiction of a dystopian near-future — what we ruefully now call the present — has proved to be not just visionary but prophetic. Its predictive value aside, it stands as a flawless movie — a masterwork of cinematic values at their purest, with each frame delivering emotion and information in equally compelling measure.

Dunkirk, from just last year, is a bold inclusion…I love that movie but it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up. You can compare this list with two older lists: Dissolve’s and BBC Culture’s.

Update: The NY Times did a similar list last year, with There Will Be Blood and Spirited Away taking the #1 and #2 spots. (thx, paul)

From Errol Morris, a list of 10 things you should know about truth & photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

In 2011, writer and filmmaker Errol Morris summarized the main points in Believing Is Seeing, his book on the nature of truth, belief, and reality in photography with a series of tweets.

1. All photographs are posed.

2. The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)

3. Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)

4. False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.

5. There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)

6. Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.

7. Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they believe about a photograph.

8. The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.

9. All photographs are posed but never in the same way.

10. Photographs provide evidence. (The question is of what?)

Morris expanded on the third item in his list in a 2007 NY Times piece.

In discussing truth and photography, we are asking whether a caption or a belief — whether a statement about a photograph — is true or false about (the things depicted in) the photograph. A caption is like a statement. It trumpets the claim, “This is the Lusitania.” And when we wonder “Is this a photograph of the Lusitania?” we are wondering whether the claim is true or false. The issue of the truth or falsity of a photograph is only meaningful with respect to statements about the photograph. Truth or falsity “adheres” not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph. Depending on the statements, our answers change. All alone — shorn of context, without captions — a photograph is neither true nor false.

(via austin kleon)

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

In 1998, author and media critic Neil Postman gave a talk he called Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Here are the five ideas Postman shared that day, which are all still highly relevant today:

1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.

5. Media tend to become mythic. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.

His first idea about technology is perhaps the most apropos to the current moment:

The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. Or you might reflect on the paradox of medical technology which brings wondrous cures but is, at the same time, a demonstrable cause of certain diseases and disabilities, and has played a significant role in reducing the diagnostic skills of physicians. It is also well to recall that for all of the intellectual and social benefits provided by the printing press, its costs were equally monumental. The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman — that is to say, printing reduced God to the dimensions of a local potentate.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.

It is nearly impossible to read these paragraphs and not think about how social media (and the internet more generally) has shaped our culture in both good and bad ways…and those who still believe that services like Facebook or Twitter are “unmixed blessings”. The rest of the talk is equally thought-provoking and enlightening.

P.S. Postman made these remarks about 2 weeks after I started publishing kottke.org 20 years ago. At that time, very few people I knew or interacted with online saw anything but the positive aspects of the internet and personal publishing online. Should we have seen the weaponization of the internet coming? Perhaps. But then again, not a lot of people who enjoyed the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Lassie could have anticipated the government-shaping toxicity of Fox News and cable news in general.

10 useful foreign language words without direct English translations

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

From The Guardian, 10 of the best words in the world that don’t have direct English translations. From Spain, “sobremesa”:

Lunch — and it is more usually lunch than dinner — will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

And from Iran, “Ta’arof”:

It is an etiquette that is seen almost in all aspects of Iranian life, from hosts insisting on guests taking more food from the table, to the exchanges in the bazaar. “How much is this carpet?” asks Ms A after choosing her favourite in the shop. “It’s worthless, you can just take it,” responds the seller, quite disingenuously.

Although Ms A in reality cannot take the carpet out of the shop without paying for it, the seller might insist up to three times that she should just do that, until the amount of the price is finally mentioned.

Here’s one not from the piece that I’ve seen floating around Twitter in recent days: the Japanese word “tsundoku”, which means to purchase books but never read them, letting them pile up on shelves or nightstands.

Seven bits of advice from Kurt Vonnegut to people living 100 years in the future

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 17, 2018

In 1988, at the behest of Volkswagen, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter of advice to people living on Earth 100 years in the future. In it, he urged people to live more in harmony with the natural world through these seven steps:

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:

1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
7. And so on. Or else.

(via open culture)

Barack Obama’s 2018 Summer Reading List

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2018

President Obama is heading to Africa this week for the first time since he left office. In preparation, he shared a recommended summer reading list that’s heavy on African authors. Here’s the full list:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A true classic of world literature, this novel paints a picture of traditional society wrestling with the arrival of foreign influence, from Christian missionaries to British colonialism. A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
A chronicle of the events leading up to Kenya’s independence, and a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationships.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Mandela’s life was one of the epic stories of the 20th century. This definitive memoir traces the arc of his life from a small village, to his years as a revolutionary, to his long imprisonment, and ultimately his ascension to unifying President, leader, and global icon. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history — and then go out and change it.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the U.S. and the UK, raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity and a home.

The Return by Hisham Matar
A beautifully-written memoir that skillfully balances a graceful guide through Libya’s recent history with the author’s dogged quest to find his father who disappeared in Gaddafi’s prisons.

The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes
It’s true, Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people for eight years in the White House.

One of the books on my summer reading list is The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu, recommended to me by a reader a few months ago.

Each of us has a deep need to forgive and to be forgiven. After much reflection on the process of forgiveness, Tutu has seen that there are four important steps to healing: Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; Telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and renewing or releasing the relationship. Forgiveness is hard work. Sometimes it even feels like an impossible task. But it is only through walking this fourfold path that Tutu says we can free ourselves of the endless and unyielding cycle of pain and retribution.