The best rule-breaking films of all timeJUN 08

From Cinefix, a list of 10 movies (plus dozens more runners-up) that broke the rules of filmmaking most effectively by using jump cuts, nonlinear narrative, lack of plot, surrealism, and breaking the fourth wall.

Neanderthal-built structures found in French cave are astonishingly oldMAY 25

Bruniquel Cave

In the 90s, Bruniquel Cave was discovered to have a chamber containing an interesting human-built structure made from broken stalagmites. Carbon dating of a burnt bear bone within the chamber put the age of the activity at 47,600 years ago, smack dab in the Neanderthal era in that area. But recently, after a lull in research about these cave structures, analysis of uranium levels in the broken stalagmites resulted in a much older date for the construction: 176,500 years ago.

Nor is it clear how the Neanderthals made the structures. Verheyden says it couldn't have been one lone artisan, toiling away in the dark. Most likely, there was a team, and a technically skilled one at that. They broke rocks deliberately, and arranged them precisely. They used fire, too. More than 120 fragments have red and black streaks that aren't found elsewhere in the chamber or the cave beyond. They were the result of deliberately applied heat, at intensities strong enough to occasionally crack the rock. "The Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought," the team writes.

What's the most "normal" place in the US?JUN 10

There's been a lot of talk in this election cycle about "average Americans" and "real Americans". In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Jed Kolko used age, education, and race & ethnicity to find the city most demographically similar the US as a whole. Here's his top 5:

1. New Haven-Milford, CT
2. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL
3. Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT
4. Oklahoma City, OK
5. Springfield, MA

Economist Lyman Stone thought Kolko's methodology was flawed:

See, he used 3 variables: race, education, and age, to proxy for "normalcy." His method looked at how typical a given "race" group in a given city was on educational/age factors, and a given educational group in a given city on race/age factors, etc. In other words, he didn't truly ask "What city is most normal?" He asked "In what city is each group of people most typical of that group of people nationally?" That's a cool question, but it's totally not "normalcy." The reason is simple: as best I can tell, Jed doesn't fully capture the role of aggregate composition. He's trying to get specific and avoid calling a place "abnormal" just because it has one weird demographic lump; he wants cell-specific abnormality. But nobody cares if Graduate-Degree-Holding Native Americans happen to be much younger in St. Louis than elsewhere. We care if St. Louis has a weirdly large number of Graduate-Degree-Holding-Native-Americans. Composition of the population is the most important measure of normalcy, and one that Kolko's method will tend to under-emphasize.

Stone ran his own analysis with that in mind, using 20 different demographic variables, and came up with a different list of the most normal places in America:

1. Oklahoma City, OK
2. Tulsa, OK
3. Jacksonville, FL
4. Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA
5. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ

The above table shows the places with the lowest weirdness-scores. Two of them are in Oklahoma. I'll talk about them together. Oklahoma City is less than 1 standard deviation from the mean on every single variable. It is exactly the mean for the poverty rate, and almost exactly the mean for educational attainment. It's biggest oddity is housing costs compared to income, which are a bit high, and the percent of households with a car, which is also just a teentsy bit high. Other than that? If you're looking for "Normal America" then look to Oklahoma City. Tulsa's story is the same, except it also has a bit of a low share of civilian government workers.

Among the weirdest places on Stone's list? San Jose, NYC, and Jacksonville, NC.

New York is up next. Again, a large foreign-born share makes New York weird. But the real weirdness is actually in New York's transit access. New York's car-ownership share is a whopping nine standard deviations below the national average. New York's housing costs also make it weird, as does the percent of people who are renting. In other words, New York is weird because it's just so darn urban.

Science and storytelling in Finding Nemo and Finding DoryTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 16

Adam Summers is a biomechanist who worked as a consultant on fish behavior and anatomy for Pixar's Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory. How do you figure out where and how to stick to the known science (or sneak it in sideways) in a movie about talking fish? It's not an easy question to answer.

This question is very important for the entertainment industry: does it matter whether you're right, when you're telling a story to entertain? Under some circumstances, I don't think it matters. But with an animated movie about real, living systems, when you use the truth -- their complexity and beauty -- as a springboard for the story, you add a level of gravitas that is vitally important to creating a broad and deep appeal. A young audience is much more sophisticated than you think, and a story informed by a lot of facts alerts them to the presence of real concepts. I got an e-mail from an eight-year-old about Finding Nemo, explaining that characters could not emerge from a whale's blowhole if they were in its mouth, because there is no link between the trachea and the oesophagus.

There are over 100 inaccuracies in Finding Nemo, but Summers says only one is a genuine error. (He doesn't name it, but it might be Mr. Ray, who lists names of classes in his song about aquatic species.) Everything else, from the whale's blowhole to ignoring clownfish's ability to switch between male and female (although what if Marlin does become female, but just never spawns again?) is an intentional gloss or omission for storytelling purposes.

Or aesthetic ones. "The claspers -- external, stick-like sexual organs on sharks -- were cut off Bruce the great white shark," says Summers, "not because of family values, but because he's spherical, and when you add a bunch of sticks to spherical sharks, they look really stupid." Noted.

Summers admits there's also just a lot about the species in Pixar's fish movies that nobody really knows.

They did ask me some questions about the biology of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) that we just don't know the answers to. It's the largest fish in the sea, yet I think there's just one record of a pregnant female, which revealed that they can have more than 300 pups at a time. That's not much to know about the reproductive biology of such an iconic fish.

The changing American dietJUN 08

American Eating Habits Infoviz

From Flowing Data, an animated infographic that shows how the American diet has changed since 1970. We eat less beef, potatoes, margarine, and whole milk than we used to, but more chicken, cooking oil, bananas, and Italian cheese.

A supercut of Stanley Kubrick references in The SimpsonsJUN 01

There are tons of movie references in The Simpsons, but the show leans more heavily on referencing Stanley Kubrick's films than perhaps any other director. As you can see in the video, there are dozens of references to 2001, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, and even Eyes Wide Shut sprinkled throughout the series.

Hussam and the Death WayJUN 02

Hussam Death Way

From comic artist Toby Morris, a harrowing tale of Hussam and his family, who escaped the civil war in Syria to a refugee camp in Jordan.

World map of the origin of agricultural cropsJUN 09

Crop Map

From the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, a map showing where the world's most used crops originated. Potatoes and tomatoes are from the Andes, watermelon from southern Africa, bananas from south & southeast Asia, and blueberries from North America. (via @CharlesCMann)

Microsoft/LinkedIn fan fictionTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 13

Microsoft is buying LinkedIn, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather read thinking through what that might mean more than Paul Ford.

Microsoft is a software company, sure, but it's also a bit of a nation-state with an enormously broad mandate. LinkedIn is an unbelievable data-mining platform; it has the ground truth about the global economy, especially around the technology industry, and it has a lock on that data. Microsoft will know what's going with Facebook before Zuckerberg does; it'll know what skills are being added to Googlers' resumes; it'll know what kind of searches HR departments are doing across the world, and it can use that information to start marketing its own services to those companies...

It's...terrifying. And we'll never really know what's going on. Which makes it kind of brilliant. But still terrifying.

Filled with straightforward observations (hey, Microsoft now has a huge, well-targeted advertising network to match Google's and Amazon's) to delightfully bizarre ones, like LinkedIn's secret synergy with Minecraft (!), 9 Things Microsoft Could Do With LinkedIn blends consulting memo, standup routine, and Borgesian counterfiction. I've always aspired to this sort of thing, and Paul just rattles it off. Dang it.

A tour of the Svalbard Seed VaultJUN 03

Tucked away in a mountain located on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, also home to The Northmost Town on Earth, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Vault is home to more than 860,000 plant seed samples deposited by dozens of different countries from around the world (even North Korea) and is closed to access about 350 days per year. But the folks from Veritasium were able to finagle a tour of the facility during one of its rare open days.

This facility was built to last about 200 years and withstand earthquakes and explosions. It was placed on the side of a mountain so even if all the ice on Earth melts, it will still be above sea level.

Other fun facts about the Vault: the temperature in the storage rooms are kept at minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit to hinder seed growth/deterioration, the permafrost in which the Vault is built will maintain the low storage temp in case of electrical failure, GMO seeds are forbidden due to Norwegian law, and the first withdrawal was made last year by Syria because of the civil war.

RIP Bill CunninghamJUN 25

Bill Cunningham

Sad news from the NY Times: legendary street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has died today at the age of 87.

In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham operated both as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.

At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle -- he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen -- for B-boys in low-slung jeans.

I saw Cunningham out on the streets of NYC twice and both times chills ran up my back watching a master at work. Unless Cunningham had something in the can before he died, it looks as though the last of his On the Street features is about black and white fashion. Tonight might be a good time to watch the documentary Bill Cunningham New York -- it's available on Amazon (free with Prime).

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.

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)

What would happen if all humans disappeared?JUN 03

If all humans just up and disappeared one day, life on Earth would suffer in the short term but fare much better in the long run.

The fashionable peacocks of Pitti UomoJUN 21

Aaron Christian shot footage of the fashionably dressed gentlemen attending the Pitti Uomo menswear trade show and paired it with David Attenborough-esque commentary about peacocks.

Unlike the cues outside of the city shows, where photographers have a few seconds to snap their favourite look. Pitti Uomo is a four day long menswear trade show, in Florence, Italy.

It's a vast space where attendees spend all day walking around, visiting stands, eating in the sun or catching up with fellow fashion colleagues -- and so consequently it has become a prime spot for the worlds top street style photographers to document and shoot some of the most stylish men on the planet.

It's become a peacock parade where the men show off their outfits in all their glory hoping to get snapped by the top photographers.

It's quite comical, the way the fully grown men pace around subtly trying their best to get snapped, and it's the perfect location for this wildlife style mockumentary to take place.

Slow guitar sped up sounds like a violinMAY 26

The Samurai Guitarist recorded himself playing the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun reeeeally slowly for 30 minutes and then sped the audio up by 20 times, which made his guitar sound like a violin. He explains how on Reddit.

Ok so my original plan was to rerecord the guitar normally when the video was done. I have a musical notation software that I plugged in everything exactly how I wanted to play it. I then added a metronome to trigger every 1/32nd note and set the tempo to 7 bpm, knowing that when sped up 20x that would be a nice tempo. It would also take 30 minutes or so which should be about the perfect time for a sunrise.

(via digg)

2001: A Picasso OdysseyJUN 09

Bhautik Joshi took 2001: A Space Odyssey and ran it through a "deep neural networks based style transfer" with the paintings of Pablo Picasso.

See also Blade Runner in the style of van Gogh's Starry Night and Alice in a Neural Networks Wonderland.

The anxiety of Father's Day cardsTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 17

All greeting cards are bad, but can we agree that Father's Day cards are particularly bad?

Cards for dads are a lot like T-shirts for toddlers: aggressively, relentlessly gendered. It's telling many of the sports-themed cards look like wallpaper you might find in a child's bedroom. As it turns out, the blue-is-for-boys, pink-is-for-girls anxiety doesn't end in childhood. Now it's beer-is-for-dads, wine-is-for-moms. To that end, Mother's Day cards aren't much better -- hope you like flowers! -- but there's something striking about cards for dads, as though they exist to remind dads they are Manly Men Who Like Things For Manly Men, As Randomly Determined By Popular Culture.

A greeting card is a strange commercial product for lots of reasons, not least because of agency problems. By definition, the person buying a card is pretty much never the person whom it's for. Add in whatever traditions are associated with the occasion, gaps in power or familiarity between the gifter and giftee, and it's practically a recipe for people to tighten up and go super-conservative.

This does remind me of a thread in the webcomic Achewood where Roast Beef is inspired to create his own line of greeting cards for everyday occasions. By the end, he and his friend Ray are coming up with "Dude-to-Dude" cards like "Dogg Let's Go Eat Dishes With Chorizo When Our Ladies Aren't Around" or "Dogg It Must Feel Sick As Hell To Recieve A Card From A Dude." (If I were to ever receive either of these cards from my son for Father's Day, I'd be thrilled.)

The limits of forensic science, and beyondTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 16

Veronique Greenwood's story on a new method to infer someone's physical appearance from DNA evidence doubles as a skeptical mini-history of forensic science:

In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences released a blistering report calling into question the scientific validity of the analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, blood spatters, clothing fiber, handwriting, bullet markings, and many other mainstays of forensic investigation. It concluded that with one exception [DNA evidence], no forensic method could be relied on with a high degree of certainty to "demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source."

And even with DNA, it's tricky. The common theme: academics doing pure research have a better track record than criminal investigators trying to prove or crack a case, or companies trying to develop a product. (See also: everything.)

Boston Dynamics' new house-trained robotJUN 24

Boston Dynamics has a new 55-pound robot with an arm that looks like a head. It gets up after slipping on banana peels and can load your delicate glassware into the dishwasher.

Do they deliberately make these videos unsettling and creepy? Or is that just me? That last scene, where the robot kinda lunges at the guy and then falls over...I might have nightmares about that.

All of Star Wars Ep. IV in one infographicJUN 01

Star Wars Infographic

Star Wars Infographic

Star Wars Infographic

Swiss illustrator Martin Panchaud created a massive infographic that tells the entire story of the first Star Wars movie. How massive? It's 465152 pixels long.

This long ribbon reminds the ancient Chinese script rolls that had to be rolled in and rolled out simultaneously in order to be read. I like this stretch between ages, cultures, and technologies.

So cool. The style reminds me a bit of Chris Ware in places.

Cars are getting weirdTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 13

Tesla has two cars, the S60 and the S75, that are physically more or less identical, but one costs $8500 more than the other. The cheaper car ($66K base price) has a software block on its battery which limits its range to 208 miles on a full charge. Pay $8500 up front, or $9000 for an over-the-air update later, and you get an extra 40 miles.

Same car, same battery. About 20 percent more efficient, for $9000. Better software license.

Cars are big computers, and have been for a while, but we're slowly starting to treat them like it. Different expectations, different pricing, different ownership structures, different usage; different everything.

Here's another story on managing expectations for cars, about steering wheels. Steering wheels have a basic function; they control the car. But if a car is capable of driving itself, and is also an interface for a wide range of general computing tools, what does that mean?

Volvo's Concept 26 vehicle, which debuted in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, features a retractable steering wheel. Robin Page, Volvo chief of interior design, says Volvo chose to keep the familiar shape of the steering wheel.

"We wanted to keep that recognition of a round steering wheel," he said. "People need to get used to autonomous drive, so being able to get back to that steering wheel and grab hold of it, that's comforting. We decided to have it there as a recognizable icon."

The steering wheel becomes a skeuomorph. It becomes a surveillance device, registering pressure to tell whether you have both hands firmly on the wheel, or if you've fallen asleep or are in distress. It becomes an entertainment console. It transforms and retracts into the dash to signal when you've shifted between user-controlled and autonomous modes. Its familiar presence soothes you through the transition. Eventually, you forget it was ever there at all.

John Oliver takes on the debt buying industryJUN 06

On Last Week Tonight last night, John Oliver not only blasted the debt buying industry but ended up starting a company, bought $15 million worth of medical debt from Texas, and forgave it.

Update: I forgot to add, Occupy Wall Street did a similar thing back in 2012.

OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you're a debt broker, once you own someone's debt you can do whatever you want with it - traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We're playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

Update: It's disappointing that Last Week Tonight did not acknowledge the work and assistance of the Debt Collective and their Rolling Jubilee.

At the last minute Wilson told us LWT did not want to associate themselves with the work of the Rolling Jubilee due to its roots in Occupy Wall Street. Instead John Oliver framed the debt buy as his idea: a giveaway to compete with Oprah. The lead researcher who worked on this segment invoked the cover of journalism to justify distancing themselves from our project.

How do stealth aircraft avoid radar detection?MAY 31

The B-2 stealth bomber has a length of 69 feet and a wingspan of 172 feet but possesses the radar profile of a large bird. How does the plane evade radar so effectively?

The dance number in Ex Machina works well with pretty much any songMAY 26

In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac's Nathan Bateman performs a dance number with one of his AI robots, played by Sonoya Mizuno. It's the scene where I decided I was going to like the movie. Mizuno is a ballerina as well as an actress, but Isaac has no problem keeping up with her as the pair dance to Get Down Saturday Night.

Now, Twitter account @oscardances is showing how you can plug pretty much any song into that scene and the dance still works. Here's Michael Jackson's Thriller:

Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys:

And Oops I Did It Again by Britney Spears:

And there are dozens more here. (via @gavinpurcell)

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.

What if all the alien civilizations are dead?TIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 14

This essay by astrophysicist Adam Frank in the New York Times is upbeat, confident: "Yes, There Have Been Aliens." Basically, he argues that we've now observed enough Earth-like planets outside our solar system that unless the odds of life (and intelligent life, and intelligent life capable of radio communications, etc.) coming into being are much, much smaller than most scientists have believed, then alien civilizations that are at least something like our own have appeared before elsewhere in the galaxy.

But! Frank and his colleague Woodruff Sullivan get to this conclusion in a way that's pretty distressing. They relax any assumptions about how long such a civilization might last.

See, if you're trying to figure out the odds of contact between humans and aliens, you need to have some idea about how long alien civilizations stick around. If, in general, civilizations last a long time and keep moving up the Kardashev Scale, they're more likely to bump into each other. If, on the other hand, they usually wipe out their own species with nuclear weapons, global climate change, gamma rays, or (insert calamity here) shortly after getting a little light industry going, then they'll keep missing each other.

In his treatment of the Fermi Paradox, Tim Urban calls this "The Great Filter." We don't know if the Great Filter is ahead of us or behind us. If it's behind us, then complex/intelligent life is super rare -- much smaller than even Frank and Sullivan's consensus low estimates. If it's ahead of us, then we, or any other species lucky enough to make it this far, will most likely die off or (best case scenario) get stuck more or less where we are now.

In short, humanity may not be first, but it might very will be next.

How the Seinfeld theme song was madeMAY 26

This 90s TV interview with Seinfeld theme song composer Jonathan Wolff is more interesting than you'd think. He talks through how he matched the theme to Jerry's standup delivery tempo and how each episode's song had to be customized the match the pacing of Jerry's particular monologue that week. (via digg, which is particularly good today)

Update: The Sideshow podcast featured Wolff on an episode last year.

The show's producers were having difficulty finding music that wouldn't overpower the comedian's opening routines. "Jerry, you've already given me the melody and theme," Wolff told Seinfeld. "My job is going to be to support you and the organic nature of your voice." Wolff sampled his own mouth noises and slapped some funky bass over it and the rest is history. He built the theme to be manipulated - the rhythm of the mouth pops, shakers, and bass notes changed ever so slightly to fit the different monologues that opened every show.

(via @TheFarceur)

Today on the grammar rodeo: that vs. whichJUN 07

New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris explains when the magazine uses "which" and when it uses "that", a distinction I confess I had little knowledge of until just now.1 A cheeky example of the difference by E.B. White:

The New Yorker is a magazine, which likes "that."
The New Yorker is the magazine that likes "which."

(via df)

  1. This is why, when anyone asks me what I do for a living, the answer is never "writer". Writing for me is a brute-force operation; I'll use whatever is necessary to make it sound like I'm talking with you in person. (Wait, is a semicolon appropriate there? Should I have used "as though" instead of "like"? Who gives a shit!) I use too many commas (but often not between multiple adjectives in front of nouns), too many "I"s, too many "that"s (OMG, the thats), too many weirdo pacing mechanisms like ellipses, dashes, & parentheses, mix tenses, overuse the passive voice, and place unquoted periods and commas outside quotation marks like the Brits, although I was doing it before I learned they did because it just seemed to make sense. So, anyway, hi, I'm not a writer...who writes a lot.

Why is Game of Thrones stuck in medieval times?JUN 03

Riffing on Ken Mondschein's Strategies of War in Westeros, Evan Puschak explores why Westeros seems culturally and technologically stuck in the Middle Ages.

Update: Or does Game of Thrones depict the early modern period?

What Martin actually gives us is a fantasy version of what the historian Alfred Crosby called the Post-Columbian exchange: the globalizing epoch of the 16th and 17th centuries. A world where merchants trade exotic drugs and spices between continents, where professional standing armies can number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, where scholars study the stars via telescopes, and proto-corporations like the Iron Bank of Braavos and the Spicers of Qarth control global trade. It's also a world of slavery on a gigantic scale, and huge wars that disrupt daily life to an unprecedented degree.

(via @arbesman)

Facebook is wrong, text is deathlessTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 15

It's a throwaway line in a longer talk and we probably shouldn't make too much of it, but I will anyway.

In five years time Facebook "will be definitely mobile, it will be probably all video," said Nicola Mendelsohn, who heads up Facebook's operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at a conference in London this morning. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, has already noted that video will be more and more important for the platform. But Mendelsohn went further, suggesting that stats showed the written word becoming all but obsolete, replaced by moving images and speech.

"The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video," Mendelsohn said. "It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information."

Maybe this is coming from deep within the literacy bubble, but:

Text is surprisingly resilient. It's cheap, it's flexible, it's discreet. Human brains process it absurdly well considering there's nothing really built-in for it. Plenty of people can deal with text better than they can spoken language, whether as a matter of preference or necessity. And it's endlessly computable -- you can search it, code it. You can use text to make it do other things.

In short, all of the same technological advances that enable more and more video, audio, and immersive VR entertainment also enable more and more text. We will see more of all of them as the technological bottlenecks open up.

And text itself will get weirder, its properties less distinct, as it reflects new assumptions and possibilities borrowed from other tech and media. It already has! Text can be real-time, text can be ephemeral -- text has taken on almost all of the attributes we always used to distinguish speech, but it's still remained text. It's still visual characters registered by the eye standing in for (and shaping its own) language.

Because nothing has proved as invincible as writing and literacy. Because text is just so malleable. Because it fits into any container we put it in. Because our world is supersaturated in it, indoors and out. Because we have so much invested in it. Because nothing we have ever made has ever rewarded our universal investment in it more. Unless our civilization fundamentally collapses, we will never give up writing and reading.

We're still not even talking to our computers as often as we're typing on our phones. What logs the most attention-hours -- i.e., how media companies make their money -- is not and has never been the universe of communications.

(And my god -- the very best feature Facebook Video has, what's helping that platform eat the world -- is muted autoplay video with automatic text captions. Forget literature -- even the stupid viral videos people watch waiting for the train are better when they're made with text!)

Nothing is inevitable in history, media, or culture -- but literacy is the only thing that's even close. Bet for better video, bet for better speech, bet for better things we can't imagine -- but if you bet against text, you will lose.

A rare live performance of Creep by RadioheadMAY 24

Creep is perhaps Radiohead's best known song, especially in the US. But the band is a bit ashamed of it, so they don't play it all that often. They played it last night at a show in Paris for the first time since 2009. When I saw them in 2001, they played it for the first time since 1998 (and it was awesome).

There's a certain point in everyone's life when they're unable to appreciate their younger selves. Between this and putting True Love Waits on their latest album, perhaps Radiohead has become more accepting of the band they used to be. The genie's out of the bottle, mates, you might as well use the wishes.

The 50th LawJUN 23

The 50th Law

Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, which has been influential in both halls of business and hip-hop circles, has written a new book with rapper 50 Cent called The 50th Law. Greene was initially skeptical of 50 Cent as a co-author but was impressed by their initial meeting.

He was in the midst of a power struggle with a rival rapper and he talked quite openly about the strategies he was employing, including mistakes he had made along the way. He analyzed his own actions with detachment, as if he were talking about another person. Over the last few years he had witnessed a lot of nasty maneuvering within the music business, and he seemed to want to discuss this with somebody from the outside. He was not interested in myths but reality. Contrary to his public persona, he had a Zen-like calmness that impressed me.

The main theme of the book is about fear and "the reverse power that you can obtain by overcoming [it]".

We found stories from his own life that would illustrate these ideas, many of them culled from his days as a hustler and even highlighting mistakes along the way that taught him valuable lessons. Later, from my own research, I would bring in examples from other historical figures who exemplified this trait. Many of them would be African Americans--Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter, et al--whose fearless quality was forged by their harsh struggles against racism. Others would come from all periods and cultures--the Stoics, Joan of Arc, JFK, Leonardo da Vinci, Mao tse-tung, and so on.

Motion capture dance madnessJUN 11

People are doing amazing things with motion capture these days. (via colossal)

The legally blind astronomerJUN 06

Tim Doucette is a legally blind astronomer. A pair of surgeries when he was younger to help improve his vision left him with a superpower: because his pupils were permanently dilated, he could see in the dark better than other people. He built an observatory and with the aid of his telescope, he can see details of far-off stars and nebula that no one else can, including UV and infrared light.

How to tell left from rightTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 16

Not everyone can distinguish between left and right. Besides natural affinity (or lack of it), health, drug use, other chemical changes, and stress can all cause our basic body compass to break down.

Telling left from right necessitates complex brain processes that include spatial perceptions, memory, language, and the integration of sensory information. The task is made increasingly complex when a person must identify laterality on someone else. Yoga teachers and other fitness instructors have it extra rough: While calling out to students to bend their left knee, the instructor has to raise their own right to mirror the class...

However, the field under the most pressure to avoid lateral confusion is medicine. In the dentist's chair, there's money wasted when hygienists x-ray the wrong tooth. It's even worse when a left-right-disoriented dentist pulls one or more teeth from the incorrect side of the mouth. It's even more serious in general surgery: A 2011 report estimates that there are 40 wrong-site surgeries done weekly in the U.S., and many of those involve mixing up a patient's left and right. This is a devastating problem: If a doctor removes the healthy kidney and not the cancerous one, the results can be fatal. Wrong eye? Now we have a fully blind patient.

There's nothing inherent about left, right, up, and down -- or what are sometimes called "egocentric coordinates." Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr in Australia famously use a coordinate system that leans much more heavily on absolute geocentric references at right angles (their equivalent of north, south, east, and west).

This plays a little easier when you're playing off objects with fixed positions, like landmarks, or especially, the sun, than it does in big twisty-turny cities. But you could imagine in a world with ubiquitous handheld maps and compasses that a north/south/east/west orientation might make more sense.

What's more, some of the old tech people used to train themselves to distinguish or remember left and right -- miming handwriting, or wearing a wristwatch on one arm -- aren't as common or dominant as they once were. See also: distinguishing angular position by analogy with the face of an analog clock.

Either we come up with new tricks and new metaphors, or it's conceivable that what's seemed like an intuitive, natural way to think about the relative position of bodies in space could become a whole lot less intuitive for more and more people.

The most frequently stolen booksJUN 08

Most Stolen Books

Vintage/Anchor Books recently tweeted out a photo of a Most Stolen Books shelf at a bookstore. Some of the books on the shelf include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (one of many Murakamis), Charles Bukowski's Hollywood, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

According to research by Candice Huber, books by Bukowski and Kerouac are indeed popular targets for theft from bookstores, along with those by Hemingway, David Sedaris, and The Great Gatsby. All of the books listed are by men, and most by "manly" men. This 2009 list from the UK is slightly different: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book both rank high.

Libraries are a different story. According to Huber, the most frequently stolen library books are the Guinness Book of World Records, which is a favorite around our house,1 and The Bible. Thieves could use the Good Book's wisdom more than many, I guess. Art books, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and test prep books are also popular with the light-fingered. Judging from my personal experience hanging around garages and auto mechanics when I was a kid, Chilton's Auto Repair manuals were also lifted quite often.

  1. "Daddy, our copy is from 2014. We should get the one from this year, so we can check if any of the records have been broken."

This and only this is a sandwichTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 15

In today's post on "What is barbecue?" I skipped past "is a hot dog a sandwich?" so quickly that I forgot to answer the question. So in the same spirit in which someone can boldly declare that only smoked, slow-cooked pork is barbecue, here is my minimal definition of a sandwich:

A sandwich is any solid or semi-solid filling between two or more slices of bread. Not a roll, not a wrap, not a leaf of lettuce: sliced bread. What is inside far less than the container.

Consequently:

  • A hot dog is not a sandwich.
  • A burrito is not a sandwich.
  • A wrap is not a sandwich.
  • A cheeseburger on a roll is not a sandwich. Sliced bread only.
  • A lobster roll is not a sandwich.
  • A hoagie is not a sandwich.
  • An ice cream sandwich is not a sandwich.
  • A hot turkey sandwich is not a sandwich.
  • An open-faced sandwich is not a sandwich.
  • If you make a sandwich using one end of the bread and one proper slice, it's kind of a sandwich still, but not really. See also folding over a single slice of bread for a half-sandwich.
  • If you make a sandwich using both ends of the bread, it is no longer a sandwich at all.
  • A peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwich is a sandwich.
  • A mayonnaise, butter, or ketchup sandwich is probably a sandwich -- I'm not sure whether those fillings are solid enough -- just not a very good one.
  • A sandwich made with crackers instead of bread is not a sandwich, but an imitation of a sandwich.
  • A sandwich made with crackers between two slices of bread is a sandwich, but not a very good one.

Alternatively, "sandwich" is a family-resemblance concept and we can't appeal to definitional consistency to get away from the fact that language is a complex organism and its rules don't always make perfect sense.

(PS: I do not speak for Jason or Kottke.org on this matter, please do not argue with him about sandwiches)

Update (from Jason): Boy, you leave Tim to his own devices for a few hours and he establishes the official kottke.org stance on sandwiches. [That new emoji of the yellow smiley face grabbing its chin and looking skeptical that you might not have on Android IDK I'm Apple Man] I was just talking to my kids the other day about this important issue and Ollie, who is almost 9, told me that both hamburgers and hot dogs are sandwiches because "the meat is sandwiched in between the bread; it's right there in the word". When Ollie and Minna take over the family business in 2027, they can revisit this, but for now, Tim's definition stands.

Hollywood movies: too much fan serviceMAY 26

In his latest video, Evan Puschak argues that intertextuality in movies -- you know, fan service: "hey look, that thing you know from the previous thing!" -- is increasingly doing the heavy lifting of creating drama and excitement, resulting in weaker stories.

I loved seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time in The Force Awakens, the use of the original Jurassic Park vehicles in Jurassic World, and hearing Dumbledore's name in the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but yeah, those things have to be the cherry on top of good storytelling elements, not the whole sundae.

Satellite imagery search engineMAY 25

Terrapattern is a search engine for satellite images. You click on a specific feature of interest on a map and the site returns results that match it. For instance, here are the locations of solar panels in NYC.

Terrapattern

You can also use Terrapattern to find school bus depots, fracking wells, Air Force bombers, baseball diamonds, train tracks, and much more.

There are only four cities currently represented (Pittsburgh, New York, San Francisco, and Detroit) but this is already super cool to play around with. (via @genmon)

On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe ItselfJUN 23

Big Picture Carroll

After an unbelievably stressful and busy winter/spring, I am hoping to find some time to read this summer. One of the books on my short list is Sean Carroll's The Big Picture, one of those "everything is connected" things I love. From a post by Carroll on what the book's about:

This book is a culmination of things I've been thinking about for a long time. I've loved physics from a young age, but I've also been interested in all sorts of "big" questions, from philosophy to evolution and neuroscience. And what these separate fields have in common is that they all aim to capture certain aspects of the same underlying universe. Therefore, while they are indisputably separate fields of endeavor -- you don't need to understand particle physics to be a world-class biologist -- they must nevertheless be compatible with each other -- if your theory of biology relies on forces that are not part of the Standard Model, it's probably a non-starter. That's more of a constraint than you might imagine. For example, it implies that there is no such thing as life after death. Your memories and other pieces of mental information are encoded in the arrangement of atoms in your brain, and there's no way for that information to escape your body when you die.

Yeah, that sounds right up my alley.

Newspaper front pages about BrexitJUN 24

Economist Brexit

Buzzfeed has a collection of newspaper front pages and magazine covers related to Brexit. Newseum has a more extensive collection (900+ newspapers) and the Guardian has a nice selection as well.

Out of all of them, I think the cover for next week's issue of the New Yorker is perhaps my favorite:

New Yorker Brexit

Ah, Monty Python.

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 Star Wars prequels predicted our current political momentJUN 02

Cass Sunstein, author of the recently published The World According to Star Wars, says that while most people might dislike the three Star Wars prequels, they function well as "a quick guide to current political struggles".

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, paralyzing political divisions threatened democratic governments. Disputes over free trade, and the free movement of people and goods, were a big reason. Stymied by polarization and endless debates, the Senate proved unable to resolve those disputes.

As a result, nationalist sentiments intensified, leading to movements for separation from centralized institutions. People craved a strong leader who would introduce order -- and simultaneously combat growing terrorist threats.

A prominent voice, Anakin Skywalker, insisted, "We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what's in the interest of all the people, and then do it." And if they didn't, "they should be made to."

Eventually, something far worse happened. The legislature voted to give "emergency powers" -- essentially unlimited authority -- to the chief executive. An astute observer, Padme Amidala, noted, "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."

Well, that was kind of terrifying to read. My ill-feeling peaked at "a democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody's squabbling" as a cause of Hitler's rise in Germany. As Sunstein notes, the parallels between that situation and our do-nothing Congress & the authoritarian gentleman currently running for President are obvious and possibly significant.

Pub fare gets the fancy food TV treatmentMAY 26

From CBC Radio show This Is That, which previously did a bit on Artisanal Firewood, comes a spoof on fancy shows about chefs like Chef's Table called Cooks.

What do I want people to think of my food? Well, that it's fast, it's cheap, it's a little salty, and most importantly, that it was cooked all the way through.

Nailed it.

The Simpsons couch gag in the style of an Ikea instruction manualMAY 23

The couch gag on last night Simpsons episode was illustrated in the style of an Ikea instruction manual. See also the Ikea instructions for making Dick in the Box.

Bill Gates' summer reading listMAY 23

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in addition to attempting to save the world, is also a voracious reader. He recently recommended five books that you should read this summer. On the list is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which I might finally try, having absolutely loved Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon when I read them a few years ago. Gates also recommends Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, which I read earlier this year and think about every few days. I wrote a bit about Sapiens and the invention of farming, which is a topic about which Gates disagreed with Harari.

Earth has a new(ish) quasi-moonTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 17

About a hundred years ago, a tiny asteroid making its way around the sun got caught in Earth's gravity well. Now it's locked in an irregular orbit far around our planet, between 38 and 100 times the distance between the Earth and its proper moon.

quasi-moon.JPG

As it orbits the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth, and passes ahead of our planet. The other half of the time it falls behind.

It's also in a tilted orbit, which causes it to weave up and down on the orbital plane like a bob on choppy waters. As NASA's Paul Chodas put it in a press statement, "In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth."

In another couple of centuries, the asteroid will probably get far enough away that it'll leave Earth behind forever. I wonder how many times this has happened -- how many times the asteroids have been bigger, closer, but still not big or close enough to stay.

"Frog and Toad and the Self"MAY 27

Frog And Toad

Bert Clere wrote a nice appreciation for the children's books of Arnold Lobel, among them the Frog and Toad series and Owl at Home. Clere says Lobel's stories offered insights for children about, yes, friendship but also about the importance of individuality.

Lobel's Frog and Toad series, published in four volumes containing five stories each during the 1970s, remains his most popular and enduring work. Frog and Toad, two very different characters, make something of an odd couple. Their friendship demonstrates the many ups and downs of human attachment, touching on deep truths about life, philosophy, and human nature in the process. But it isn't all about relationships with others: In the series, and in his lesser-known 1975 book Owl at Home, Lobel offers a conception of the self that still resonates decades later. Throughout his books, he reminds readers that they are individuals, and that they shouldn't be afraid of being themselves.

Frog and Toad are favorites at our house. I'm going to read them to the kids this weekend with a new appreciation. Wanting to fit into the group is a powerful impulse for children, reinforced these days by the increased focus on group work in schools, so it's nice to have a counterpoint to share with them.

Update: From the New Yorker's Colin Stokes, another appreciation of Arnold Lobel. Lobel's daughter Adrianne suspects the Frog & Toad books were "the beginning of him coming out" of the closet.

Adrianne suspects that there's another dimension to the series's sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are "of the same sex, and they love each other," she told me. "It was quite ahead of its time in that respect." In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. "I think 'Frog and Toad' really was the beginning of him coming out," Adrianne told me.

The article also sadly notes that Lobel died at age 54, "an early victim of the AIDS crisis". (via @bdeskin)

A robotic rocks sorterMAY 23

Jller is a machine that sorts stones from a specific river according to their geologic age.

The machine works with a computer vision system that processes the images of the stones and maps each of its location on the platform throughout the ordering process. The information extracted from each stone are dominant color, color composition, and histograms of structural features such as lines, layers, patterns, grain, and surface texture. This data is used to assign the stones into predefined categories.

See also the robotic pancake sorter. (via colossal)

Live reading of the terms of service for appsMAY 25

Live App Tos Reading

In the latest Slow TV experiment, the Norwegian Consumer Council is doing a live read of the terms of service for a number of different apps, including Instagram, YouTube, Kindle, Spotify, and Snapchat. It's in Norwegian and it looks like they're on the last app, but the total time elapsed so far is 1 day, 7 hours, 49 minutes. (via @Rudien)

Update: The live reading is over, and there was wide variation in reading times. The iTunes TOS took almost 200 minutes to read while those for an app called Vipps took only 3 minutes. The terms for Candy Crush, which is just a game, took more than an hour and a half to read aloud. Absurd.

Coming out to immigrant parentsTIM CARMODY  ·  JUN 14

My friend Matt Thompson grew up in Orlando, and like many of the shooters' victims, he's gay, a person of color, and a child of immigrants to the US. His wonderful essay grapples with the shooting and tries to untie the fear and risk and hope and community that's knotted up in those identities.

My own parents were the very last people in my life I was out to, years after I'd been out to friends and colleagues. I didn't know how they'd react to the fact of my sexuality, and among my friends, there was often impatience with that uncertainty. If they're good parents, these friends would say, they will love you without conditions and without hesitation.

But this reaction was rare among those of us who grew up, like me, knowing that our parents left their homes and settled here mainly in pursuit of visions of what their children's lives would be. They had imagined their sons as men with wives, and their daughters as women with husbands, and cultivated these visions throughout our adolescence and beyond. Some of our parents had tended to these visions so zealously that they missed all the signs that these weren't, in fact, the people we'd become. When we came out, they were forced both to reckon with these people they no longer recognized and mourn the visions of us they had nurtured all those years.

"I can't stop thinking about the possibility that someone like us was hurt or murdered at Pulse on Sunday morning," Matt writes. "outed in the very worst way, in a phone call every family dreads. For some parents, such a call would be a double heartbreak."

13 books recommended by Ta-Nehisi CoatesMAY 24

In a conversation last year with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates recommended that readers of his acclaimed Between the World and Me check out a baker's dozen other books, including his mentor David Carr's The Night of the Gun, The Half Has Never Been Told (previously mentioned here), and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.

I could have imagined Isabel Wilkerson's excellent The Warmth of Other Suns on this list too; it's the most eye-opening American history book I've read in years. (Paging Lin-Manuel Miranda to make a play out of this.)

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.

From Winnie Cooper to math whizJUN 03

As a child, Danica McKellar played Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. After the show was over, McKellar had difficulty breaking away from other people's perceptions of her. But in college, she discovered an aptitude for mathematics, went on to have a theorem named after her -- not because she was famous but because she'd helped prove it -- and forged a new identity. (via @stevenstrogatz)

How Gromit from Wallace and Gromit is builtMAY 31

How Gromit Is Made

Aardman's films and shows (particularly Shaun the Sheep) are some of my favorite things to watch with the kids. Animator Merlin Crossingham shares how the Gromit character is built, from his stainless steel skeleton on up.

In the first film, A Grand Day Out, Nick was going to make Gromit speak and had planned a whole mouth design. The first time he animated Gromit, however, he found that the way the character could communicate using body language and expressive eyebrows was much more powerful than by speaking. So he made a snap decision not to give Gromit a voice, which he's stuck to. Our good animators are able to let you know instantly what the model is thinking or doing.

(via @bdeskin)

Live: Sigur Ros circles Iceland with generative soundtrackJUN 20

Icelandic band Sigur Rós is doing a live slow TV event: a broadcast of a drive around the entirety of Iceland with a soundtrack generated by software based on a new song of theirs.

driving anti-clockwise round the island, the journey will pass by many of the country’s most notable landmarks, including vatnajökull, europe’s largest ice-sheet; the glacial lagoon, jökulsárlón; as well as the east fjords and the desolate black sands of möðrudalur.

the soundtrack to the journey is being created moment-by-moment via generative music software. the individual musical elements of unreleased song, and current sigur rós festival set opener, óveður, are seeded through the evolving music app bronze, to create a unique ephemeral sonic experience. headphones, external speakers and full-screen viewing are recommended.

Space StoryJUN 10

Luc Bergeron's Space Story is a mashup of more than 20 movies that take place in space, from Alien to Apollo 13 to 2001 to Star Trek to Moon. Stick with it for a couple minutes...it starts slow but gets going around then.

See also Star Wars x Star Trek: The Carbonite Maneuver.

Tesla Model X beats sports car while towing another carMAY 25

If you skip to around 3:15 in this video, you'll see a race between the Tesla Model X, the company's electric SUV, and an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider sports car. The Model X easily beats the Alfa Romeo to 60 mph while towing another Alfa Romeo 4C Spider behind it. Here's Keanu with a comment: "Whoa." How can you not love a car outfitted with something called Ludicrous Mode? (via a proud @elonmusk)

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