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The Wizard and the Prophet

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

Last week Charles C. Mann, author of the excellent 1491 (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and 1493, tweeted what looked like a completed manuscript of a new book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Aside from a pub date (Oct 5), Mann was coy about details in the thread and there’s not a lot of information about the book on the internet. But there is a little. From the Books on Tape website:

From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493 — an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups — Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, non-polemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces — food, water, energy, climate change — grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.

In 2012, Orion Magazine published a piece by Mann called State of the Species, which was nominated for a 2013 National Magazine Award and is said to be “an early version of the introductory chapter” to The Wizard and the Prophet.

How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?

Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise — a daunting, hideously expensive task.

Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.

I’m very eager to tear into this book. The Prophets vs. The Wizards debate lies at the heart of issues about economic equality, climate change, and the future of energy (both electrical and nutritional). I see people having some form of this debate on Twitter every day, whether it’s about GMO crops, nuclear power, animal extinction, or carbon offsets.

Four years ago, Bill Gates, a Wizard to the core, talked to a small group of media about his most recent annual letter. I can’t recall exactly what Gates said — something like “you can’t tell a billion Indians they can’t have flatscreen TVs”1 — but I do remember very clearly how emphatically he stated that the way forward was not about the world cutting back on energy usage or consumption or less intensive farming. I think about his statement several times a week. I was unconvinced of his assertion at the time and still am. But my skepticism bothers me…I’m skeptical of my skepticism. Technology and progress have done a lot of good for the world — let’s talk infant mortality and infectious diseases for starters — but I am also sympathetic to the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”. So yeah, I’m keen to see what Mann adds to this debate.

  1. It’s important to note this statement was made in context to a larger conversation. Gates was using “flatscreen TVs” was a stand-in for progress (clean water, health food, good medicine, reliable electricity, etc.) and the unspoken corollary was that Americans and Western Europeans shouldn’t need to give up those things either. The goal is to distribute progress and technology more evenly throughout the world, not slow progress down in some parts of the world in order for other parts to catch up.

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A handy timeline of Donald Trump's Russian connections

The company you work for is not your friend, so here's how to look out for yourself in the workplace

The Internet Archive is a finalist for a $100 million grant to provide free digital books to libraries & classrooms

Tomorrow (Feb 18), the excellent Hidden Figures will screen for free in several cities in the US

Oh super, Robert De Niro is an anti-vaxxer now

There's no quick links archive yet. If you'd like to see 'em all, follow @kottke on Twitter.

Every NY Times front page in under a minute

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 21, 2017

In this short video, Josh Begley shows all of the front pages of the NY Times in chronological order from 1852 to the present. The Times began publishing in 1851 so not every front page is represented, but that’s still more than 50,000 pages in less than a minute. Since they go by so quickly, here are some highlights:

Dec 11, 1861: The Times publishes their first illustrations on the front page. One is a map of Virginia and the other two are political cartoons lampooning James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, one of the Times’ main rivals.

Apr 15, 1865: The front page columns were lined with black as they reported on the assassination of Lincoln.

Dec 1, 1896: The hyphen is dropped from “The New-York Times”.

Feb 10, 1897: The slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” appears for the first time on the front page.

May 30, 1910: The first news photograph appears on the front page, a photo of aviator Glenn Curtiss flying from Albany to NYC at the blistering pace of 54 mi/hr.

May 1, 1926: The Times prints the first photo “radioed” to the newspaper from London. Transmission time: 1hr 45m.

Jul 21, 1969: The first use of 96 pt. type on the front page announces the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and subsequent moonwalk. The large type will also be used to announce Nixon’s resignation, the first day of 2000, 9/11, and the election of Barack Obama.

Sept 7, 1976: The columns on the front page are widened, reducing their number from 8 to 6.

Oct 16, 1997: The first color photo is printed on the front page of the Times. (The Times Machine scan is in B&W for some reason, but the photo was in color.)

Begley also made Best of Luck With the Wall, a video showing the entire extent of the US-Mexico border.

Every Best Animated Feature Oscar winner

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2017

Since 2001, the Oscars have awarded The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The video above shows a scene from each of the winning movies: Shrek, Spirited Away, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Happy Feet, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Rango, Brave, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Inside Out….as well as 2016’s five nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, and Zootopia. Pixar has dominated the category with 8 wins (and 10 nominations) out of 15 years, but the strong field this year meant the studio’s critically acclaimed blockbuster Finding Dory wasn’t even nominated, joining Cars 2, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur as the only Pixar films made during that period not to be nominated.

How the BBC made Planet Earth II

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2017

In the first of a three-part video series, Vox’s Joss Fong looks at how the technology used to film nature documentaries has changed over the past 50 years and how the producers of Planet Earth II used contemporary image stabilization techniques to make the series with a more cinematic style.

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was enough for the NHU to show people a creature they’d never seen before and provide the details in the narration. The films were illustrated zoology lectures. Since then, the producers have become sticklers for capturing specific behaviors, and in Planet Earth II, they showcase the drama of those behaviors. Each scene sets up the characters to perform something - something brave, something brutal, something bizarre. They’ve made room for our emotions; that’s what cinematic storytelling means.

And visually, the cinematic approach means the camera is often moving.

Hollywood filmmakers have kept the camera in motion for decades, but for obvious reasons, it’s much more difficult when your subject is wildlife. As we explain in the video at the top of this post, NHU producers used new stabilization tools throughout the production of Planet Earth II to move the camera alongside the animals.

The program doesn’t make you wait long to showcase this new approach. The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. — but this is really some next-level shit. The kids were more excited after watching it than any movie they’ve seen in the past 6 months (aside from possibly Rogue One). The Blu-ray will be out at the end of March1 but there’s also a 4K “ultra HD” version that had me researching new ultra HD TVs I don’t really need.

Oh, and remember that thrilling sequence of the snakes chasing the newly hatched iguanas? Here’s a short clip on how they filmed it.

  1. I still have a Blu-ray player than I barely use and only buy 1-2 BR discs a year, but Planet Earth II is one of those increasingly rare programs you want to see in full HD without compression or streaming artifacts.

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.

Free online lessons in storytelling & moviemaking from Pixar

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

In partnership with Khan Academy, Pixar is offering a number of free online lessons in making 3D animated movies and storytelling called Pixar in a Box. Here’s a video introduction of what courses are available:

There are lessons on rendering, shading, crowds, virtual cameras, and many other topics, but the most accessible for people of all ages/interests is probably the lessons on The Art of Storytelling, which were just posted earlier this week. Here’s the introductory video for that, featuring Pete Docter, director of Up and Inside Out.

This is pretty cool. I’m hoping to spend some more time with this over the weekend.

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!

The top 10 coin flips in history

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

The Super Bowl is old news at this point and I have a love/hate thing with Bill Simmons going on, but I loved his ranking of the top 10 coin flips in history, which in typical Simmons fashion, crosses a bunch of different boundaries, from technology:

10. The Wright Brothers. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville flipped a coin to see who would attempt the first airborne flight. Wilbur won … and couldn’t keep the plane in the air. They repaired the plane and three days later Orville nailed the second flight, leading Skip Bayless to tweet, “I know this is Orville’s day but I can’t get over that choke job by Wilbur!”

…to sports:

3. Secretariat. Remember when Penny Chenery and Ogden Phipps flipped a coin for the first pick of two foals that Bold Ruler had sired? And Phipps won and picked a foal born from Bold Ruler and Hasty Matelda? And Chenery settled for Secretariat, the eventual Triple Crown winner that became the most famous race horse who ever lived? And then Diane Lane played Chenery in Disney’s Secretariat movie that was 25 minutes too long? Poor Ogden Phipps.

…to the #1 pick from the musical world (which you might guess but will have to click through for).

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.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

George Saunders has written his first novel and it’s just as unusual as his short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fiction about Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie, who is caught between lives.

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

Buzzfeed has an excerpt of the novel, which takes the form of a collection of quotes.

The boy, frustrated at being denied the attention he felt he deserved, moved in and leaned against his father, as the father continued to hold and gently rock the—
the reverend everly thomas

Sick-form.
hans vollman

At one point, moved, I turned away from the scene and found we were not alone.
roger bevins iii

A crowd had gathered outside.
the reverend everly thomas

All were silent.
roger bevins iii

As the man continued to gently rock his child.
the reverend everly thomas

While his child, simultaneously, stood quietly leaning against him.
hans vollman

Then the gentleman began to speak.
roger bevins iii

Time to bust out the Google Cardboard: the NY Times VR team adapted a part of the novel into a 10-minute VR film.

Here’s a good interview with Saunders about the book and a review by Colson Whitehead. The book has been hovering near the top of the Amazon best sellers list since its release — it was #2 when I looked yesterday but is currently 6th, right after Orwell’s 19841 — and I’ve seen several people in my Instagram feed reading it…or at least socially signaling that they’re reading it. ;)

  1. The current #1 is a hardcover strategy guide for a new Legend of Zelda game that doesn’t come out until next month.

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)

A Day Without Immigrants strike

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2017

kottke.org will not be updated today in support of the Day Without Immigrants Strike. From the Washington Post:

Immigrants in D.C. and across the country plan to participate in the “Day Without Immigrants” boycott, a response to President Trump’s pledges to crack down on those in the country illegally, use “extreme vetting” and build a wall along the Mexican border. The social-media-organized protest aims to show the president the effect immigrants have in the country on a daily basis. The boycott calls for immigrants not to attend work, open their businesses, spend money or even send their children to school.

The regularly irregular publishing schedule will resume tomorrow.

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.

  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”.

WhaleSynth, a neat online toy for generating whale sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

WhaleSynth

WhaleSynth is a cool little instrument for making whale sounds. There are three different species of whale to choose from, you can add clicks and sonar echoes, and you can also adjust the depth and number of whales in your chorus. Warning: this might occupy many many minutes of your time but could also soothe frayed political nerves.