UPS trucks don't turn leftAPR 07

Well, they do sometimes but not very often. Left turns cross traffic, which wastes time and causes accidents. So UPS routes are designed with mostly right turns...three rights make a left, you know.

UPS engineers found that left-hand turns were a major drag on efficiency. Turning against traffic resulted in long waits in left-hand turn lanes that wasted time and fuel, and it also led to a disproportionate number of accidents. By mapping out routes that involved "a series of right-hand loops," UPS improved profits and safety while touting their catchy, environmentally friendly policy.

I wonder though, does this make the drivers unhappy?

Louis C.K. on SNLMAR 30

It's Saturday Sunday Night Live! Here's Louis C.K.'s monologue from last night's SNL; it's 8 minutes of his trademark stand-up.

Let It Go internationallyAPR 16

Frozen, Let It Go

If you have children in your home, you have likely seen the movie Frozen and heard the song Let It Go like 50 billionty times. The movie did great in the US, coming in as the 19th biggest movie ever, but it's done amazingly well overseas: #8 on the alltime list with a $1.1 billion gross.

So it's a no-brainer for Disney to release an album with 50 different versions of Let It Go, sung in languages ranging from Arabic to Icelandic to Romanian to Vietnamese. (via @cabel)

Update: Here's a video of the entire song sung in 25 languages:

(via @waxpancake & @Ilovetoscore)

More on Michael Lewis and high-frequency tradingAPR 02

Michael Lewis's new book about high-frequency trading dropped on Monday with less than 24 hours notice and the media is scrambling to catch up. There's plenty of love for Lewis and his books out there, but Tyler Cowen has been linking to some critiques. For Bloomberg, Matt Levine writes:

In my alternative Michael Lewis story, the smart young whippersnappers build high-frequency trading firms that undercut big banks' gut-instinct-driven market making with tighter spreads and cheaper trading costs. Big HFTs like Knight/Getco and Virtu trade vast volumes of stock while still taking in much less money than the traditional market makers: $688 million and $623 million in 2013 market-making revenue, respectively, for Knight and Virtu, versus $2.6 billion in equities revenue for Goldman Sachs and $4.8 billion for J.P. Morgan. Even RBC made 594 million Canadian dollars trading equities last year. The high-frequency traders make money more consistently than the old-school traders, but they also make less of it.

And here's Matthew Philips on What Michael Lewis Gets Wrong About High-Frequency Trading:

1. HFT doesn't prey on small mom-and-pop investors. In his first two TV appearances, Lewis stuck to a simple pitch: Speed traders have rigged the stock market, and the biggest losers are average, middle-class retail investors-exactly the kind of people who watch 60 Minutes and the Today show. It's "the guy sitting at his ETrade account," Lewis told Matt Lauer. The way Lewis sees it, speed traders prey on retail investors by "trading against people who don't know the market."

The idea that retail investors are losing out to sophisticated speed traders is an old claim in the debate over HFT, and it's pretty much been discredited. Speed traders aren't competing against the ETrade guy, they're competing with each other to fill the ETrade guy's order.

And Felix Salmon:

This vagueness about time is one of the weaknesses of the book: it's hard to keep track of time, and a lot of it seems to be an exposé not of high-frequency trading as it exists today, but rather of high-frequency trading as it existed during its brief heyday circa 2008. Lewis takes pains to tell us what happened to the number of trades per day between 2006 and 2009, for instance, but doesn't feel the need to mention what has happened since then. (It is falling, quite dramatically.) The scale of the HFT problem - and the amount of money being made by the HFT industry - is in sharp decline: there was big money to be made once upon a time, but nowadays it's not really there anymore. Because that fact doesn't fit Lewis's narrative, however, I doubt I'm going to find it anywhere in his book.

Study: parents tired of parenting studiesMAR 25

Have you guys read the latest parenting study? The New Yorker Sarah Miller has the scoop: Parents have had enough of parenting studies.

Paul Nickman, forty-five, was taking a coffee break at his Visalia, California, law office when he began to leaf through an article about the importance of giving kids real challenges. "They mentioned this thing called grit, and I was like, 'O.K, great. Grit.' Then I started to think about how, last year, I'd read that parents were making kids do too much and strive too hard, and ever since then we've basically been letting our kids, who are ten and six, sit around and stare into space." Nickman called his wife and started to shout, "Make the kids go outside and get them to build a giant wall out of dirt and lawn furniture and frozen peas!"

Clean coal?MAR 25

You have solar on your roof, a hybrid in your garage, and wind, water, nuclear, and natural gas all being pushed by various companies and interest groups. But, now, and for the foreseeable future, you've also got coal. And lots of it. Wired's Charles C. Mann lays it out:

A lump of coal is a thoroughly ubiquitous 21st-century artifact, as much an emblem of our time as the iPhone. Today coal produces more than 40 percent of the world's electricity, a foundation of modern life. And that percentage is going up.

That reality is bad news for the environment and climate change, and it leaves us with a big question: How do we minimize the damage?

Syndicated from NextDraft. Subscribe today or grab the iOS app.

rating: 4.0 stars

AvatarDEC 29

One of the most difficult things to get right in movies about aliens or the future is matching the cultural and technological sophistication of a people with their environment and history. In Avatar, the Na'vi are portrayed as a Stone Age tribe, living in relatively small groups and essentially ignorant or uninterested in technology beyond simple knives and bows. But the Na'vi are also very physically capable, obviously very intelligent, aware of their global environment, well-nourished, healthy, omnivorous, adaptive, and even inventive. They have domesticated animals, are troubled by few serious natural predators, can live in different environments, have easy access to many varied natural resources (for sustenance and building/making), and can travel and therefore communicate over long distances (dozens if not hundreds of miles a day on their winged animals).

And most importantly, the Na'vi have regular and intimate access to a moon-sized supercomputer -- a neural net supercomputer at that -- that connects them to every other living thing on their world and have had such access for what could be millennia.

It just doesn't add up. The Na'vi are too capable and live in an environment that is far too pregnant with technological possibility to be stuck in the Stone Age. Plot-wise it's convenient for them to be the way they are, but the Na'vi really should have been more technologically advanced than the Earthlings, not only capable of easily repelling any attack from Captain Ironpants but able to keep the mining company from landing on the moon in the first place.

Evidence of humans in South America 22,000 years agoMAR 31

Recent discoveries in Brazil that humans were present in South America as early as 22,000 years ago has contributed to the growing belief that the Clovis First hypothesis is wrong.

Researchers here say they have unearthed stone tools proving that humans reached what is now northeast Brazil as early as 22,000 years ago. Their discovery adds to the growing body of research upending a prevailing belief of 20th-century archaeology in the United States known as the Clovis model, which holds that people first arrived in the Americas from Asia about 13,000 years ago.

"If they're right, and there's a great possibility that they are, that will change everything we know about the settlement of the Americas," said Walter Neves, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Sao Paulo whose own analysis of an 11,000-year-old skull in Brazil implies that some ancient Americans resembled aboriginal Australians more than they did Asians.

Up and down the Americas, scholars say that the peopling of lands empty of humankind may have been far more complex than long believed. The radiocarbon dating of spear points found in the 1920s near Clovis, N.M., placed the arrival of big-game hunters across the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago, long forming the basis of when humans were believed to have arrived in the Americas.

More recently, numerous findings have challenged that narrative. In Texas, archaeologists said in 2011 that they had found projectile points showing that hunter-gatherers had reached another site, known as Buttermilk Creek, as early as 15,500 years ago. Similarly, analysis of human DNA found at an Oregon cave determined that humans were there 14,000 years ago.

The Uncomfortable ProjectMAR 27

For her Uncomfortable Project, Katerina Kamprani redesigned useful objects; they're still technically functional but are a pain in the ass to use. Like this key:

Uncomfortable key

Or this awkward broom:

Uncomfortable broom

Donald Rumsfeld: The Unknown KnownMAR 26

Errol Morris' documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, comes out next month. The trailer:

In the first of a four-part companion series to the movie for the NY Times, Morris explores The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.

When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?

The Unknown Known has been referred to as a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War, but from this it seems more like its opposite. Morris got some substantive and honest answers to important questions from McNamara, whereas it sounds like he got bupkiss from Rumsfeld.

Update: Here's part 2.

A.I. movie merch: Super Toy TeddyAPR 11

Super Toy Teddy

Today I learned that Hasbro released a toy based on the talking teddy bear in Kubrick/Spielberg's A.I. W? T? F? And of course it's super creepy:

Noel Murray has the whole story, along with an appreciation of the movie and Spielberg's direction of it.

A.I. in particular still strikes me as a masterpiece. I thought it might be back in 2001; now I'm certain of it. But it isn't any easier to watch in 2014 than it was before my first child was born. Like a lot of Spielberg's films -- even the earlier crowd-pleasers -- A.I. is a pointed critique of human selfishness, and our tendency to assert our will and make bold, world-changing moves, with only passing regard for the long-term consequences. Spielberg carries this theme of misguided self-absorption to child-rearing, implying that parents program their kids to be cute love machines, unable to cope with the harshness of the real world. He also questions whether humankind is nothing but flesh-based technology, which emerged from the primordial ooze (represented in the opening shot of A.I. by a roiling ocean), and has been trained over millennia to respond to stimuli in socially appropriate ways. A.I. blurs the lines between human and mecha frequently, from an early shot of Monica that makes her look exactly like one of Professor Hobby's creations, to the way Martin walks, thanks to mechanical legs.

Navy: using seawater for fuelAPR 14

The US Navy is working on technology to convert seawater into fuel to power unmodified combustion engines. They recently tested the fuel (successfully!) in a replica P-51 and hope to make it commerically viable.

Navy researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division, demonstrated proof-of-concept of novel NRL technologies developed for the recovery of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) from seawater and conversion to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

Fueled by a liquid hydrocarbon -- a component of NRL's novel gas-to-liquid (GTL) process that uses CO2 and H2 as feedstock -- the research team demonstrated sustained flight of a radio-controlled (RC) P-51 replica of the legendary Red Tail Squadron, powered by an off-the-shelf (OTS) and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine.

Using an innovative and proprietary NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM), both dissolved and bound CO2 are removed from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.

"In close collaboration with the Office of Naval Research P38 Naval Reserve program, NRL has developed a game-changing technology for extracting, simultaneously, CO2 and H2 from seawater," said Dr. Heather Willauer, NRL research chemist. "This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation."

Discover has more, in slightly more accessible language.

Medieval maps from the 11th to 14th centuriesMAR 20

From Retronaut, a collection of maps dating from 1000-1300s.

Maps Before Maps

How were maps perceived 1000 years ago? Did they blow people's minds with physically impossible views of cities, states, and continents? Could a circa-1200 scholar imagine himself looking down from several miles in the air and seeing the same thing he was seeing on a map?

The all-crust hamburgerAPR 01

Kenji Lopez-Alt and the folks at the Harlem Shake restaurant have invented a burger that's all delicious brown crust.

See, by placing a ball of meat on a hot, un-oiled griddle and smashing it down firmly into a flat, thin disk, you greatly increase the contact points between the meat and the griddle, which in turn increases the Maillard reaction. That's the series of chemical reactions that creates the rich brown crust that makes our steaks and burgers taste so freaking good. Maximum crust = maximum flavor = maximum craving.

I've already discussed the basic ins and outs of smashed burgers in the past, but after writing that article, I found myself wondering, what if I were to take this to the extreme? Is there a way I can pack even more flavor into a burger?

Spoiler alert: the answer is a big fat (or should I say short smashed?) yes.

Noah soundtrackMAR 31

A Clint Mansell soundtrack for a Darren Aronofsky film? Hell. Yes.

Mansell also did the soundtracks for Moon (my favorite of his, I think) and Requiem for a Dream. The Noah soundtrack is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Green Eggs and HamFEB 20

Green Eggs and Ham

After writing The Cat in the Hat in 1955 using only 223 words, Dr. Seuss bet his publisher that he could write a book using only 50 words. Seuss collected on the wager in 1960 with the publication of Green Eggs and Ham. Here are the 50 distinct words used in the book:

a am and anywhere are be boat box car could dark do eat eggs fox goat good green ham here house I if in let like may me mouse not on or rain Sam say see so thank that the them there they train tree try will with would you

From a programming perspective, one of the fun things about Green Eggs and Ham is because the text contains so little information repeated in a cumulative tale, the story could be more efficiently represented as an algorithm. A simple loop would take the place of the following excerpt:

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam I am.

But I don't know...foreach ($items as $value) doesn't quite have the same sense of poetry as the original Seuss.

Milton Glaser reviews beer bottle artMAR 28

Legendary designer Milton Glaser (of I❤NY fame) critiques craft beer labels.

Glaser Craft Beer

(via @bn2b)

rating: 1.0 stars

Room 237SEP 25

John Gruber's tweet last night reminded me I'd never written up a review for Room 237, the documentary about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Gruber writes:

Broke down and watched "Room 237". It was bad. Really bad. Boring bad. Crazy people.

Just watch "The Shining" again instead.

I agree. I watched it earlier this year and disliked the film so much, I didn't even finish it, which is rare for me. As I hinted at on Twitter, I'm exposed to enough anti-vaccine, anti-evolution, anti-anthropogenic climate change, anti-science, and religious fundamentalist "theories" in my day-to-day reading that are genuinely harmful to humanity that an examination of how the minds of conspiracy theory crackpots take the smallest little details and weave them into fantastical stories that make no sense is not how I want to spend my time.

As if to underscore my dislike of the film, the following arrived in my inbox shortly after I watched it.

To: Jason Kottke <jason@kottke.org>
Prospective Story: Re: Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"

i'm not good at salesmanship so i'll get right to the point. i've solved the mystery of room 237 in stanley kubrick's 'the shining' i'm shopping this information to various media sources. here's the deal:

*** the price is $13,000.00

*** i'm aware of the documentaries, the scholarly analyses and the terrabytes of web space dedicated to the topic

*** nobody has gottten it right

*** i guarantee satisfaction

*** there's no risk. either you think the solution to the greatest cinematic mystery of all time is worth 13k or you don't. all i require beforehand is a conditional agreement protecting me from ip theft

*** i remain anonymous. once the transaction is complete the information is yours. i don't care who receives credit or what you do with it

it's been over 30 years. this information should be public. YOU can be the first.

i look forward to your response

Putting on my tin foil hat for a minute, DONT YOU SHEEPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS? That someone is watching what I'm watching! How did this person know I had just watched Room 237?! I bet it's the NSA! Or something! They are watching for people with large audiences to plant lies about Kubrick to deflect attention away from the faked Moon landing! For some reason! THIS IS THE PROOF WEVE BEEN WAITING FOR!??

Yep: "Really bad. Boring bad. Crazy people."

That skydiver meteorite was just a rockAPR 08

After many days of analysis by scientists and internet sleuths alike, it's likely that the thing pictured whizzing by the skydiver in this video is not a meteorite but a plain old rock that got packed in with his parachute. Phil Plait reports:

I actually became convinced last night, when BA Tweep Helge Bjorkhaug sent me a link to a slowed-down version of the video. Immediately before the rock flies past, I saw a second piece of debris just to the right of the skydiver's parachute strap. It was in several frames, and clearly real.

So yeah, bummer, not a meteorite. But as Plait notes, that's how science works.

That's how you get to the truth, folks. Open inquiry, honest investigation, and acceptance of the line of evidence no matter where it leads.

Creativity, Inc.MAR 21

Ed Catmull has written a book about Pixar's creative process: Creativity, Inc.

Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation -- into the meetings, postmortems, and "Braintrust" sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture -- but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, "an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible."

For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner thirty Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired -- and so profitable.

Catmull was a founder of Pixar and while he never got the press Jobs and Lasseter did, he was instrumental in the company's success and is currently president of both Disney and Pixar's animation studios. Fast Company has an excerpt of the book.

Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so -- to go, as I say, "from suck to not-suck."

Think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must've seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don't get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process -- reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.

First episode of Silicon ValleyAPR 07

HBO put the entire first episode of Mike Judge's new show Silicon Valley up on YouTube:

The history of the movie trailerAPR 03

Filmmaker IQ has a nice exploration of the history of the movie trailer. And yes, they actually used to play at the end of (i.e. "trail") the film.

Coming into the 1960s, a new generation of star directors began to redefine the trailer - among them was the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Instead of showing scenes from the movie, Hitchcock, who had become quite well known to audiences from his "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV series, cashed in on his celebrity... taking audiences on a tour using his gallows humor style in this trailer for 1960's Pscyho.

The reemergence of Cubism in film and commercial art in the 1960s was not lost on another emerging filmmaker - Stanley Kubrick. Having experimented with fragmented cutting styles in the trailer to 1962's Lolita, Kubrick comes back strong in 1964's "Dr. Strangelove" with a trailer that I consider one of the most bold and brazen pieces of movie advertising ever made.

How neon signs are madeMAR 24

A cool short documentary about neon sign making, a dying industry in Hong Kong.

As Jonathan Hoefler notes, the letters are designed so that the designers don't burn their hands while bending the glass over an 800°C flame.

Amazon's drug dealer scaleAPR 14

Drug Scale

If you buy this digital scale on Amazon, the site assumes you might be a drug dealer. Nestled among the calibration weights listed in the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought section are tobacco pipe screens, rolling papers, powders for cutting drugs (I assume), zipper bags of all sizes (including some decorated with golden skulls), empty pill capsules, and even a Dr Pepper can safe.

See also the mega-packs of whipped cream chargers which are frequently purchased with balloons for the purpose of getting high. (via mr)

Drones on demandAPR 09

Gofor imagines a future world where drones are cheap and ubiquitous. What sorts of things would we have personal drones do for us? Follow us home in unsafe neighborhoods? Personal traffic copters? Travel location scouting?

How long before someone uses a personal drone for the same purpose as the US government? Just think how easy and untraceable it would be to outfit a drone with a weapon, shoot someone, and then dump the drone+weapon in a lake or ocean. When it happens, the reaction will be predictable: ban personal drones. Guns don't kill people, drones kill people, right?

rating: 4.5 stars

The September IssueMAR 18

I straight-up loved this movie. It's a fascinating look at the creative process of a team with strong leadership operating at a very high level. The trailer is pretty misleading in this respect...the main story in the film has little to do with fashion and should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever worked with a bunch of people on a project. Others have made the comparison of Anna Wintour with Steve Jobs and it seems apt. At several points in the film, my thoughts drifted to Jobs and Apple; Wintour seems like the same sort of creative leader as Jobs.

MTV Amp complete playlistAPR 03

My friend Aaron has compiled an Rdio playlist of every song ever played on MTV's Amp, a show from the mid-90s that featured electronic music. Lots of Underworld, Prodigy, Aphex Twin, and Orbital on here.

Some songs weren't available on Rdio, but there's more than 18 hours of music here.

Shaun the Sheep MovieAPR 03

Holy cow, Aardman is making a Shaun the Sheep Movie! Here's a teaser trailer:

The movie will be out in March 2015 and the plot centers on the sheep going to the big city to retrieve the Farmer. As I wrote last year, Shaun the Sheep is wonderful family entertainment. I wonder how the lack of dialogue will translate to the feature length format? (thx, greg)

The shoe masterMAR 18

Hitoshi Mimura

That is a bespoke running shoe made by a small company started by Hitoshi Mimura, who is considered one of the top shoe designers in the world. Mimura had great success at Asics, outfitting Olympic gold medal runners with shoes lighter, grippier, and more breathable than those worn by competitors, but now he has struck out on his own.

"I take 13 measurements of the foot, each foot has to be measured separately," explains the sensei of shoemaking. "I only trust hand-measuring. Currently, each shoe takes about three weeks to make, mainly due to determining which materials to use." Preparation is also key. "For a world championships or Olympics I check the course once or twice. I went to Beijing three times."

A NY Times feature on Mimura written before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing emphasized the designer's reliance on rice husks in the soles for grippiness. Mimura takes his job and his responsibility to the runners very seriously:

Surreptitiously, Mimura made soles of two slightly different thicknesses, to compensate for the fact that Takahashi's left leg was eight millimeters -- about a third of an inch -- longer than her right leg. She had tried a pair of the uneven soles before the Sydney Olympics, but felt uncomfortable.

Still, Mimura felt Takahashi needed such shoes to win and to avoid a recurrence of pain caused by the disparity in her legs. Without Takahashi's knowledge, Mimura gave her the uneven soles, then wrote a letter of resignation, in case she failed to win gold.

"I decided to take full responsibility because I made this pair against her wishes," Mimura said of the letter. "I didn't have to hand it over. It's still in my desk."

That is belief in yourself and in your craft. Many people believe in "giving people not what they want but what they need" but how many of them will put their livelihood on the line for it?

Flash BoysMAR 31

Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Liar's Poker) is back with another book about the financial markets: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. It's the story of high-frequency trading and the traders who are fighting against it.

Flash Boys is about a small group of Wall Street guys who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post-financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, the flash boys band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading-source of the most intractable problems-will have no advantage whatsoever.

The characters in Flash Boys are fabulous, each completely different from what you think of when you think "Wall Street guy." Several have walked away from jobs in the financial sector that paid them millions of dollars a year. From their new vantage point they investigate the big banks, the world's stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms as they have never been investigated, and expose the many strange new ways that Wall Street generates profits.

From a Bloomberg article about the book:

His latest target, high-frequency trading, comprises a diverse set of software-driven strategies that have spread from U.S. equity markets to most developed countries as computer power grew and regulators tried to break the grip of centralized exchanges. While the tactics vary, they usually employ super-fast computers to post and cancel orders at rates measured in thousandths or even millionths of a second to capture price discrepancies on more than 50 public and private venues that make up the American equities market.

I don't know too much about it but from what I've read, high-frequency trading seems to involve huge Wall Street banks using the Office Space/Richard-Pryor-in-Superman-III trick of shaving fractions of a penny off of trillions of trades every year, except that it's perfectly legal. The NY Times has an excerpt of the book to further whet your appetite.

The scourge of coffeeMAR 20

Khoi Vinh tells us how he really feels about coffee.

In the West, and particularly in urban centers of the United States, we've turned coffee into not just a daily habit, but a totem of conspicuous consumption. They are "rituals of self-congratulation" (a choice phrase I believe I read from Sam Sifton, but which I can't seem to source) wherein we continually obsess over certain coffee purveyors or certain methods of brewing coffee - each new one more complex, more Rube Goldbergian and more comically self-involved than the previous brewing fad.

I don't drink coffee either (don't even like the smell), but as someone who regularly indulges in other addictions and "rituals of self-congratulation", I don't take issue with other people's enjoyment of coffee...as long as I'm out of earshot when the "perfect grinder for pulling a great shot" discussion starts.

Coffee, like almost everything else these days, is a sport. Everyone has a favorite team (or coffee making method or political affiliation or design style or TV drama or rapper or comic book), discusses techniques and relives great moments with other likeminded fans, and argues with fans of other teams. The proliferation and diversification of media over the past 35 years created thousands of new sports and billions of new teams. These people turned hard-to-find nail polish into a sport. These people support Apple in their battle against Microsoft and Samsung. This guy scouts fashion phenoms on city streets. Finding the best bowl of ramen in NYC is a sport. Design is a sport. Even hating sports is a sport; people compete for the funniest "what time is the sportsball match today? har har people who like sports are dumb jocks" joke on Twitter. Let people have their sports, I say. Liking coffee can't be any worse than liking the Yankees, can it?

Former trademarksAPR 10

From Wikipedia, a list of former trademarks and brands that have become generic terms. Some surprises: Heroin, Videotape, Zipper, Laundromat, Kerosene, Dry Ice, and Escalator.

The design of Grand Budapest HotelMAR 24

Grand Budapest

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson's most design-y film, and that's really saying something. Typography is present in almost every frame; at times, it was almost oppressive. Creative Review interviewed designer Annie Atkins, who was responsible for the film's graphic design elements.

Oh my goodness, so many signs in the 1960s hotel lobby! I have to give credit to Liliana for this work, as she took care of nearly all of these. She had three sign-writers from Berlin painting non-stop for a week to get them all done in time for our first day of shoot, as that set was first up. Wes and Adam had seen so many examples of quite officious signage in what had been communist East Germany -- don't do this, don't do that, do this but only like that! The signs really added to the claustrophobic feeling of that set, and Wes had asked for them all to be black with simple white hand-painted lettering -- based on the style of the old sign at Yorckstrasse subway station in Berlin.

Create Your Own EconomyAPR 22

Create Your Own Economy

I don't think he's talked about it on his site yet, but Tyler Cowen has a new book coming out called Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.

As economist Tyler Cowen boldly shows in Create Your Own Economy, the way we think now is changing more rapidly than it has in a very long time. Not since the Industrial Revolution has a man-made creation -- in this case, the World Wide Web -- so greatly influenced the way our minds work and our human potential. Cowen argues brilliantly that we are breaking down cultural information into ever-smaller tidbits, ordering and reordering them in our minds (and our computers) to meet our own specific needs.

Create Your Own Economy explains why the coming world of Web 3.0 is good for us; why social networking sites such as Facebook are so necessary; what's so great about "Tweeting" and texting; how education will get better; and why politics, literature, and philosophy will become richer. This is a revolutionary guide to life in the new world.

I never properly reviewed Cowen's last book (sorry!), but I found it as enlightening and entertaining as Marginal Revolution is. (via david archer)

The Evolution of GodMAY 11

The Evolution of God

Robert Wright has a new book out soon called The Evolution of God. Andrew Sullivan has a review.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Last month's issue of The Atlantic contained an excerpt.

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God's will?

I loved two of Wright's previous books, The Moral Animal and especially Nonzero. (via marginal revolution)

The art of street typographyMAR 31

I don't know exactly what my expectations were of how lettering is painted on city streets, but this was not it. The level of precision and artistry is surprising.

Reminds me of this video of a hand-lettering master at work.

rating: 4.5 stars

ArgoFEB 20

Argo Poster

That's a movie poster for Argo, the fake movie that the CIA "made" as a cover for getting six American diplomats out of Iran in 1980. Ben Affleck's Argo, which cements the former prettyboy actor's status as one of the best young American directors, is somewhat loosely based on The Master of Disguise, a book written by the guy Affleck plays in Argo, and a 2007 Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman called The Great Escape. Argo is up for several Oscars and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Update: Here's a CIA report written by Mendez about the caper. And I'm listening to the soundtrack right now.

A tour of the accents of the British IslesAPR 07

Using Google Earth, dialect coach Andrew Jack gives a tour of the accents of Great Britain and Ireland.

The audio is originally from this BBC program. See also Peter Sellers doing various English accents. (via devour)

Skydiver almost hit by meteoriteAPR 03

No idea if this is an April Fools thing or not, but skydiver Anders Helstrup claims that a rock whooshed past him during a wingsuit flight in 2012. And he caught the incident on video:

The relevent bit starts at about 25 seconds in. Here's a news story and a longer version of the video report with English subtitles:

Although Helstrup is still not completely convinced that it was indeed a meteorite that flew past him, the experts are in no doubt.

"It can't be anything else. The shape is typical of meteorites -- a fresh fracture surface on one side, while the other side is rounded," said geologist Hans Amundsen.

He explained that the meteorite had been part of a larger stone that had exploded perhaps 20 kilometres above Helstrup.

Amundsen thinks he can make out coloured patches in the stone, and believes that in that case it may be a breccia -- a common type of meteorite rock.

According to the article, the search is on to find the meterorite on the ground. I poked around a bit for information on a fireball sighting over Norway on the date in question (June 17, 2012) but didn't find anything. Smells like a hoax to me, but if it's real, it's the first time a post-fireball meteor has been observed and filmed while still falling.

Update: Even Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy allows this may be real.

The anternetAPR 04

Researchers at Stanford have observed that foraging harvester ants act like TCP/IP packets, so much so that they're calling the ants' behavior "the anternet".

Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. Here's how it works: As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived.

This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.

It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants -- which forage for seeds as individuals -- leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

(via wordspy)

Beautiful photos of chicken beauty pageantsMAR 26

Photographer Ernest Goh documents chicken beauty pageants in Malaysia. Gorgeous photos, gorgeous animals.

Chicken Pageant

(via colossal)

The FoodroomAPR 15

If Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing, The Newsroom) wrote a TV show featuring McDonald's as a workplace, it might go something like this:

Top notch parody right there...you've got the fast dialogue, the walk-and-talks, and the patented Sorkin sermonizing.

Years of Living DangerouslyAPR 09

Years of Living Dangerously is a 9-part documentary series on climate change which features celebrity correspondents like Harrison Ford, Oliva Munn, Jessica Alba, and Matt Damon reporting from around the world on different aspects of our changing climate.

The series combines the blockbuster storytelling styles of Hollywood's top movie makers, including James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub, with the investigative skills of 60 Minutes veterans Joel Bach and David Gelber and a team of leading national news journalists and scientists.

Each YEARS correspondent -- including top Hollywood stars recognized for their commitment to spotlighting and acting on the biggest issues of our time -- delves into a different impact of climate change. From the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy in the tri-state area to political upheaval caused by droughts in the Middle East to the dangerous level of carbon emissions resulting from deforestation, the series takes the viewer on a journey to understand the current and intensifying effects of climate change through vivid stories of heartbreak, hope and heroism.

The show starts airing on Showtime on April 13, but the entire first episode is available on YouTube right now:

The show is getting great reviews so far; I hope it helps move the needle. (thx, tobin)

Game of Thrones theoryAPR 16

[Warning: season 4 spoilers ahoy!] So, in the second episode of this season of Game of Thrones, something wonderfully unpleasant happens. If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about and if you haven't, you should really stop reading right now. I've been thinking about why it happened and who did it. This series of images over at Imgur presents a compelling explanation.

Lady Olenna gives sympathies to Sansa for the murder of her family. Watch carefully. Yoink! Olenna rubs Sansa's neck, plays with her hair and finally snatches the right-most jewel on Ser Dontos's necklace.

Interesting, right? (I mean, maybe not if you've read the books, but I haven't so I have no idea who killed Joffrey in the books or if you ever even find out.) But there are two puzzling things about the Tyrell plot:

1. Why the hell was it so convoluted? Couldn't Lady Olenna have brought the poison to the reception herself? Why use Sansa's necklace? There's no CSI: Westeros so no one would have ever suspected Sansa's necklace being part of it. Unless the Tyrells tipped someone off about it after the fact. Also, for the love of the old gods and the new, Grandma, hasn't Sansa been through enough without being framed for that little turd's murder?

2. Why do it? Why then? Does Margaery stay Queen? She has no heir by Joffrey. Or is one of Joffrey's little brothers in now? I suspect these questions will be answered in the next episode, but unless Margaery stays Queen, the Baratheon reign ends, and the Lannisters get bupkiss, I don't see a compelling reason for the Tyrells to do this.

Bonus tidbit: this is the last we'll see of Joffrey and also the last we'll see of the actor who plays him, Jack Gleeson. Gleeson is retiring from acting, saying he "stopped enjoying it as much as I used to". I bet the guy who played Malfoy in the Potter movies is breathing easier.

The top 100 animated moviesAPR 17

Time Out polled more than 100 experts to find the 100 best animated movies. Here's the top 10 (minus the top pick...you'll have to click through for that):

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox
9. The Nightmare Before Christmas
8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
7. The Iron Giant
6. Dumbo
5. The Incredibles
4. Toy Story
3. My Neighbor Totoro
2. Spirited Away

I'm delighted to see Fantastic Mr Fox on the list...it's an underrated effort by Wes Anderson that will continue to grow in esteem as the years pass. No Wall-E in the top 10 though? I don't know about that. It clocks in at #36, behind Chicken Run (the least of Aardman's efforts in my mind) and Up, which is maybe my least favorite Pixar film. (via @garymross)

The Oldest Living Things in the WorldAPR 16

Oldest Living Things Book

The very first Kickstarter campaign I ever backed was Rachel Sussman's project to photograph the oldest living organisms in the world.

I'm researching, working with biologists, and traveling all over the world to find and photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. I started the project 5 years ago, and have since photographed nearly 25 different organisms, ranging from the Bristlecone Pine and Giant Sequoias that you've surely heard of, to some truly unusual and unique desert shrubs, bacteria, a predatory fungus, and a clonal colony of Aspen trees that's male and, in theory, immortal.

Her goal was to compile the photographs into a book. Almost four years later, the book is out. Looks like it was worth the wait. The trailer does a nice job explaining what the book is all about:

Human Barbie dollsAPR 09

Let's get right to it. This is a real photo of a real human being:

Human Barbie doll

It hasn't been dramatically retouched or anything. Valeria Lukyanova has made herself into a human Barbie doll.

Her brand-new hair extensions, the color of Chardonnay, hang straight down, reaching her nonexistent hips. Her mouth is frozen in a vacant half-smile; the teeth are small and almost translucent. She's holding a handbag shaped like a lantern. A one-eyed smiling-skull pin perches on her sky blue top, pushed to the side by the veritable shelf of silicone around which her whole body seems arranged. In the flesh -- the little of it that she hasn't whittled away with what she says is exercise and diet -- Valeria looks almost exactly like Barbie. There might be some Loretta Lux-style postproduction to her photos, sure, but it's not crucial. This is live. This is happening.

She's also a recent convert to breatharianism (living exclusively on a diet of air), feels that humans are less beautiful now because of "race-mixing", and gets her nails painted with "a fractal pattern from the twenty-first dimension" that came to her in a dream. There is also a human Ken doll, Justin Jedlica, who has achieved his look through more than 100 plastic surgeries:

Human Ken doll

But there's a problem. Ken doen't like Barbie.

But you're not a fan?
I don't really get her. I don't get why people think she's so interesting. She has extensions. She wears stage makeup. She's an illusionist.

You've certainly had more surgeries. What's your favorite one?
My baby is my shoulders, because nobody has anything like them. I divided these so there's six pieces-front, middle, and back. Just like the actual anatomy.

The end of polio declared in IndiaMAR 24

In 1988, India had over 200,000 cases of polio reported. For the past three years, they've had 0. At the end of this month, the WHO will announce the end of polio in India.

America experienced the height of polio in the 1940s and '50s, when about 35,000 people became disabled every year. Fear and panic spread and parents were known to warn their children to not drink from public water fountains, avoid swimming pools and stay away from crowded public places like movie theaters. Perhaps the most famous case of polio in America was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first president with a significant physical disability.

The development of the Salk and Sabine vaccines helped lead to eradication of polio in the United States in 1979. In India, too, vaccination was critical.

"There were three keys to our success," Kapur says. "Immunize, immunize and immunize."

Vaccines. And now my kids don't die.

rating: 4.0 stars

The Truman ShowMAY 26

The Truman Show delusion is how some psychiatrists are describing the condition of psychotic patients who believe they are filmed stars of reality TV programs.

Another patient traveled to New York City and showed up at a federal building in downtown Manhattan seeking asylum so he could get off his reality show, Dr. Gold said. The patient reported that he also came to New York to see if the Twin Towers were still standing, because he believed that seeing their destruction on Sept. 11 on television was part of his reality show. If they were still standing, he said, then he would know that the terrorist attack was all part of the script.

As for the movie itself, for all its popularity and critical success when released, it's little-remembered today. And unfairly so; the "realness" about our increasingly mediated lives remains a hot topic of debate.

Don't help your kids with their homeworkMAR 21

Don't do your kid's homework. Try not to even help them that much. It's better for their development. And it's better for you not to have to relive your school years. That seems like sensible advice. Until all the other parents in the school start helping their kids on their homework. That's when you'll be tempted. But still, really, don't.

What they found surprised them. Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire-regardless of a parent's race, class, or level of education.

Do you review your daughter's homework every night? Robinson and Harris's data, published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children's Education, show that this won't help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.

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2014 Smithsonian photo contest finalistsAPR 08

Smith Photos

Smithsonian Magazine has announced the finalists in their annual photography contest. The shot above is a finalist in the Mobile category...it was taken with an iPhone 5. (via colossal)

The young eagle hunters of MongoliaAPR 15

Asher Svidensky's photographs from Mongolia of apprentice eagle hunters are fantastic. (FYI, they hunt with eagles, not for them.) Among Svidensky's subjects is a 13-year-old girl, Ashol Pan:

Mongolia Eagle Hunters

At the end of the photographing session, I sat down with her father and the translator to say my goodbyes, and I asked him this:

"How did it feel watching your daughter dressed in Kazakh uniform, on a mountain top, sending the eagle off and calling it back again?"

"Very good"

"And honestly... would you have considered truly training her? Would she become Mongolia's first ever female eagle huntress?"

I expected a straightforward "No" or a joking "Maybe", but after a short pause he replied:

"Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army, and he's now an officer, so he probably won't be back with the tradition. It's been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place."

From the father's answer I realized that the idea of women's participation in keeping the tradition is a possible future, but just like many other aspect of Mongolian life, it's an option which women will need to take on by themselves.

(via @rebeccablood)

Slow lifeMAR 28

Well, I don't even have the words to describe what this is; you just have to watch it. Preferably in fullscreen at full resolution. Takes about 30 seconds to get going but once it does.........dang. Breathtaking is not a word I throw around after every TED Talk or Milky Way time lapse, but I will throw it here.

More on the hows and whys the video was made on Vimeo and the director's site.

The Way to GoMAR 25

Kate Ascher The Way To Go

Kate Ascher, author of the great The Works: Anatomy of a City, has a new book out about transportation. The Way to Go explores how global transportation works, from how car engines work to the ocean routes travelled by huge cargo ships. Slate has an excerpt.

Focusing on the machines that underpin our lives, Ascher's The Way to Go also introduces the systems that keep those machines in business -- the emergency communication networks that connect ships at sea, the automated tolling mechanisms that maintain the flow of highway traffic, the air control network that keeps planes from colliding in the sky. Equally fascinating are the technologies behind these complex systems: baggage tag readers that make sure people's bags go where they need to; automated streetlights that adjust their timing based on traffic flow; GPS devices that pinpoint where we are on earth at any second. Together these technologies move more people farther, faster, and more cheaply than at any other time in history.

Ordered. The kids are going to love this one...it's like a more grown-up version of Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

Daily Rituals: How Artists WorkAPR 02

Mason Currey's book about the daily routines of scientists, painters, writers, and other creative people looks interesting. Sarah Green collected a list of common practices among some of the book's "healthier geniuses".

A workspace with minimal distractions. Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. William Faulkner, lacking a lock on his study door, just detached the doorknob and brought it into the room with him -- something of which today's cubicle worker can only dream. Mark Twain's family knew better than to breach his study door -- if they needed him, they'd blow a horn to draw him out. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office; only his wife knew the address or telephone number. Distracted more by the view out his window than interruptions, if N.C. Wyeth was having trouble focusing, he'd tape a piece of cardboard to his glasses as a sort of blinder.

I love reading about people's workspaces; here's an old post about George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing room. (via myself apparently?)

More on the mattress racketMAR 19

I wrote a post the other day about how name-brand mattresses are a scam and lower-cost alternatives. In a 2009 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Josh Kosman provided one reason why mattresses are so expensive: private equity firms.

In the mattress industry, private equity firms bought Sealy and Simmons, the number one and number two brands by a mile. They stopped really competing against each other. They cut costs, and they raised the prices of the mattresses. They started focusing only on the top end and stopped even making mattresses really for middle-income people that cost less than $1,000. So basically simplifying this over time, as they bought Simmons and sold it to another PE firm three or four years later, and same with Sealy, the buyers -- the sellers would make a lot of money, and the buyers felt, well, we can keep raising prices because there's no competition. We own Sealy, and we own Simmons. It's different firms, but they both have the same aim: to make a short-term profit, not to beat each other up on price. What happened over time was they couldn't raise the prices anymore, and the prices were raised double the price of inflation, double the rate of inflation. They cut the beds in half, so you came up with no-flip mattresses. That cut their manufacturing costs, but it also...

...it also sent their earnings soaring, even though the beds don't last as long. (thx, @gokari)

Taco Bell's new spokesman: Ronald McDonaldMAR 27

Errol Morris has directed a new series of Taco Bell commercials where a bunch of ordinary men named Ronald McDonald review Taco Bell's new breakfast menu. Here's one of the spots:

The world's happiest photo?APR 11

Life magazine asks: Is this the happiest photo ever made?

Drum Major, Alfred Eisenstaedt

The photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who was covering the University of Michigan's marching band. When some children playing nearby set off after this practicing drum major, he snapped the photo. Said Eisenstaedt, "This is a completely spontaneous, unstaged picture."

The photographer took many notable photos -- the famous V-J Day kiss in Times Square, of Marilyn Monroe, of Albert Einstein, of Joseph Goebbels -- but the drum major one above and his ballet series are my favorites (particularly this one).

Soundtrack for The Unknown KnownAPR 14

Your Monday morning needs a soundtrack and Danny Elfman's score for Errol Morris' The Unknown Known is just the thing. Available at Amazon or on iTunes.

Busting the mattress racketMAR 18

Maybe it doesn't belong in the annals of great literature, but Seth Stevenson's Slate piece on mattresses from November 2000 has been stuck in my brain for more than a decade. Mattresses are a scam, says Stevenson:

Is there a more maddening industry? They confuse us with silly product names (the Sealy Posturepedic Crown Jewel Fletcher Ultra Plush Pillowtop or the Sealy Posturepedic Crown Jewel Brookmere Plush?). They flummox us with bogus science ("pocketed coils"? "Microtek foundations"? "Fiberlux"?). And they weigh us down with useless features (silk damask ticking?). It's like buying a used car, and almost as expensive -- I've seen mattresses going for $7,000. What's a consumer to do?

The secret to mattress shopping is that the product is basically a commodity. The mattress biz is 99-percent marketing. So just buy the cheapest thing you can stand and be done with it, because they're pretty much all the same. And that's all you need to know. But do read on -- the world of sleep products is quite fascinating, and I'd like to share it with you.

So when I had to do some mattress shopping recently, I remembered reading a thread on Hacker News about Tuft & Needle. T&N is a start-up that, in the parlance of Silicon Valley VCs, is disrupting the mattress industry by offering products of similar quality at dramatically lower prices with an emphasis on customer service. Recode recently ran a piece on the company and their founders.

Park and Marino, who previously worked together at Los Angeles tech startup Mulu, turned to mattress-making in 2012 after Marino was disappointed by a $3,000-plus mattress. So the two posed as the owners of a small mattress store and called around to vendors to uncover the real cost of making Marino's expensive purchase. The final calculation -- a total of about $300 -- confirmed their suspicions: There was significant opportunity to improve.

When I looked on Amazon, Tuft & Needle's mattresses were, as billed, the top-rated mattresses on the site. So I bought one. (I also bought a DreamFoam bed, which is even cheaper than Tuft & Needle and also highly rated.) The beds from both companies come rolled up and vacuum packed. Once you puncture the thick plastic packaging, air comes whooshing back into the mattress, inflating to its proper size over a matter of hours. This process sounds exactly like the repressurization of an airlock from any number of sci-fi movies. As far as comfort goes, I can't tell the difference between these beds and the $1700 memory foam mattress from Design Within Reach.

So yeah, if you're in the market for a mattress, do some poking around...you might just save a few hundred dollars. (Note: these beds are memory foam beds, which are not everyone's cup of tea. I switched to one several years ago and love it. YMMV.)

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