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Ten Meter Tower

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

For their short film Ten Meter Tower, Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson coaxed dozens of people to jump off of a 10-meter diving platform for the first time.

Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt. We’ve all seen actors playing doubt in fiction films, but we have few true images of the feeling in documentaries. To make them, we decided to put people in a situation powerful enough not to need any classic narrative framework. A high dive seemed like the perfect scenario.

Ten Meter Tower

After the first 10 seconds, I was riveted to the screen for the remaining 16 minutes. It’s not at all obvious who will jump easily and who won’t.

My head says, “Go!” But my heart says, “No!”

People often worry about competition from others, but in the sporting world, the workplace, the home, and school, the struggle against the self — closing the gap between what you want your life to be like and reality, what your head wants and what your heart can provide — is always the most significant and difficult. (via @thisiseamonn)

Green Angels: the NYC drug ring run by former models

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

The Green Angels is a group of pot dealers that was started by a former fashion model named Honey (not her real name). Many of the dealers and dispatchers are also former models…or at least possess enough good looks and easy charm to talk their way out of trouble with NYPD officers.

Honey is clear-eyed about the nature of her operation: “I tell the girls, it’s not a club; it’s a drug ring.” The whole business is run via text messages between her, the dispatchers in her headquarters, the runners who do the deliveries, and the customers. “I have carpal tunnel in my thumb from all the texting,” Honey says. Dispatchers get 10 percent of each sale; the runners get 20 percent, which averages out to $300 or $400 a day. Several of them, according to Honey, “are paying off their NYU student loans.”

Just like any other business, there are tricks of the trade and protocols to follow:

One of the Angels suggests using a tote bag instead of a backpack to carry the box. She generally uses a WNYC tote bag, which is given out to donors to the public-radio station. The other day, an old lady gave her a high five after seeing her tote. “I thought, If you only knew what I have in this bag,” she says.

Honey tells the girls to get a work phone from MetroPCS, which costs $100. When buying it, they should pay in cash and have a name in mind to put down on the form, in case the police check. “I like to use the names of girls who were my enemies growing up,” Honey says.

The business is organized and disciplined, which I suspect it needs to be if you don’t want to get tossed in jail:

The Green Angels average around 150 orders a day, which is about a fourth of what the busiest services handle. When a customer texts, it goes to one of the cell phones on the table in the living room. There’s a hierarchy: The phones with the pink covers are the lowest; they contain the numbers of the flakes, cheapskates, or people who live in Bed-Stuy. The purple phones contain the good, solid customers. Blue is for the VIPs. There are over a thousand customers on Honey’s master list.

To place an order, a customer is supposed to text “Can we hang out?” and a runner is sent to his apartment. No calling, no other codes or requests. Delivery is guaranteed within an hour and a half. If the customer isn’t home, he gets a strike. Three strikes and he’s 86’d. If he yells at the runner, he’s 86’d immediately.

The Angels work only by referral. The customers should refer people they really know and trust, not strangers, and no one they’ve met in a bar. If you refer someone who becomes a problem, Charley says, you lose your membership.

Really interesting throughout.

What if the Earth were a middle-aged adult and other comparisons

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Sometimes big distances, long time periods, and large numbers can be difficult to grasp. So it helps to contextualize them with comparisons. When you do so, you realize that a billion is much much more than a million:

But when he linked these numbers to time, it brought things in perspective: 1 million seconds is nearly 12 days, whereas 1 billion seconds is almost 32 years. “Everybody gets it when you say it like that,” he wrote in an email. “If you just said 1 billion is three orders of magnitude greater than 1 million, I don’t think it would make the same impression.”

Tim Urban’s Life Calendar emphasizes the relative shortness of human life and the importance of using your time well by reorganizing a human lifespan into weeks.

Each row of weeks makes up one year. That’s how many weeks it takes to turn a newborn into a 90-year-old.

It kind of feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks. But there they are — fully countable — staring you in the face.

High school chemistry teacher Keith Karraker recently imagined the Earth having the lifespan of a typical human, which is a useful way of thinking about young humanity is in comparison.

Earth’s about half-way through its life. If it were a middle-aged adult of 40, its last mass extinction happened about 7 months ago.

To 40-yr-old Earth, humans have been using tools for a week and a half, and just left Africa 8 hours ago to settle around the globe.

All of human history is the last half hour. It’s been an exhilarating and disastrous half hour. But we figured out some really cool shit.

We figured out quantum, relativity, and DNA. A randomly mutating and replicating molecule built a machine to figure itself out.

Even much older evolutionary changes are surprisingly recent on this scale. Spines debuted just over 4 yrs ago. About when iPhone 5 did.

For more on the visualization of large scales, see also Powers of Ten, the leisurely pace of light speed, the size of supermassive black holes, and this comparison of the sizes of things from the Moon to galactic superclusters and beyond:

You want to talk about human insignificance? If Betelgeuse, one of the largest stars shown in the video, were in the Sun’s place, it would nearly reach the orbit of Jupiter, from which light takes 43 minutes (on average) to reach the Earth. (via @stevesilberman)

Tabitha Soren documented in photos what happened after Moneyball

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2017

Tabitha Soren Baseball

Tabitha Soren, who you may remember as a reporter for MTV News, has for the past number of years been working as a photographer. One of her projects began more than 13 years ago as she accompanied her husband Michael Lewis on his visits to the Oakland A’s while working on Moneyball. After the book was published, Soren kept returning to photograph the up-and-coming players Lewis had profiled, following their careers as they either made it in the big leagues or didn’t.

Since then, she has followed the players through their baseball lives, an alternate reality of long bus rides, on-field injuries, friendships and marriages entered and exited, constant motion, and very hard work, often for very little return. Some of the subjects, like Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, have gone on to become well-known, respected players at the highest level of the game. Some left baseball to pursue other lines of work, such as selling insurance and coal mining. Others have struggled with poverty and even homelessness.

The culmination of the project was a gallery show called Fantasy Life, which is now being released as a book.

A trap for self-driving cars

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2017

Artist & writer James Bridle has shared a video and photos of his new work-in-progress, Autonomous Trap 001. It’s a trap for self-driving cars.

Autonomous Trap Bridle

Looooooovvve this. (via @robinsloan)

The Americans vs. The Beastie Boys

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2017

Some genius took footage from The Americans and cut it into an alternative music video for The Beastie Boys Sabotage. Compare with the real thing:

Pretty good! Plus it’s always great to hear that song. (thx, steve)

Relive the 1917 Russian Revolution through the voices of the day

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2017

Romanovs In Color

“1917. Free History” is a project that lets you relive the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution from letters, photos, videos, and texts written at the time.

The project consists entirely of primary sources. It includes not a trace of invention. All the texts used are taken from genuine documents written by historical figures: letters, memoirs, diaries and other documents of the period.

“1917. Free History” is a serial, but in the form of a social network. Every day, when you go onto the site, you will find out what happened exactly one hundred years ago: what various people were thinking about and what happened to each of them in this eventful year. You may not fast-forward into the future, but must follow events as they happen in real time.

“1917. Free History” is a way of bringing the past to life and bringing it closer to the present day. It is a way of understanding what the year 1917 was like for those who lived in Russia and in other countries. We have scoured archives and storerooms for texts, photographs and videos, many of which have never seen the light of day before.

For instance, 100 years ago today writer Maxim Gorky wrote:

The events currently unfolding appear grandiose, moving even, but the meaning behind them is not as profound and great as everyone takes it to be. I am trying to remain sceptical, although I am also moved to tears by the sights and songs of the soldiers marching to the State Duma. We can never go back, but we’ll not move much forward. A sparrow’s step maybe. A lot of blood will be spilt — more than has ever been spilt before.

Russian physiologist and Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov wrote:

My assistant came in late today. He tried to explain that the revolution has halted all street transport. I believe that a revolution is no excuse for being late!

The image at the top of the page is Tsar Nicholas II with three of his daughters. Spoiler: he abdicates his throne tomorrow.

See also Who are you in 1917 Russia? (I ended up in the Democratic Right quadrant, just right of center.)

What happens when Queen Elizabeth II dies?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2017

Queen Elizabeth II

When Queen Elizabeth II dies, who knows how a Brexit-addled Britain might react. She’s ruled now for 65 years; so long that three of her Prime Ministers were born during her rule. That’s why the Palace has a plan (known as “London Bridge”) for announcing her death, “its ceremonial aftermath”, and the ascension of Charles to the throne.

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness - the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard — which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Unlike the US presidency, say, monarchies allow huge passages of time — a century, in some cases — to become entwined with an individual. The second Elizabethan age is likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline, and even, if she lives long enough and Scotland departs the union, as one of disintegration. Life and politics at the end of her rule will be unrecognisable from their grandeur and innocence at its beginning. “We don’t blame her for it,” Philip Ziegler, the historian and royal biographer, told me. “We have declined with her, so to speak.”

This is a great piece, full of interesting details and observations throughout. Like that George V was euthanized in time for the morning paper:

“The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close,” was the final notice issued by George V’s doctor, Lord Dawson, at 9.30pm on the night of 20 January 1936. Not long afterwards, Dawson injected the king with 750mg of morphine and a gram of cocaine — enough to kill him twice over — in order to ease the monarch’s suffering, and to have him expire in time for the printing presses of the Times, which rolled at midnight.

And that radio stations are equipped with a emergency system:

Britain’s commercial radio stations have a network of blue “obit lights”, which is tested once a week and supposed to light up in the event of a national catastrophe. When the news breaks, these lights will start flashing, to alert DJs to switch to the news in the next few minutes and to play inoffensive music in the meantime. Every station, down to hospital radio, has prepared music lists made up of “Mood 2” (sad) or “Mood 1” (saddest) songs to reach for in times of sudden mourning.

They’ve got this planned out to the second…no detail is too small:

It takes 28 minutes at a slow march from the doors of St James’s to the entrance of Westminster Hall.

British royals are buried in lead-lined coffins. Diana’s weighed a quarter of a ton.

(via @oliverburkeman)

Michael K. Williams asks Michael K. Williams: You think I’m being typecast?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2017

Actor Michael K. Williams — who played Omar Little in The Wire and Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire — has a conversation with himself, musing if he’s been typecast for a certain type of role.

Face it, we from a certain type a people that come from a type a place that look a type a way. You know what that make us?

For a promotional video (for The Atlantic), that was unexpectedly poignant.

A cognitive bias cheat sheet

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2017

Cognitive biases are systematic ways in which people deviate from rationality in making judgements. Wikipedia maintains a list such biases and one example is survivorship bias, the tendency to focus on those things or people which succeed in an endeavor and discount the experiences of those which did not.

A commonly held opinion in many populations is that machinery, equipment, and goods manufactured in previous generations often is better built and lasts longer than similar contemporary items. (This perception is reflected in the common expression “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”) Again, because of the selective pressures of time and use, it is inevitable that only those items which were built to last will have survived into the present day. Therefore, most of the old machinery still seen functioning well in the present day must necessarily have been built to a standard of quality necessary to survive. All of the machinery, equipment, and goods that have failed over the intervening years are no longer visible to the general population as they have been junked, scrapped, recycled, or otherwise disposed of.

Buster Benson recently went through the list of biases and tried to simplify them into some sort of structure. What he came up with is a list of four conundrums — “4 qualities of the universe that limit our own intelligence and the intelligence of every other person, collective, organism, machine, alien, or imaginable god” — that lead to all biases. They are:

1. There’s too much information.
2. There’s not enough meaning.
3. There’s not enough time and resources.
4. There’s not enough memory.

The 2nd conundrum is that the process of turning raw information into something meaningful requires connecting the dots between the limited information that’s made it to you and the catalog of mental models, beliefs, symbols, and associations that you’ve stored from previous experiences. Connecting dots is an imprecise and subjective process, resulting in a story that’s a blend of new and old information. Your new stories are being built out of the bricks of your old stories, and so will always have a hint of past qualities and textures that may not have actually been there.

For each conundrum in Benson’s scheme, there are categories of bias, 20 in all. For example, the categories that related to the “not enough meaning” conundrum are:

1. We find stories and patterns even in sparse data.
2. We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information.
3. We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of.
4. We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about.
5. We project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future.

Benson’s whole piece is worth a read, but if you spend too much time with it, you might become unable to function because you’ll start to see cognitive biases everywhere.

Recreating history for the movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2017

For movies based on historical events, getting the details right can be essential in convincing the audience they’re watching something meaningful and important, particularly if the real-world scenes are iconic. But often, historical happenings are changed to make scenes more cinematically effective. This video shows several historical events coupled with their cinematic recreations in films like Jackie, Into the Wild, JFK, Catch Me If You Can, and Selma.

A neuroscientist explains a concept at five different levels

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2017

Wired recently challenged neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri to explain what a connectome is to people with five different levels of potential understanding: a 5-year-old, a 13-year-old, a college student, a neuroscience grad student, and an expert neuroscientist. His goal: “every person here can leave with understanding it at some level”.

Watching this, I kept thinking of Richard Feynman, who was particularly adept at describing concepts to non-experts without sacrificing truth or even nuance. See him explain fire, rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and magnets.

An epic desk lunch

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2017

Admission: I eat lunch at my desk pretty much every day. So do a lot of people. Some think desk lunches are sad, but many people trade lunch at their desks for family or leisure time at some other point in the day.

A Chinese YouTuber, Little Ye, has taken the desk lunch to a whole new level. In this video, she makes noodles from scratch, scavenges soda cans out of garbage to turn into DIY Bunsen burners & food graters, and cooks a hotpot meal right at her desk.

Little Ye, you are my new hero. In this one, she takes apart her computer so she can use the case to fry a breakfast crepe.

She and the Primitive Technology guy should definitely meet. (thx, claire)

I wuv you wobot!

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2017

Rayna is a small child who thinks this hot water heater looks like a robot and she is determined to say hi to it and tell it that she loves it. THIS IS THE CUTEST THING OF ALL TIME THAT IS NOT THAT PHOTO OF OTTERS HOLDING HANDS SO THEY DON’T DRIFT AWAY FROM EACH OTHER WHILE SLEEPING. In the future, when humanity is on trial for the mistreatment of machines, our randomly assigned legal algorithm will introduce this video as Exhibit A in our defense. I like our chances.

A magically levitating helicopter, courtesy of a camera frame rate trick

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

When you perfectly match a video camera’s frame rate to the rotation of a helicopter’s rotors as it takes off, it looks like it’s magically floating away on the breeze. Here’s an older video of the same effect that I probably posted back in the day. Here’s an explanation of the effect:

Since each frame has to ensure the blade is in the same position as the last it therefore needs to be in sync with the rpm of the rotar blades. Shutter speed then needs to be fast enough to freeze the blade without too much motion blur within each frame.

Here the rotor has five blades, now lets say the rpm of the rotor is 300. That means, per rotation, a blade is in a specific spot on five counts. That gives us an effective rpm of 1500. 1500rpm / 60secs = 25.

Therefore shooting at 25fps will ensure the rotor blades are shot in the same position every frame. Each frame then has to be shot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the blade for minimal motion blur.

This is basically the same technique used by John Edmark for his strobe light sculptures.

Papercraft infographic of fire resistant plants

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2017

Eleanor Lutz Forest Fires

Eleanor Lutz made these nifty models of California plants that can withstand fire damage out of Elmer’s Glue and watercolor paper. She then photographed them burning for this infographic on how some species have adapted to California’s wildfires. Be sure to click through to see the animated version.

The Book of Circles

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2017

Book Of Circles

The Book of Circles is an upcoming book by Manuel Lima about the use of circles in information design.

In this follow-up to his hugely popular The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity, Manuel Lima takes us on a lively tour through millennia of circular information design. Three hundred detailed and colorful illustrations from around the world cover an encyclopedic array of subjects-architecture, urban planning, fine art, design, fashion, technology, religion, cartography, biology, astronomy, and physics, all based on the circle, the universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, enlightenment, and perfection. Clay tokens used by ancient Sumerians as a system of recording trade are juxtaposed with logos of modern retailers like Target; Venn diagrams are discussed alongside the trefoil biohazard symbol, symbols of the Christian trinity, and the Olympic rings; and a diagram revealing the characteristics of ten thousand porn stars displays structural similarities to early celestial charts placing the earth at the center of the universe.

I have both of Lima’s previous books, The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity.

The paintings of “Afro Surrealist” Alim Smith

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2017

Alim Smith

Alim Smith

Alim Smith

I really like these paintings by Alim Smith of black culture in America. (The best way to see them all is in the shop.) They’re slightly Cubist almost, reminiscent of Picasso. But of course Picasso’s Cubism was heavily influenced by African art and sculpture; unpacking the levels of cultural influence and appropriation here is above my pay grade. On Instagram, Smith refers to himself as an “Afro Surrealist”. Prints are available. (via @anildash)

An Inconvenient Sequel

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2017

In 2006, Davis Guggenheim directed An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film about Al Gore’s fight to educate the world about climate change. It made nearly $50 million at the box office, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and is credited for moving the conversation about climate change along (although not nearly fast enough, in my mind). This July, a followup documentary will be released: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. From a review in the LA Times:

Eleven Sundances later, Gore’s star wattage seemed entirely undimmed at Thursday evening’s premiere of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” an awkwardly titled, stirringly crafted follow-up that measures the progress that has and hasn’t been made in the battle against global warming. Taking over for Davis Guggenheim, the directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk largely abandon the framing device of Gore’s lecture (which he and his international team of trainees continue to give regularly) in favor of a nimbler, more on-the-go approach.

Despite some updates on the continuing decline of the world’s glaciers and the link between climate change and the recent Zika virus outbreak, the focus this time is less on science than on politicking. Cohen and Shenk tag along with Gore on a globe-trotting mission to persuade various heads of state to invest in wind and solar energy, and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels — an effort that culminates on-screen with the signing of last year’s historic Paris climate accord.

Fran Lebowitz on books and reading

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2017

The New York Times Book Review recently interviewed Fran Lebowitz for their By the Book series. She mentions Memoirs of Hadrian as the last great book she read and doesn’t like literary dinner parties.

Q: You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

a: None. I would never do it. My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book. That’s my idea of a literary dinner party. When I eat alone, I spend a lot of time, before I sit down to my meager meal, choosing what to read. And I’m a lot better choosing a book than preparing a meal. And I never eat anything without reading. Ever. If I’m eating an apple, I have to get a book.

Her answer to the very last question made me laugh out loud. Buuuuuuurn.

The economics of airline classes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2017

How much money does an airline make on a typical flight in the various classes of service? On some flights, revenue from first & business class seats can be up to 5 times that of economy seats. This video explores the economics of airline classes and looks at how we got to the present moment, where the people and companies buying business class and first class tickets are subsidizing those of us who fly economy.

Whitman, Alabama

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has spent the past two years travelling all around Alabama, collecting short video vignettes of people’s lives — “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?” — and now she’s posting the videos on the Whitman, Alabama site.

I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.

We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?”

And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)

And then we said: “There’s a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?”

I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, “Yes, I believe that’d still be all right.”

Each of her 52 subjects recites a verse from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself. Why Whitman and not a poem by a southern poet?

I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We’ve taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”

The Sullivan family read verse 16:

Some people just hit you in the heart. I was at Yen Restaurant in Mobile, looking for a hit of comfort food—Vietnamese food — and Cathy, Samantha and Brandon walked in.

Samantha reminded me of myself — half-Asian, half-white, sort of a tomboy. I approached them. Immediately they were open and warm. I asked Cathy if they might want to read for the project.

She said sure. No hesitation. She appreciated art and music. Samantha did, too. Cathy stenciled boats for a living. Samantha wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer someday.

Sometimes if people think something isn’t going to look good to other people, they won’t let you see it, let alone film it. But Cathy threw open the doors in full welcome.

Spend some time with the project, meet some of your fellow Americans you might not know that well. (via @alainabrowne)

Update: Jia Tolentino interviewed Crandall about the project for the New Yorker.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Some things I’ve read, seen, and heard in the past few months

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2017

Don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades, they’re super subjective. Oh, and don’t pay too much attention to the descriptions…also subjective. You know what, you should probably just skip this post and watch Planet Earth II instead. It’s objectively great.

The Handmaiden. Khoi Vinh turned me onto this. Loved it. (A)

What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone is underrated. There are some spine-tingling live musical moments in this film. (B+)

The Three-Body Problem. Recommended by Barry. The first book is great, the next two are good but pretty depressing. (B+)

Moonlight. While this didn’t grab me as much as it did everyone else, the Academy got it right. (A-)

The Night Manager. I can see what Taylor Swift saw in Tom Hiddleston. (B+)

T2 Trainspotting. If you saw and loved the original, you should see this. It is somehow nostalgic and also not. (B)

Girls. The struggles of 20-something New Yorkers and the crises of 40-something males may not be the same, but they sure do rhyme. (B+)

Beauty and the Beast. Better than I expected, even for a musical about the Stockholm syndrome. (I mean, why didn’t the Beast let Belle go like waaaay sooner?) I never saw the original when I was a kid but somehow knew all the songs anyway? I even got a little teary at the end but perhaps that’s just because my emotional life is a puddly mess rn. (B)

Hidden Figures. Really liked this. (A-)

Turing’s Cathedral. Raging Bull. Manchester by the Sea. I am increasingly bored by stories about white dudes. Look at the rest of this list. The best stuff, the things I liked the most, are stories about or stories told by women or people of color or non-Americans. (C)

Homo Deus. Still haven’t finished this, but I’m persisting because Sapiens was so good. Hard to escape the conclusion that the sequel is not quite so good. (B-)

Planet Earth II. This is the best thing I’ve seen in the last year. Just fucking watch it already. (A+)

More Life. Liking this more than Views. Drake’s non-albums are better than his albums. (B+)

Mad Men. My second time through. Better than I remember and I remember it being great. (A+)

The Crown. Expected Downton (soapy but fun) but was rewarded with great acting and writing. Claire Foy as Elizabeth and John Lithgow as Churchill were *kisses fingers*. (A)

“Awaken My Love”. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t figure this one out. (C-)

Wonderland. Steven Johnson’s best book yet. (A)

The Underground Railroad. Nothing to say about this that already hasn’t been said. (A)

Logan. Producers are realizing they’ve stocked their superhero movies with great actors so maybe they should give them material worthy of their talents. (B+)

Finding Dory. It’s a movie about disability. (A-)

Abstract. Pretty good, but I agree with Rob Walker’s take. Niemann is closest to the way I work/think but I liked Bjarke’s episode the best…even though I’ve got some, er, issues with the guy. (B)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The script, not the play. I have now read all 8 of the Harry Potter books with my kids…it took more than 4 years. Very sad it’s over…it ended up being one of the most rewarding things I’ve done with them. (B+)

A reading list on fascism

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2017

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.

Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.

Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:

Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.

Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.

Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.

  1. I know, I know. LOL. Trump has been guided by many abilities in his life, but thought and thoughtfulness have never been among them.

An average hand-drawn map of the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2017

Average World Map

Zak Ziebell asked 30 people to sketch a map of the world and then averaged the results into the map above. I especially love the bottom one with the satellite terrain.

Tasked with creating “a piece of art that would reveal something unseen” as part of a pre-college fine arts program, Ziebell approached 29 strangers on the University of Michigan’s campus, handed them a pen and half a sheet of paper, and asked them, on the spot, to draw a map of the world. Ziebell, who recently posted his findings to Reddit, then completed the task himself and digitally merged the 30 maps into one image, overlaying the composite drawing with satellite data.

Update: This is yet another world map without New Zealand. (via @edmz)

Ocean-like abstracts by Samantha Keely Smith

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 24, 2017

Samantha Keely Smith

I love these abstract paintings by Samantha Keely Smith. The paintings are Smith’s attempt at representing our inner emotional worlds using imagery resembling oceans, clouds, and even nebulas. From Colossal:

Smith refers to her paintings as ‘internal landscapes,’ part of an ongoing examination of an externalized inner conflict. “My newer works try to boldly portray the struggle I’ve always tried to address in my work between order and chaos, dark and light, and positive and negative impulses,” Smith shares, “along with addressing what feels like a shifting and unpredictable landscape due to global warming.”

A few prints of the original paintings are available through Smith’s website.

Misty black & white watercolor paintings of animals and children

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2017

Elicia Edijanto

Elicia Edijanto

Colossal posted these watercolor paintings by Elicia Edijanto on Friday and I’ve been peeking at them all weekend.

“My subject are often children and animal because they are honest, sincere, unprejudiced and unpretentious,” shares Edijanto. “They give me so much inspiration for [a] particular mood or atmosphere, such as tranquility, solemnity, and also wilderness and freedom, which I put on my paintings.”

Instant follow on Instagram.

The end of Rogue One + the beginning of Star Wars

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2017

The ending of Rogue One — spoilers! — shows an unconvincing CG clone of Princess Leia receiving the plans for the Death Star just before her ship jumps into hyperspace. The beginning of Star Wars takes place just a few minutes (or hours?) after the final scene in Rogue One. Vader’s ship has caught the Rebel ship. He boards it and captures Leia, but not before she hands off the plans to R2-D2, who escapes to Tatooine with C-3PO. Watching them cut together like this, the whole narrative makes a lot more sense. BTW, on March 24, you’ll be able to watch both movies back-to-back in the comfort of your home when Rogue One is available for digital download.

Computer Show is back! (As an ad for HP printers.)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

Missed this early this month while I was on vacation: Computer Show is back with a new episode, partnering with HP to showcase one of their fast color printers. Yes it’s an ad, but yes it’s still funny.

Play around with this trippy Julia set fractal

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

Julia Set Fractal

Yay! It’s Fractal Friday! (It’s not, I just made that up.) But anyway, courtesy of Christopher Night, you can play around with this Julia set fractal. It works in a desktop browser (by moving the mouse) or on your phone (by dragging your finger).

The Julia set, if you don’t remember, goes thusly: Let f(z) be a complex rational function from the plane into itself, that is, f(z)=p(z)/q(z) f(z)=p(z)/q(z), where p(z) and q(z) are complex polynomials. Then there is a finite number of open sets F1, …, Fr, that are left invariant by f(z) which, uh, is um… yay! Fractal Friday! The colors are so pretty!

Baby Driver

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2017

A heist film featuring a getaway driver named Baby — B. A. B. Y. Baby? — directed by Edgar Wright of Hot Fuzz fame? Take. My. Money. This is like the comedy version of Drive. In making the film, Wright himself was influenced by the “holy trinity” of heist films from the 90s: Point Break, Reservoir Dogs, and Heat.

See also Tony Zhou’s video tribute to Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy.

Update: Well, that was the international trailer (which is good!) and this is the American trailer (which perhaps is not as good).

Is it me or does the American trailer aim about 15 IQ points lower than the other one? (thx, david)

The tools ILM built to make Rogue One are super interesting

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2017

Every time I watch or read something about how Rogue One was made, I come away more intrigued. And it’s not about how they made the film…it’s about the tools they built to help them make the film. A few weeks ago, I posted about the full-length story reel they made from bits of old movies so that director Gareth Edwards could determine the pacing:

There was no screenplay, there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. He got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make ‘Rogue One’ using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film.

It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet”, now that takes maybe 2-3 seconds in other films, but if you look at any other ‘Star Wars’ film you realise that takes 45 seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way — I used a lot of the ‘Star Wars’ films — but also hundreds of other films too, it gave us a good idea of the timing.

In this video, we see a couple more tools the team used to facilitate the making of the film. The first is a VR video game of sorts that ILM built so that Edwards could move a virtual camera around in a virtual set to find just the right camera angles to capture the action, resulting in a process that was more flexible than traditional storyboarding.

The second tool jumped around a virtual set — a complete digital model of Jedha City — and rendered hundreds of street views from it at random. Then the filmmakers would look through the scenes for interesting shots and found scenes that looked more “natural” than something a digital effects artist might have come up with on purpose — basically massively parallel location scouting.

Both are attempts to introduce more serendipity and possibility into a digital filmmaking process that sometimes feels a little stilted. I think animation studios like Pixar have been using these techniques for years, but it’s interesting to see them applied to live-action films like Rogue One.

Update: The Verge’s Bryan Bishop talked to Edwards and visual effects supervisor John Knoll and came away with more interesting details about how they used technology in filming Rogue One.

Typically, you’d have to storyboard these things, and that means you’re pulling from some default, subconscious idea in your head, probably based on another film you’ve seen, where you feel like it should be this shot. I find you get much better, more unique, shots when you are in a real environment, trying to find something that’s unfolding in front of you. You get inspired because of the light and shapes and things. It was like being in the real world more, and like the way we shot a lot of the rest of the movie.

I think if I ever do a big film again, and there’s a big digital set piece in it, whatever that is, I would definitely want to pre-animate it and then go in with a camera and try and film it like it was real.

Read the whole thing…the bit about the LED screens is fascinating. Prior to the 1980s, aside from some relatively minor editing tricks, effects in movies were mainly done during shooting. More recently, most of the production happens after the cameras stop rolling: extensively green-screened footage of the actors is combined with entire sets and worlds that are completely digital. With Rogue One, they tried to move some of that production back into the shooting phase in order to give the director more control over the scenes and the actors a more immersive environment in which to act. (via @sippey)

Do robots deserve rights if they achieve consciousness?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

A new video by Kurzgesagt explores the question of machine’s rights. Do machines deserve rights? Perhaps not right now, but what about if they achieve consciousness at some point in the future? (And what does that even mean?) If machines are programmed to feel pain and suffering, do they deserve protection? Or will machines not be allowed to be programmed to suffer and therefore be exempt from rights, for the potential benefit of humans? One thing seems certain: when the shift from machine as thing to machine as thinking, feeling being occurs, it will happen pretty quickly and humans will handle it poorly.

See also The Philosophy of Westworld and Bill Gates’ assertion that the robots who replace people in the workplace should pay taxes.

In a recent interview with Quartz, Gates said that a robot tax could finance jobs taking care of elderly people or working with kids in schools, for which needs are unmet and to which humans are particularly well suited. He argues that governments must oversee such programs rather than relying on businesses, in order to redirect the jobs to help people with lower incomes.

The Goddesses of Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Goddesses Of Venus Map

Last year, Eleanor Lutz made a medieval-style map of Mars. As a follow-up, she’s made a topographical map of Venus. The features on Venus are named for female mythological figures & notable women and Lutz provides a small biography for each one on the map. Among those featured on the map are:

Anne Frank
Selu (Cherokee Corn Goddess)
Kali (Hindu Goddess, Mother of Death)
Virginia Woolf
Sedna (Eskimo Whose Fingers Became Seals and Whales)
Ubastet (Egyptian Cat Goddess)
Beatrix Potter
Edith Piaf

Here are the full lists of the craters, mountains, and coronae on Venus.

Skateboarding on frozen sand

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2017

In this beautifully shot video, four skateboarders discover the joys of skating on the frozen sand of a Norwegian beach.

Ice, driftwood, foamy waves and … skateboards? Four skaters head north to the cold Norwegian coast, applying their urban skills to a wild canvas of beach flotsam, frozen sand and pastel skies. The result is a beautiful mashup — biting winds and short days, ollies and a frozen miniramp.

The result is a lot more contemplative than a lot of other skateboarding videos. The emphasis is not on cool tricks (which were difficult to do in the cold weather) but on the vibe of skating on a frozen Norwegian shoreline with only a few hours of sunlight a day. A longer version is available to rent or buy on Vimeo (and more info here).

Elena Ferrante’s novels to become a TV series

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a series of four novels set in post-war Naples, will be turned into a 32-part TV miniseries directed and co-written by Italian director Saverio Costanzo.

Mr. Costanzo, best known for “Private” and “Hungry Hearts” (which co-starred Adam Driver), said in a telephone interview that the biggest challenge to adapting the novels for television was how “to convey the same emotions as the books in a cinematographic way.”

He added that he was writing the script with the Italian writers Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci, and that Ms. Ferrante was also expected to contribute to the screenplay. (He expects to communicate with the author via email.)

The series will be filmed in Italy in Italian. The first season will cover the first book, with eight episodes of 50 minutes each. Filming is expected to begin in Naples this year and the first season is expected to air in the fall of 2018.

This could be amazing or it could be terrible. Or I guess it could be mediocre. Or anywhere in between really. [Uh, thanks for that hard-hitting analysis, Jason. -ed] (via @tedgioia)

If only 100 people lived on Earth…

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

Because many people have trouble with very large numbers, what if you reimagined the billions of humans on Earth as a slightly more manageable number? Say, 100? If 100 people represented the current population of the Earth:

25 people would be 0-14 years old
31 would be Christian
23 would be Muslim
15 would be Hindu
6 would speak Spanish
5 would speak English
54 would be urban dwellers
11 would live on less than $1.90 USD per day
95 live in an area with a mobile-cellular network

And some that are not on that page:

1 person would die every 15 months
2 people would be born every 6 months
1350 people would have died, all-time

A list of things you can control right now

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2017

You can’t control what the stock market does, who the President is, or what your partner wants to do with their life. So why not focus your energy on stuff you can control? From Lori Deschene at Tiny Buddha, a list of 50 Things You Can Control Right Now. Here are some that jumped out at me:

Your level of honesty.
How often you say “thank you.”
Whether or not you give someone the benefit of the doubt.
Whether or not you compete with people around you.
Whether you think positive or negative thoughts.
How much time you spend worrying.
How much exercise you get.
How many risks you take.
The type of food you eat.

The list isn’t perfect — e.g. it’s more difficult for some people to control what they eat than others — but the point is that worrying about things outside of your control can burn a lot of energy that you can use in more productive ways to make your life better.

BTW, this is a reminder to myself more than anything. There are three things I’m super-anxious about right now that I have zero control over and I am desperately trying to convince myself that focusing on things I can do something about is the only way through.

I’m With Her: designing Hillary Clinton’s campaign identity

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2017

Hillary Logo Sketch

Pentagram’s Michael Bierut and his team designed the identity for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign (of which I was not initially a fan but came around later). Here’s how it happened.

I put together a three-person team: me, designer Jesse Reed, and project manager Julia Lemle. We would work in secret for the next two months. Our first meeting with the Clinton team began with a simple statement: “Our candidate has 100 percent name recognition.” There is a well-known marketing principle that is often credited to midcentury design legend Raymond Loewy. He felt that people were governed by two competing impulses: an attraction to the excitement of new things and a yearning for the comfort provided by what we already know. In response, Loewy had developed a reliable formula. If something was familiar, make it surprising. If something was surprising, make it familiar.

That same principle applies to political campaigns. In 2008 Sol Sender, Amanda Gentry and Andy Keene were faced with the challenge of branding a candidate who had anything but name recognition. Barack Obama’s design team responded with a quintessentially professional identity program, introducing — for the first time — the language of corporate branding to political marketing. Obama’s persona — unfamiliar, untested, and potentially alarming to much of the voting public — was given a polished logo and a perfectly executed, utterly consistent typographic system. In short, they made a surprising candidate seem familiar.

We faced the opposite problem. Our candidate was universally known. How could we make her image seem fresh and compelling?

This is a great look at how a designer at the top of his game approaches a problem…and reckons with failure. Even this little bit:

It wasn’t clever or artful. I didn’t care about that. I wanted something that you didn’t need a software tutorial to create, something as simple as a peace sign or a smiley face. I wanted a logo that a five-year-old could make with construction paper and kindergarten scissors.

Leading up to the election, how many photos did you see of Hillary logos hand-drawn by kids on signs and t-shirts? Lots and lots…my kids even got into the act.

Anyway, a huge contrast to the process and impact of the Trump campaign’s identity.

Norway’s new pixelated banknotes are gorgeous

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2017

Norway Banknotes

Norway Banknotes

Back in 2014, I posted that Norway would start using new banknotes in 2017 featuring an abstract pixelated design on the reverse of each note. Time did the only thing it knows how to do so here we are in 2017 and the bills will begin circulating later this year. The overall theme for the notes is “The Sea”:

Norway’s long, gnarled coastline has shaped the identity of Norwegians individually and as a nation. The use of marine resources, combined with the use of the sea as a transport artery, has been crucial to the development of Norwegian society.

And each particular note has its own subtheme:

The 50-krone banknote: The sea that binds us together
The 100-krone banknote: The sea that takes us out into the world
The 200-krone banknote: The sea that feeds us
The 500-krone banknote: The sea that gives us prosperity
The 1000-krone banknote: The sea that carries us forward

The final design concept by Terje Tønnessen was chosen from among several finalists. I love the final design but also really like the concept by Aslak Gurholt with a children’s drawing on the back of each note echoing the illustration on the front.

Norway Banknotes Gurholt

Also of note (ha!): Norges Bank crowdsourced several aspects of the design process but managed to do it in such a way as to avoid the Boaty McBoatface problem.

The Gates Foundation Annual Letter for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

Each year, Bill and Melinda Gates write a letter about the work they’re doing with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006, Warren Buffett donated more than billion to their foundation, which effectively doubled its available resources. This year’s letter from the Gateses is addressed to Buffett and details the return on his investment so far.

Bill: If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million — the number of children’s lives saved since 1990.

Melinda: Every September, the UN announces the number of children under five who died the previous year. Every year, this number breaks my heart and gives me hope. It’s tragic that so many children are dying, but every year more children live.

Bill: More children survived in 2015 than in 2014. More survived in 2014 than in 2013, and so on. If you add it all up, 122 million children under age five have been saved over the past 25 years. These are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990.

Bill calls saving children’s lives “the best deal in philanthropy”. Melinda continues:

Melinda: And if you want to know the best deal within the deal — it’s vaccines. Coverage for the basic package of childhood vaccines is now the highest it’s ever been, at 86 percent. And the gap between the richest and the poorest countries is the lowest it’s ever been. Vaccines are the biggest reason for the drop in childhood deaths.

Melinda: They’re an incredible investment. The pentavalent vaccine, which protects against five deadly infections in a single shot, now costs under a dollar.

Bill: And for every dollar spent on childhood immunizations, you get $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving the money that families lose when a child is sick and a parent can’t work.

Vaccines. And Now my kids don’t die.

Bach’s Crab Canon is a musical palindrome

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2017

In a series of pieces written for King Frederick II of Prussia in 1747 called The Musical Offering, Johann Sebastian Bach included a canon that is popularly referred to as the Crab Canon. The piece is a puzzle to be worked out by the reader/player.

You may notice that the Crab Canon is performed by two instruments, but only one line is notated. What’s the deal?

Bach published the canons in the Musical Offering as puzzles, giving the reader the minimum amount of information with which they can figure out the piece as long as they understand its structure. To “solve” a puzzle canon is to give it a structure that makes it fit together in pleasing harmony.

The solution to the Crab Canon is that it can be played forwards or backwards or forwards and backwards together in accompaniment. It’s a musical palindrome of sorts. (via open culture)

The I.O.U. by F. Scott Fitzgerald

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2017

The New Yorker has published a previously unpublished short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The I.O.U.

The above is not my real name — the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. My real name I shall not divulge. I am a publisher. I accept long novels about young love written by old maids in South Dakota, detective stories concerning wealthy clubmen and female apaches with “wide dark eyes,” essays about the menace of this and that and the color of the moon in Tahiti by college professors and other unemployed. I accept no novels by authors under fifteen years old. All the columnists and communists (I can never get these two words straight) abuse me because they say I want money. I do — I want it terribly. My wife needs it. My children use it all the time. If someone offered me all the money in New York I should not refuse it. I would rather bring out a book that had an advance sale of five hundred thousand copies than have discovered Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell in one year. So would you if you were a publisher.

Where did the story come from and how was it rediscovered?

He wrote “The I.O.U.” in the late spring of 1920, evidently after a specific request from Henry Blackman Sell, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Fitzgerald dropped the story off at Ober’s offices in New York, reminding him, “This is the plot that Sell particularly wanted for Harps. Baz and which I promised him. I think it is pretty good.” In July, Ober sent the story on to the Saturday Evening Post, but Fitzgerald asked for it back because he wanted to revise it. Ober returned the manuscript and typescript to Fitzgerald, who set it aside and concentrated instead on his second novel, “The Beautiful and Damned,” telling Ober “there will probably be no more short stories this summer.” Lost in the sparkling shuffle of Fitzgerald’s first fame, the story remained the property of the Trustees of the Fitzgerald Estate until it was rediscovered and sold to Yale University’s Beinecke Library in 2012.

This story, as well as several other previously unpublished stories of Scott’s will appear in a book called I’d Die For You: And Other Lost Stories that comes out in April.

Bowie impersonates other singers like Springsteen, Lou Reed

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2017

In a recording session in 1985, David Bowie casually did a number of impressions of other singers in-between takes. Among others, he sang as Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Iggy Pop. These impersonations were recorded by producer Mark Saunders and were only released after Bowie’s death last year. Sanders recalls that the song Bowie sings appears to have been written quickly that day:

I think that Bowie probably wrote these lyrics quickly for the Springsteen impersonation which is first. I have no memory of us sitting around waiting for him to rewrite so it was probably done very quickly. If so, that’s pretty impressive! The imagery is definitely very Bruce.

The accompanying piece by Saunders is worth a read as well. During one of several sessions with Bowie, Mick Jagger showed up to record their Dancing in the Street cover for Live Aid; they did the whole thing, start to finish, in three hours.

The band was still working on different sections of the song, so there was a lot of stopping and starting, and it was as if Mick was wired to the sound because he could be in the middle of a serious conversation and when the band started playing he’d immediately start dancing and when the band stopped, he would, too. Not a full-blown Mick Jagger-on-stage kinda dance, but an on-the-spot dance that would enable him to continue his serious conversation. I thought this was awesome — like, he’s the real deal; music is in his blood and he just can’t even help himself!

(via @joeeenglish)

The Orion Nebula, our friendly neighborhood star factory

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2017

Orion Nebula

Rolf Olsen recently took this amazing photo of the Orion Nebula using a home-built telescope.

The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in the sky and also has a significant place in the history of astrophotography. In 1880 it was the first ever nebula to be photographed; Henry Draper used the newly invented dry plate process to acquire a 51-minute exposure of the nebula with an 11 inch telescope. Subsequently, in 1883, amateur astronomer Andrew Ainslie Common recorded several exposures up to 60 minutes long with a much larger 36-inch telescope, and showed for the first time that photography could reveal stars and details fainter than those visible to the human eye.

Thanks to Phil Plait for the link…he’s got much more to say about the image and the nebula here.

Also called M42 (the 42nd object in a catalog kept by comet hunter Charles Messier in the late 18th century), it is a sprawling star factory, a gas cloud where stars are born. It’s a couple of dozen light-years across, and sits well over a thousand light-years from Earth. That’s 10,000 trillion kilometers, and you can see it with your naked eye! It’s so bright because of a handful of extremely massive hot stars sit in its center. They blast out ultraviolet light that energizes the gas in the nebula, causing it to glow.

It’s actually a small section of a much larger dark cloud, what’s called a molecular cloud, that we cannot see directly. Stars were born near the edge of that cloud, not too deeply inside it, and when they switched on their fierce light and stellar winds blew a hole in the cloud, popping it like a bubble. The Orion Nebula is a cavity in the side of that cloud, carved by the newborn stars.

OJ: Made in America is about more than just OJ

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2017

Ezra Edelman’s fantastic documentary OJ: Made in America won the Oscar for best documentary this year. In a video for Fandor, Joel Bocko explains while the film’s focus is on Simpson, it also explores seven broader themes about contemporary America: sports, the media, Los Angeles, class, domestic abuse, policing, and race.

OJ: Made in America emerges not simply as a brilliant biography, it’s also a stunning social portrait that can stand beside any novel, epic film, or piece of longform journalism.

And in this video for The Atlantic, Edelman explains how, before murdering his ex-wife, Simpson was an advertising pioneer, the first black athlete to become a nationally known product pitchman, appearing in commercials for Hertz, Chevy, and Schick.

One of the most interesting aspects of Edelman’s film is how Simpson’s feelings about being black shifted after his arrest. For most of his life, he distanced himself from the black community, famously declaring “I’m not black, I’m OJ.” He didn’t get involved in the politics of the day or speak out like Muhammed Ali and other prominent black athletes did. He enjoyed preferential treatment by the LAPD, who help him keep his abuse of women under wraps. Black America had nothing to offer a man who enjoyed being rich and famous in white America. But then the trial happened and he hired Johnny Cochran, who made race into the central issue of the case, deftly aligning Simpson with a black community who had endured decades of racism and brutality in LA at the hands of society and the police.

Using data science to find the most depressing Radiohead songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Saddest Radiohead Song

Radiohead is data scientist Charlie Thompson’s favorite band and he recently employed his professional skills to determine Radiohead’s most depressing songs and albums. Using data from Spotify and Genius, he analyzed and weighted how sad each song sounded musically and the sadness of the lyrics.

While valence serves as an out-of-the box measure of musical sentiment, the emotions behind song lyrics are much more elusive. To find the most depressing song, I used sentiment analysis to pick out words associated with sadness. Specifically, I used tidytext and the NRC lexicon, based on a crowd-sourced project by the National Research Council Canada. This lexicon contains an array of emotions (sadness, joy, anger, surprise, etc.) and the words determined to most likely elicit them.

Unsurprisingly, True Love Waits is Radiohead’s saddest song and Moon Shaped Pool its saddest album. You can play with this interactive chart to see all of the results. I thought Videotape would score lower on the Gloom Index…along with True Love Waits, it’s my go-to Radiohead song for wallowing in the darkness of my life. (via @RichardWestenra)

Arrival: future communication, past perspective

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

In his newest video, Evan Puschak talks about Arrival, calling it “a response to bad movies”. Arrival was perhaps my favorite film of 2016, and I agree with him about how well-made this film is. There’s a top-to-bottom attention to craft on display, from how it looks to how it was cast (Amy Adams was the absolute perfect choice for the lead) to the integration of the theme with story to how expertly it was adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The whole thing’s tight as a drum. If you happened to miss it, don’t watch this video (it gives the whole thing away) and go watch it instead…it’s available to rent/buy on Amazon.

Looking back through the archives, I’m realizing I never did a post about Arrival even though I collected some links about it. So, linkdump time!

Wired wrote about how the movie’s alien alphabet was developed.

Stephen Wolfram wrote about his involvement with the science of the film — his son Christopher wrote Mathematica code for some of the on-screen visuals. 1

Science vs Cinema explored how well the movie represented actual science:

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wrote about how he adapted Chiang’s short story for the screen.

Jordan Brower wrote a perceptive review/analysis that includes links to several other resources about the film.

Update: The director of photography for Arrival was Bradford Young, who shot Selma and is currently working on the Han Solo movie for Disney. Young did an interview with No Film School just before Arrival came out.

I’m from the South, so quilts are a big part of telling our story. Quilting is ancient, but in the South it’s a very particular translation of idea, time, and space. In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling.

Quiltmakers are rigorous, but they’re a mixed media format. I think filmmaking should be a mixed media format. I’m just really honoring what quiltmakers do, which is tell a story by using varying texture within a specific framework to communicate an idea. For me, with digital technology, lenses do that the best. The chips don’t do it now-digital film stock is basically all captured the same, but the lenses are how you give the image its textural quality.

(thx, raafi)

Update: James Gleick, author of Time Travel, wrote about Arrival and Story of Your Life for The New York Review of Books.

What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. “So in the future, the sister of the past,” thinks young Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.” Twisty! What if you received knowledge of your own tragic future-as a gift, or perhaps a curse? What if your all-too-vivid sensation of free will is merely an illusion? These are the roads down which Chiang’s story leads us. When I first read it, I meant to discuss it in the book I was writing about time travel, but I could never manage that. It’s not a time-travel story in any literal sense. It’s a remarkable work of imagination, original and cerebral, and, I would have thought, unfilmable. I was wrong.

(via @fquist)

  1. Christopher was 15 or 16 when he worked on the film. His LinkedIn profile states that he’s been a programmer for Wolfram (the company) since he was 13 and that in addition to his work on Arrival, he “implemented the primary cryptography functions in Mathematica”.

That fainting life

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Fainting

Isabella Rotman drew a comic for The Nib about her life as a hemophobe (someone who faints at the sight of blood).

Once at a former deli job, I passed out onto a pizza oven in response to a coworker’s particularly graphic description of a lawn mower injury. Had the oven been on, I would have suffered some pretty drastic burns.

I’m a fainter, though not at the sight of blood. After fainting a couple of times in high school, a doctor chalked it up to low blood pressure — I am the chillest mofo you know, blood pressure-wise — and urged me not to stand up too quickly after lying down. Just this morning, I did not heed that advice and almost toppled over after getting out of bed and stretching my arms above my head.

But my bigger problem, and what made Rotman’s comic resonate with me, is that medical procedures and doctor’s offices also cause me to faint. This wasn’t always the case. When I was younger, I received allergy shots up to three times a week and had no problem going into the clinic to get my shot…I even looked at the thin needle going into my arm every time. Flu shots, dentist visits, doctor’s appointments? No problem. Then when I was 17, I went to the local clinic for a mandatory physical for college. They did a blood draw, which went smoothly, but right afterwards, as I was sitting in a chair in the hallway, I fainted — probably because of my low blood pressure. Weird, but not a big deal.

Fast forward 12-15 years, during which time (because I was young and healthy and dumb and medical care is expensive) I did not visit a doctor’s office1 and somehow I had developed a phobia of needles going into my skin. I found this out when I went to get a flu shot, watched the needle sink into my arm, and promptly passed the fuck out.2 Since then, any time I’ve had to get a shot or blood drawn, I have fainted (or at least felt like I was going to).

That’s bad enough, but the problem became psychosomatic. Any trip to a doctor’s office will now trigger a faint feeling, even if I’m not the patient. Every time I take my kids to the pediatrician, there’s a possibility I’ll end up on the floor. When my wife was pregnant with our first kid, I nearly fainted at one of her ultrasound appointments and the ultrasound tech plopped me down in a nearby chair and handed me a glucose drink, telling me that becoming a father is a lot to handle for some men. (I think I nodded weakly, not even able to muster a “yeah, it’s not that”.) It’s gotten to the point where even *thinking* about it makes me feel weird. My palms have been sweaty and I’ve felt lightheaded the entire time I’ve been writing this post. The same thing happens when I tell people about it in person. It’s ridiculous and I feel stupid about it, even though it’s a stark reminder how much your subconscious thoughts can affect your body (and how little control we have over ourselves sometimes).

As Rotman did, I have been attempting exposure therapy with some success. When I went in for a physical a few months ago, I told the nurse that I might faint during the blood draw. She had me lay down on the table and just before she came over with the kit, I popped my headphones in and put on some relaxing music (Tycho I think). I broke out in a sweat and the procedure took much longer than it should have — she had to stick me *twice* because she didn’t get enough the first time — but I got through it without passing out. Progress to build on, I hope!

  1. Aside from a trip to the emergency room from — you guessed it! — a fainting incident when I was 24. Came to on the floor of the bathroom having slammed my mouth on the edge of the counter. It was exactly as painful as it sounds and it totally fucked up my grill.

  2. And wow, did the nurse look alarmed when I came to a few seconds later. They all look alarmed, even when I tell them ahead of time that I might faint. One of the last times, the nurse said, “I didn’t think you were actually serious.” (That fainting experience was the weirdest one I’ve ever had. According to the nurse, I was out for about 6-8 seconds but had a whole experience in my head that lasted for at least a half hour. I wasn’t near death, but it felt very real and I can definitely see how some people would interpret that as an out-of-body or religious experience.)

Abacus use can boost math skills (and other lessons on learning)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2017

Abacus

The abacus counting device dates back thousands of years but has, in the past century, been replaced by calculators and computers. But studies show that abacus use can have an effect on how well people learn math. In this excerpt adapted from his new book Learn Better, education researcher Ulrich Boser writes about the abacus and how people learn.

Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches.

UC San Diego psychologist David Barner led one of the studies, and he argues that abacus training can significantly boost math skills with effects potentially lasting for decades.

“Based on everything we know about early math education and its long-term effects, I’ll make the prediction that children who thrive with abacus will have higher math scores later in life, perhaps even on the SAT,” Barner told me.

Ignore the hyperbolic “and it changed my life” in the title…this piece is interesting throughout. For example, this passage on the strength of the mind-body connection and the benefits of learning by doing:

When first I watched high school abacus whiz Serena Stevenson, her hand gestures seemed like a pretentious affect, like people who wear polka-dot bow ties. But it turned out that her finger movements weren’t really all that dramatic, and on YouTube, I watched students with even more theatrical gesticulations. What’s more, the hand movements turned out to be at the heart of the practice, and without any arm or finger motions, accuracy can drop by more than half.

Part of the explanation for the power of the gestures goes to the mind-body connection. But just as important is the fact that abacus makes learning a matter of doing. It’s an active, engaging process. As one student told me, abacus is like “intellectual powerlifting.”

Psychologist Rich Mayer has written a lot about this idea, and in study after study he has shown that people gain expertise by actively producing what they know. As he told me: “Learning is a generative activity.”

I’d never heard of the concept of overlearning before:

Everybody from actors learning lines, to musicians learning new songs, to teachers trying to impart key facts to students has observed that learning has to “sink in” in the brain. Prior studies and also the new one, for example, show that when people learn a new task and then learn a similar one soon afterward, the second instance of learning often interferes with and undermines the mastery achieved on the first one.

The new study shows that overlearning prevents against such interference, cementing learning so well and quickly, in fact, that the opposite kind of interference happens instead. For a time, overlearning the first task prevents effective learning of the second task — as if learning becomes locked down for the sake of preserving master of the first task. The underlying mechanism, the researchers discovered, appears to be a temporary shift in the balance of two neurotransmitters that control neural flexibility, or “plasticity,” in the part of the brain where the learning occurred.

“These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-training plastic and unstable [learning state] to a hyperstabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning,” wrote the team led by corresponding author Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown.

The shortlist for 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2017

Sony Photo Awards 2017

Sony Photo Awards 2017

Sony Photo Awards 2017

Photographers from more than 60 countries submitted almost 230,000 entries for the World Photography Organization’s 2017 Sony World Photography Awards and they recently announced the top 10 (as well as the commended top 50) photographers in several different categories. Some fantastic work in here.

From top to bottom, a school of fish by Christian Vizl, the Shaolin Wushu school of martial arts by Luo Pin Xi, and a landscape by Tom Jacobi. (via in focus)

Recreating the Asteroids arcade game with a laser

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2017

Watch as digital artist Seb Lee-Delisle recreates the old school video game Asteroids with a laser. But why use a laser? There’s actually a good explanation for this. In the olden days of arcade video games, the screens on most games were like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong…a typical CRT refreshed the entire screen line-by-line many times a second to form a pixelized scene. But with vector games like Tempest, Star Wars, and Asteroids, the electron beam was manipulated magnetically to draw the ships and rocks and enemies directly…and you get all these cool effects like phosphor trails and brighter objects where the beam lingers. When you play Asteroids on a contemporary computer or gaming system, all those artifacts are lost. But with a laser, you can emulate the original feel of the game much more closely.

You’re not going to want to because it’s 17 minutes long, but you should watch the whole video…it’s super nerdy and the explanations of how the various technologies work is worth your while (unless you’re already a laser expert). I loved the bit near the end where they slowed down the rate of the laser so you could see it drawing the game and then slowly sped it back up again, passing through the transition from seeing the individual movements of the laser to observing an entire seamless scene that our mind has stitched together. In his recent book Wonderland, Steven Johnson talks about this remarkable trick of the mind:

On some basic level, this property of the human eye is a defect. When we watch movies, our eyes are empirically failing to give an accurate report of what is happening in front of them. They are seeing something that isn’t there. Many technological innovations exploit the strengths that evolution has granted us: tools and utensils harness our manual dexterity and opposable thumbs; graphic interfaces draw on our powerful visual memory to navigate information space. But moving pictures take the opposite approach: they succeed precisely because our eyes fail.

This flaw was not inevitable. Human eyesight might have just as easily evolved to perceive a succession of still images as exactly that: the world’s fastest slide show. Or the eye might have just perceived them as a confusing blur. There is no evolutionary reason why the eye should create the illusion of movement at twelve frames per second; the ancestral environment where our visual systems evolved had no film projectors or LCD screens or thaumatropes. Persistence of vision is what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel — an accidental property that emerged as a consequence of other more direct adaptations. It is interesting to contemplate how the past two centuries would have played out had the human eye not possessed this strange defect. We might be living in a world with jet airplanes, atomic bombs, radio, satellites, and cell phones — but without television and movies. (Computers and computer networks would likely exist, but without some of the animated subtleties of modern graphical interfaces.) Imagine the twentieth century without propaganda films, Hollywood, sitcoms, the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate, the footage of civil rights protesters being fire-hosed, Citizen Kane, the Macintosh, James Dean, Happy Days, and The Sopranos. All those defining experiences exist, in part, because natural selection didn’t find it necessary to perceive still images accurately at rates above twelve frames a second — and because hundreds of inventors, tinkering with the prototypes of cinema over the centuries, were smart enough to take that imperfection and turn it into art.

The Ballad of Holland Island House

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2017

The Ballad of Holland Island House was created by animator Lynn Tomlinson using a clay-on-glass painting technique.

The Ballad of Holland Island House is a short animation made with an innovative clay-painting technique in which a thin layer of oil-based clay comes to vibrant life frame by frame. Animator Lynn Tomlinson tells the true story of the last house on a sinking island in the Chesapeake Bay. Told from the house’s point of view, this film is a soulful and haunting view of the impact of sea-level rise.

The technique is a hybrid of traditional cel animation (traditionally done on transparent sheets) and claymation stop-motion animation.

“Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2017

Adam Gopnik writes about three books — Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr, and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari — that address the tension between liberalism and conservatism, going back to Voltaire v. Rousseau during the Enlightenment (and even further back, to Plato).

For Mishra, elements in modernity that seem violently opposed, Zionism and Islamism, Hindu nationalism and Theosophical soppiness — not to mention Nazi militarism — share a common wellspring. Their apostles all believe in some kind of blood consciousness, some kind of shared pre-rational identity, and appeal to a population enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward. Mishra brings this Walpurgisnacht of romanticized violence to a nihilistic climax with the happy meeting in a Supermax prison of Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing: the fanatic, child-murdering right-wing atheist finds “lots in common” with the equally murderous Islamic militant — one of those healing conversations we’re always being urged to pursue. (“I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his,” Yousef gushed of McVeigh.)

Very interesting context and a stimulating argument for the middle way by Gopnik — in his estimation, Betteridge’s law applies to the title. He didn’t care much for Homo Deus, and I have to admit, as a big fan of Sapiens, that I’ve run out of steam with this new one and found myself nodding my head at Gopnik’s objections. I’m gonna get back to it, I’m sure, but with less enthusiasm than before.

Super cool time lapse video of cell division

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2017

This is a stunning time lapse video of the cells in a tadpole egg dividing over a period of 33 hours. The filmmaker, Francis Chee, built a custom microscope and lighting system to capture the action.

I can say that it was done with a custom designed microscope based on the “infinity optical design” It is not available by any manufacturer. I built it. I used LEDs and relevant optics to light the egg. They too were custom designed by me. The whole microscope sits on anti-vibration table. I have to say that it doesn’t matter too much what microscope people use to perform this. There are countless other variables involved in performing this tricky shot, such as for example: the ambient temperature during shooting; the time at which the eggs were collected; the handling skills of the operator; the type of water used; lenses; quality of camera etc etc.

Chee says in the comments that he’s perfecting his technique and hopes to capture a complete egg-to-tadpole video in the near future. His other videos are worth a look too, like this mushroom time lapse and this gruesome video of a praying mantis eating a fly alive. (via colossal)

Daft Punk samples and their sources

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2017

Daft Punk creates their songs by extensively sampling records, mostly from the 70s and 80s. In some cases, bits of song are used relatively unchanged while others are chopped up and repeated to the point of being unrecognizable. Here are a few of the group’s samples compared with their original sources.

See also the duo’s Alive 2007 live album, which I have been listening to extensively lately.

Update: The video I’d originally linked to got taken down but I replaced it with another one. Here’s another one as well.

A timeline map of US immigration since 1820

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2017

This interactive map shows where the 79 million people who have immigrated to the US from 1820 to 2013 came from. In the past, incoming residents from Canada, Italy, Germany, and Ireland were prevalent, but more recently Mexico, China, and the Philippines have led the way.

What I think is particularly interesting about immigration to the U.S. is that each “wave” coming in from a particular country has a story behind it — usually escaping persecution (e.g. Jews escaping Russia after the May Laws were enacted, the Cuban Revolution) or major economic troubles (e.g. the Irish Potato Famine, the collapse of southern Italy after the Italian Unification).

There are plenty of dark spots on United States’ history, but the role it has played as a sanctuary for troubled people across the world is a history I feel very proud to be a part of.

The graph of incoming immigrants as a percentage of the total US population is especially instructive. Though higher than it was in the 60s and 70s, relative immigration rates are still far below what the country saw in the 1920s and before.

Flatland II, curved landscape panoramas

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2017

Buyuktas Flatland

Buyuktas Flatland

Buyuktas Flatland

Aydın Büyüktaş has continued his Flatland project with more of these photographic panoramas folded over on themselves. Looks like he’s gotten better at picking good subjects and stitching these together…love these. (via colossal)

Why are knights pictured fighting snails in medieval manuscripts?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2017

Snails, particularly those shown in combat with knights, show up in the margins of medieval manuscripts copied around the turn of the 14th century…a sort of medieval meme that spread among scribes. In this video, Phil Edwards investigates what’s going on with those snails, drawing upon the work of Lilian Randall in The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare (a corker of a title for an academic work, to be sure).

Citizen Jane, a documentary film about Jane Jacobs

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2017

Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City is a documentary films about Jane Jacobs and her legendary battle against Robert Moses for the soul of New York City.

People have to insist on government trying things their way.

The film will be available in theaters and on-demand on April 21.

I’m a bit more than halfway through the audiobook of The Power Broker and Robert Moses is approaching the height of his influence. The power that Moses possessed in NYC almost cannot be overstated — I can’t think of any other single person who affected the “look and feel” of the city more than he did. I have heard the story many times, but I can’t wait to get the part with Jacobs, to hear in Caro’s words how this infinitely powerful man lost his grip on the city because of this remarkable woman and a group of concerned citizens. (via @daveg)

Update: Astoundingly, Jacobs is not in The Power Broker. Her chapter was cut for length. (thx, alec)