kottke.org posts about books

The Oldest Living Things in the WorldApr 16 2014

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:

EggApr 13 2014

Egg

New from Michael Ruhlman: a cookbook about the mighty egg, "A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient".

For culinary visionary Michael Ruhlman, the question is not whether the chicken or the egg came first, it's how anything could be accomplished in the kitchen without the magic of the common egg. He starts with perfect poached and scrambled eggs and builds up to brioche and Italian meringue. Along the way readers learn to make their own mayonnaise, pasta, custards, quiches, cakes, and other preparations that rely fundamentally on the hidden powers of the egg.

Ruhlman shares a bit about the book with NPR:

But often, Ruhlman argues, we don't treat our eggs very well. Take scrambled eggs. "It's one of the most overcooked dishes in America," he says. "We kill our eggs with heat."

Instead, we need, in most instances, to give the egg gentle heat. "When you cook them very slowly over very gentle heat, the curds form. And as you sit, the rest of the egg sort of warms but doesn't fully cook and becomes a sauce for the curds. So it should be a creamy and delicious and delicate preparation."

Vatican to scan all their manuscriptsApr 04 2014

Vatican manuscripts

The Vatican is beginning the process of digitizing its extensive library of books and manuscripts, previously only available to a select few scholars and historians. Their plan calls for an initial 3000 manuscripts to be scanned, with the rest of the 82,000 other documents to hopefully follow.

That's 41 million pages spanning nearly 2,000 years of church history that will soon be clickable, zoomable, and presumably, printable. When all is said and done, you'll be able to read the Psalms handwritten across 13th-century vellum on your iPhone -- so long as you speak ancient Greek.

Daily Rituals: How Artists WorkApr 02 2014

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 Michael Lewis and high-frequency tradingApr 02 2014

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.

Flash BoysMar 31 2014

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.

Death & Co cocktail bookMar 27 2014

Looking forward to this one: a cocktail recipe book from Death & Co, an East Village cocktail joint.

Featuring hundreds of recipes for signature Death & Co creations as well as classic drink formulas,Death & Co is not only a comprehensive collection of the bar's best, but also a complete cocktail education. With chapters on the theory and philosophy of drink-making; a complete guide to the spirits, tools, and other ingredients needed to make a great bar; and specs for nearly 500 iconic drinks, Death & Co is destined to become the go-to reference on craft cocktails.

The Way to GoMar 25 2014

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.

Creativity, Inc.Mar 21 2014

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.

The Long Shadow of ChernobylMar 14 2014

Gerd Ludwig Chernobyl

National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig has visited Chernobyl nine times over the past twenty years. The Long Shadow of Chernobyl is a forthcoming book collecting Ludwig's photos, which includes an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev. The publication of the book is being funded via Kickstarter. There is also an iOS app.

Grit, chess, and how to thinkMar 13 2014

Shane Parrish's excerpt and exploration of Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character made me want to stop everything and read the book all the way through.

"Tell me about your game," Spiegel said. Sebastian flopped into the chair and handed her his notepad, where he'd recorded all the moves for both players in the game.

Sebastian explained that the other guy was simply better. "He had good skills," he said. "Good strategies."

And this is the point where many of us would simply say something along the lines of "did you do your best?," in which case the likely response is "Yes." Everyone is at least let off the hook. The teacher for ensuring students try their best, the student for having lost to someone better. Spiegel did not take this approach.

You may remember Tough's 2011 piece on grit in the NY Times Magazine.

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character -- those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. "Whether it's the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful," he said. "Strangely, we've now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT's, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they're doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they're screwed, to be honest. I don't think they've grown the capacities to be able to handle that."

What if What If? was a book?Mar 13 2014

What If Randall Munroe

Fantastic...Randall Munroe is turning his What If? web series into a book. Munroe explains:

As I've sifted through the letters submitted to What If every week, I've occasionally set aside particularly neat questions that I wanted to spend a little more time on. This book features my answers to those questions, along with revised and updated versions of some of my favorite articles from the site. (I'm also including my personal list of the weirdest questions people have submitted.)

The man that Disney builtMar 10 2014

When Owen Suskind was three, a switch flipped within him and he went from a typical chatty rambunctious three-year-old to autistic.

I had just started a job as The Wall Street Journal's national affairs reporter. My wife, Cornelia, a former journalist, was home with him -- a new story every day, a new horror. He could barely use a sippy cup, though he'd long ago graduated to a big-boy cup. He wove about like someone walking with his eyes shut. "It doesn't make sense," I'd say at night. "You don't grow backward." Had he been injured somehow when he was out of our sight, banged his head, swallowed something poisonous? It was like searching for clues to a kidnapping.

After visits to several doctors, we first heard the word "autism." Later, it would be fine-tuned to "regressive autism," now affecting roughly a third of children with the disorder. Unlike the kids born with it, this group seems typical until somewhere between 18 and 36 months -- then they vanish. Some never get their speech back. Families stop watching those early videos, their child waving to the camera. Too painful. That child's gone.

But a tenuous connection remained between Owen and his pre-autistic self: Disney movies. And through them, Owen slowly learns how to communicate with the outside world again.

So we join him upstairs, all of us, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in November 1994. Owen is already on the bed, oblivious to our arrival, murmuring gibberish.... "Juicervose, juicervose." It is something we've been hearing for the past few weeks. Cornelia thinks maybe he wants more juice; but no, he refuses the sippy cup. "The Little Mermaid" is playing as we settle in, propping up pillows. We've all seen it at least a dozen times, but it's at one of the best parts: where Ursula the sea witch, an acerbic diva, sings her song of villainy, "Poor Unfortunate Souls," to the selfish mermaid, Ariel, setting up the part in which Ursula will turn Ariel into a human, allowing her to seek out the handsome prince, in exchange for her voice.

When the song is over, Owen lifts the remote. Hits rewind.

"Come on, Owen, just let it play!" Walt moans. But Owen goes back just 20 seconds or so, to the song's next-to-last stanza, with Ursula shouting:

Go ahead -- make your choice!

I'm a very busy woman, and I haven't got all day.

It won't cost much, just your voice!

He does it again. Stop. Rewind. Play. And one more time. On the fourth pass, Cornelia whispers, "It's not 'juice.' " I barely hear her. "What?" "It's not 'juice.' It's 'just' ... 'just your voice'!"

I grab Owen by the shoulders. "Just your voice! Is that what you're saying?!"

He looks right at me, our first real eye contact in a year. "Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!"

Walt starts to shout, "Owen's talking again!" A mermaid lost her voice in a moment of transformation. So did this silent boy. "Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!" Owen keeps saying it, watching us shout and cheer. And then we're up, all of us, bouncing on the bed. Owen, too, singing it over and over -- "Juicervose!" -- as Cornelia, tears beginning to fall, whispers softly, "Thank God, he's in there."

This is the best thing I've read in a month, so so heartbreaking and amazing. Just pre-ordered the book...can't wait to read the full version.

CrabtreeMar 06 2014

Crabtree

Been reading Crabtree with the kids lately and they really like it. Reminds me of Richard Scarry's books a bit...lots of different and often humorous objects to discover on each page.

Alfred Crabtree has lost his false teeth. But don't worry, he'll find them if he can just get his things organized! Alfred's world is cluttered with surprising objects. Some are very uncommon, and some are probably not where they ought to be. There are a lot of pencils and small yapping dogs.

And who knew McSweeney's made children's books?

Cabin Porn, the book!Mar 05 2014

Cabin Porn

The folks behind Cabin Porn are making a book with photography by Noah Kalina. Outstanding.

The slow-motion political race to build tiny stars on EarthMar 04 2014

Raffi Khatchadourian's long piece on the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is at once fascinating (for science reasons) and depressing (for political/bureaucratic reasons). Fusion reactors hold incredible promise:

But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world's energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on iter will be built, too-generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity's will. iter, in Latin, means "the way."

But ITER is a collaborative effort between 35 different countries, which means the project is political, slow, and expensive.

For the machine's creators, this process-sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star-will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars' worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the iter organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world's population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the iter Unit of Account.

No one knows iter's true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars -- a sum that makes iter the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.

I wonder what the project would look like if, say, Google or Apple were to take the reins instead. In that context, it's only $20 billion to build a tiny Sun on the Earth. Facebook just paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, Apple has a whopping $158.8 billion in cash, and Google & Microsoft both have more than $50 billion in cash. Google in particular, which is making a self-driving car and has been buying up robots by the company-full recently, might want their own tiny star.

But back to reality, the circumstances of ITER's international construction consortium reminded me of the building of The Machine in Carl Sagan's Contact. In the book, the countries of the world work together to make a machine of unknown function from plans beamed to them from an alien intelligence, which results in the development of several new lucrative life-enhancing technologies and generally unites humanity. In Sagan's view, that's the power of science. Hopefully the ITER can work through its difficulties to achieve something similar.

Wolf in White VanMar 04 2014

Great book cover design alert:

Wolf In White Van

The book is the forthcoming Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle. Cover art direction by Rodrigo Corral, designed by Timothy Goodman. (via @robinsloan)

The opening lines of famous novels, diagrammedFeb 28 2014

Pop Chart Lab has produced a print of grammatical diagrams of the opening lines of notable novels. Here's Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea:

Hemingway Sentence Diagram

There are also sentences from DFW, Plath, and Austen. Prints start at $29.

Burn this bookFeb 27 2014

Love this concept cover for Fahrenheit 451 by designer Elizabeth Perez...the 1 is a match and the spine is striking paper for lighting it.

Fahrenheit 451 with match

Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about a dystopian future where books are outlawed and firemen burn any house that contains them. The story is about suppressing ideas, and about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

I wanted to spread the book-burning message to the book itself. The book's spine is screen-printed with a matchbook striking paper surface, so the book itself can be burned.

(via @daveg)

The sixth extinctionFeb 12 2014

About 250 million years ago, Earth suffered its fifth (and worst) mass extinction event. Nearly seventy percent of land species disappeared. And they got off easy compared to marine species. Are we headed for another mass extinction on Earth? I'm not ready to break that news. But something unusual is definitely going on and extinction rates seem to be speeding up. Here's an interesting chat with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction.

The worst mass extinction of all time came about 250 million years ago [the Permian-Triassic extinction event]. There's a pretty good consensus there that this was caused by a huge volcanic event that went on for a long time and released a lot of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. That is pretty ominous considering that we are releasing a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere and people increasingly are drawing parallels between the two events.

Her life in MiddlemarchJan 28 2014

Rebecca Mead's new book comes out today, My Life in Middlemarch. The New Yorker has an excerpt adapted from the book about George Eliot's biggest fan, Alexander Main.

My copy of "Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings," which I bought a few years ago from a secondhand bookseller, is the tenth edition, from 1896, which gives Main an enviably long time on the back-list. When I thumb through its pages of quotations, some of them extending for more than a page, printed in a font size that has me reaching for reading glasses, I am overcome by a dreadful sense of depletion. I can think of no surer way to be put off the work of George Eliot than by trying to read the "Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings." On any given page is an out-of-context pronouncement -- "iteration, like friction, is likely to generate heat instead of progress" -- or a phrase so recondite that it requires several readings before it can be parsed. Main's book is the nineteenth-century equivalent of the refrigerator magnet.

1920s guide to NYC tourist etiquetteJan 27 2014

Gothamist uncovered a NYC guide book from the 1920s called Valentine's City of New York: A Guide Book. Some of the tips include:

Don't take the recommendation of strangers regarding hotels... Don't get too friendly with plausible strangers.

Don't gape at women smoking cigarettes in restaurants. They are harmless and respectable. They are also "smart."

Don't forget to tip. Tip early and tip often.

(via @DavidGrann)

Cool Tools book a sleeper hitJan 06 2014

David Carr writes about the surprising success of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools book, which is based on his long-running website of the same name.

But last year, he had what sounded to me like a dumb idea. Mr. Kelly edits and owns Cool Tools, a website that writes about neat stuff and makes small money off referral revenue from Amazon when people proceed to buy some of those things. He decided to edit the thousands of reviews that had accrued over the last 10 years into a self-published print catalog -- also called "Cool Tools" -- which he would then sell for $39.99.

So, to review, his idea was to manufacture a floppy 472-page catalog that would weigh 4.5 pounds, full of buying advice that had already appeared free on the web, essentially turning weightless pixels into bulky bundles of atoms. To make it happen, he crowdsourced designs from all over the world, found a printer in China and then arranged for shipping and distribution. It all seemed a little quixotic and, well, beside the point.

Except the first printing of 10,000 copies, just in time for Christmas, sold out immediately, a second printing of 12,000 will go on sale at Amazon next week and a third printing of 20,000 copies is underway. So, not so dumb after all.

I haven't had a chance to dig too deeply into my copy yet, but my six-year-old sat down with it a few weeks ago and had about a million questions per page for me. Which seems a like a positive sign.

The best book covers, movie posters, and magazine covers of 2013Dec 23 2013

Magazine covers, movie posters, and book covers all have the same basic job, so it seemed proper to group these lists together: 50 [Book] Covers for 2013, The 20 best magazine covers of 2013, The 50 Best Posters Of 2013, Top [Magazine] Covers 2013, The Best Book Covers of 2013, The 30 Best Movie Posters of 2013, Best Book Covers of 2013. Lots of great work here. I still can't figure out whether I love or hate this cover of W with George Clooney on it:

Clooney W Mag

Jason Segel to play David Foster Wallace in a movieDec 12 2013

Jason Segel is set to play David Foster Wallace in a movie adaptation of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

Story finds Lipsky accompanying Wallace across the country on a book tour promoting "Infinite Jest," just as Wallace starts to become famous. Along the way, jealousy and competition bubbles up between the two writers as they discuss women, depression and the pros and cons of fame.

Reaction from the DFW fan club abut Segel playing DFW has been tepid, to say the least.

A History of the Future in 100 ObjectsDec 09 2013

Inspired by the A History of the World in 100 Objects project done by the BBC and the British Museum, Adrian Hon presents A History of the Future in 100 Objects, presented from the perspective of someone writing in 2082. From the introduction:

Every century is extraordinary, of course. Some may be the bloodiest or the darkest; others encompass momentous social revolutions, or scientific advances, or religious and philosophical movements. The 21st century is different: it represents the first time in our history that we have truly had to question what it means to be human. It is the stories of our collective humanity that I hope to tell through the hundred objects in this book.

I tell the story of how we became more connected than ever before, with objects like Babel, Silent Messaging, the Nautilus-3, and the Brain Bubble - and how we became fragmented, both physically and culturally, with the Fourth Great Awakening, and the Biomes.

With the Braid Collective, the Loop, the Steward Medal, and the Rechartered Cities, we made tremendous steps forward on our long pursuit of greater equality and enlightenment -- but the Locked Simulation Interrogations, the Sudan-Shanghai Letter, the Collingwood Meteor, and the Downvoted all showed how easy it was for us to lapse back into horror and atrocity.

We automated our economy with the UCS Deliverbots, the Mimic Scripts, the Negotiation Agents, and the Old Drones, destroying the entire notion of work and employment in the process; and we transformed our politics with Jorge Alvarez's Presidential Campaign, and the Constitutional Blueprints.

The book is available on the Kindle.

The birth of the iPhoneNov 27 2013

iPod phone

On Medium, an excerpt of Leander Kahney's book on Jony Ive about how the iPhone came to be developed at Apple.

Excited by Kerr's explanation of what a sophisticated touch interface could do, the team members started to brainstorm the kinds of hardware they might build with it.

The most obvious idea was a touchscreen Mac. Instead of a keyboard and mouse, users could tap on the screen of the computer to control it. One of the designers suggested a touchscreen controller that functioned as an alternate to a keyboard and mouse, a sort of virtual keyboard with soft keys.

As Satzger remembered, "We asked, How do we take a tablet, which has been around for a while, and do something more with it? Touch is one thing, but multitouch was new. You could swipe to turn a page, as opposed to finding a button on the screen that would allow you turn the page. Instead of trying to find a button to make operations, we could turn a page just like a newspaper."

Jony in particular had always had a deep appreciation for the tactile nature of computing; he had put handles on several of his early machines specifically to encourage touching. But here was an opportunity to make the ultimate tactile device. No more keyboard, mouse, pen, or even a click wheel-the user would touch the actual interface with his or her fingers. What could be more intimate?

How to find WaldoNov 20 2013

Ben Blatt sat down with a bunch of Where's Waldo? books and found a pattern to the striped beanpole's hiding places.

It may not be immediately clear from looking at this map, but my hunch that there's a better way to hunt was right. There isn't one corner of the page where Waldo is always hiding; readers would have already noticed if his patterns were so obvious. What we do see, as highlighted in the map below, is that 53 percent of the time Waldo is hiding within one of two 1.5-inch tall bands, one starting three inches from the bottom of the page and another one starting seven inches from the bottom, stretching across the spread.

The bourbon family treeNov 15 2013

A chart of where many varieties of bourbon come from, along with five things you can learn from the chart.

Bourbon Chart

Pappy Van Winkle is frequently described by both educated and uneducated drinkers as the best bourbon on the market. It is certainly aged for longer than most premium bourbons, and has earned a near hysterical following of people scrambling to get one of the very few bottles that are released each year. Of the long-aged bourbons, it seems to be aged very gently year-to-year, and this recommends it enormously. But if you, like most people, can't find Pappy, try W. L. Weller. There's a 12 year old variety that retails for $23 around the corner. Pappy 15-year sells for $699-$1000 even though it's the exact same liquid as the Pappy (same mash bill, same spirit, same barrels); the only difference is it's aged 3 years less.

The chart is taken from the Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining.

Written by the founders of Kings County Distillery, New York City's first distillery since Prohibition, this spirited illustrated book explores America's age-old love affair with whiskey. It begins with chapters on whiskey's history and culture from 1640 to today, when the DIY trend and the classic cocktail craze have conspired to make it the next big thing. For those thirsty for practical information, the book next provides a detailed, easy-to-follow guide to safe home distilling, complete with a list of supplies, step-by-step instructions, and helpful pictures, anecdotes, and tips.

(via df)

Dolores T. VollmannNov 14 2013

Prolific and celebrated writer William T. Vollmann is a "devoted" cross-dresser.

Mr. Vollmann is 54, heterosexual and married with a daughter in high school. He began cross-dressing seriously about five years ago. Sometimes he transforms himself into a woman as part of a strange vision quest, aided by drugs or alcohol, to mind-meld with a female character in a book he's writing. Other times it's just because he likes the "smooth and slippery" feel of women's lingerie.

He said his wife, who is an oncologist, is not thrilled with his outré experiments and keeps her distance. "Probably when the book comes out, it'll be the first she's heard of it," he said. "I always try to keep my wife and child out of what I do. I don't want to cause them any embarrassment." He asked that his wife not be interviewed for this article.

Vollmann has collected self-portraits of himself as his female alter ego in The Book of Dolores. (via @DavidGrann)

How the Victorians Wired the WorldNov 13 2013

One of my favorite books on technology, Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, was adapted into a TV documentary. It is now available on YouTube:

The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts that of the Internet in numerous ways.

List from 1898 of the 100 best novelsNov 12 2013

In 1898, an editor named Clement K. Shorter made a list of the 100 best novels (with an additional limit of one/author).

1. Don Quixote - 1604 - Miguel de Cervantes
2. The Holy War - 1682 - John Bunyan
3. Gil Blas - 1715 - Alain René le Sage
4. Robinson Crusoe - 1719 - Daniel Defoe
5. Gulliver's Travels - 1726 - Jonathan Swift
6. Roderick Random - 1748 - Tobias Smollett
7. Clarissa - 1749 - Samuel Richardson
8. Tom Jones - 1749 - Henry Fielding
9. Candide - 1756 - Françoise de Voltaire
10. Rasselas - 1759 - Samuel Johnson

So much on there I've never even heard of. Compare this list with that of the best novels of the 20th century...how many of those novels and authors will readers be scratching their heads over in 2113? See also a contemporary list of the best books from before 1900. (via mr)

Hogwarts' Board of Education report largely unsatisfactoryNov 06 2013

Earlier this year, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was subjected to a review by the Board of Education and was found wanting in several areas.

Pupils at Hogwarts have access to a reasonably wide range of esoteric qualifications, suited to its key demographic. As an independent school, it does not have to follow the National Curriculum closely; however, it is disappointing to note that basic requirements such as English, Mathematics and Religious Education are all lacking or entirely missing from the school's syllabus. This has had adverse effects on all students, many of whom have never even been taught basic KS1 or 2 literacy. A few students have attended state or independent primary schools, and these students typically perform very well in contrast to their peers.

The majority of students appear to be under-performing, with most pupils struggling in all their lessons, most of which appear to be set at too challenging a level. One particular class, which seemed to be based on A-Level chemistry, proved too difficult for even the most proficient students. Only one pupil managed to complete the lesson objectives, mainly thanks to his use of an annotated text book.

(via slate)

The science of boozeOct 25 2013

Hmm, this looks interesting: an upcoming book on the science of booze written by Adam Rogers.

In Proof, Adam Rogers reveals alcohol as a miracle of science, going deep into the pleasures of making and drinking booze-and the effects of the latter. The people who make and sell alcohol may talk about history and tradition, but alcohol production is really powered by physics, molecular biology, organic chemistry, and a bit of metallurgy-and our taste for those products is a melding of psychology and neurobiology.

Proof takes readers from the whisky-making mecca of the Scottish Highlands to the oenology labs at UC Davis, from Kentucky bourbon country to the most sophisticated gene-sequencing labs in the world -- and to more than one bar -- bringing to life the motley characters and evolving science behind the latest developments in boozy technology.

Rogers wrote the piece about the mystery whiskey fungus I linked to a couple of years ago.

Mike Tyson's life as a young thugOct 21 2013

In New York Magazine this week, Mike Tyson writes about growing up in Brooklyn and his discovery of boxing as a way out and up.

Having to wear glasses in the first grade was a real turning point in my life. My mother had me tested, and it turned out I was nearsighted, so she made me get glasses. They were so bad. One day I was leaving school at lunchtime to go home and I had some meatballs from the cafeteria wrapped up in aluminum to keep them hot. This guy came up to me and said, "Hey, you got any money?" I said, "No." He started picking my pockets and searching me, and he tried to take my fucking meatballs. I was resisting, going, "No, no, no!" I would let the bullies take my money, but I never let them take my food. I was hunched over like a human shield, protecting my meatballs. So he started hitting me in the head and then took my glasses and put them down the gas tank of a truck. I ran home, but he didn't get my meatballs. I still feel like a coward to this day because of that bullying. That's a wild feeling, being that helpless. You never ever forget that feeling. That was the last day I went to school. I was 7 years old, and I just never went back to class.

The piece is adapted from Tyson's upcoming memoir, Undisputed Truth. Tyson wrote the book with Larry Sloman, author of Reefer Madness who has also ghostwritten for Howard Stern, Anthony Kiedis, and KISS's Peter Criss.

Update: Spike Lee directed a documentary version of Undisputed Truth; it'll air on HBO on November 16. Here's the trailer:

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Motion PictureOct 17 2013

Matt Zoller Seitz is doing a video essay series based on his new book, The Wes Anderson Collection. The first two installments, on Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, are already up:

I love what he says about Rushmore:

There are few perfect movies. This is one of them.

The book and video essays came about because Anderson saw Seitz's earlier video essay series, The Substance of Style, an examination of Anderson's stylistic influences. Great resource for fans of Anderson and film.

1491: the New World before ColumbusOct 15 2013

As a belated recognition of Exploration Day, here's Charles C. Mann's piece on the history of the Americas before Columbus: 1491. This piece blew my doors off when I first read it.

Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought-an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.

This article spawned a book of the same name, which is one of my favorite non-fiction reads of the past decade.

The Fallacy of SuccessOct 10 2013

In a book called All Things Considered published in 1915, G.K. Chesterton deftly skewers the glut of books by gurus, articles linked to from Hacker News, and conference talks by entrepreneurs about how to be successful.

That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. Any live man has succeeded in living; any dead man may have succeeded in committing suicide. But, passing over the bad logic and bad philosophy in the phrase, we may take it, as these writers do, in the ordinary sense of success in obtaining money or worldly position. These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation-how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder; how, if he is a stockbroker, he may succeed as a stockbroker. They profess to show him how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon. This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth. Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.

Chesterton continues:

It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success. Especially you cannot want a book about Success such as those which you can now find scattered by the hundred about the book-market. You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners.

That Chesterton's observations ring so true today is not an accident. The last time income inequality in the US was as high as it is today? The 1910s and 1920s. (via mustapha abiola)

The Best American Infographics 2013Oct 08 2013

Sadly, most infographics these days look like this, functioning as a cheap and easy way to gussy up numbers. But when done properly, infographics are very effective in communicating a lot of information in a short period of time and can help you see data in new ways. In The Best American Infographics 2013, Gareth Cook collects some of the best ones from over the past year. Wired has a look at some of the selections.

Dog Infoviz

The Wes Anderson CollectionOct 08 2013

Out today is The Wes Anderson Collection (at Amazon), a coffee-table book about Wes Anderson's career.

The Wes Anderson Collection is the first in-depth overview of Anderson's filmography, guiding readers through his life and career. Previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera complement a book-length conversation between Anderson and award-winning critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The interview and images are woven together in a meticulously designed book that captures the spirit of his films: melancholy and playful, wise and childish -- and thoroughly original.

Vulture has an excerpt of the chapter on The Royal Tenenbaums.

Q: Gene Hackman - it was always your dream for him to play Royal?
A: It was written for him against his wishes.

Q: I'm gathering he was not an easy person to get.
A: He was difficult to get.

Q: What were his hesitations? Did he ever tell you?
A: Yeah: no money. He's been doing movies for a long time, and he didn't want to work sixty days on a movie. I don't know the last time he had done a movie where he had to be there for the whole movie and the money was not good. There was no money. There were too many movie stars, and there was no way to pay. You can't pay a million dollars to each actor if you've got nine movie stars or whatever it is - that's half the budget of the movie. I mean, nobody's going to fund it anymore, so that means it's scale.

That's right, Gene Hackman (and probably the rest of them as well) worked for scale on The Royal Tenenbaums.

Anderson also talks about the scene in The Darjeeling Limited where they show everyone on the train:

Q: When you turn to reveal the tiger, what is that, the other side of the train?
A: No, it's all one car. We gutted a car, and that is a fake forest that we built on the train, and it is a Jim Henson creature on our train car. The whole thing is one take, and I think because we did it that way, while we were doing it, we did feel this electricity, you know? There's tension in it because it's all real. Fake but real. I mean, that was the idea. The emotion of it, well -- there's nothing really happening in the scene, you know? They just kind of sit there, but it was a real thing that was happening. But I did at the time have this feeling like "I don't know."

Even if it's fake, it's real.

Part of the untold iPhone storyOct 05 2013

In what appears to be an excerpt from Fred Vogelstein's new book on the Apple/Google mobile rivalry, a piece from the NY Times Magazine on how the iPhone went from conception to launch. That the Macworld keynote/demo of the phone went off so well is amazing and probably even a bit lucky.

The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn't play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called "the golden path," a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the phone look as if it worked.

But even when Jobs stayed on the golden path, all manner of last-minute workarounds were required to make the iPhone functional. On announcement day, the software that ran Grignon's radios still had bugs. So, too, did the software that managed the iPhone's memory. And no one knew whether the extra electronics Jobs demanded the demo phones include would make these problems worse.

Here's video of Jobs' presentation that day:

NFL deliberately campaigned against science regarding head injuriesOct 02 2013

According to an upcoming book by ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the NFL "conducted a two-decade campaign to deny a growing body of scientific research that showed a link between playing football and brain damage".

Excerpts published Wednesday by ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated from the book, "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," report that the NFL used its power and resources to discredit independent scientists and their work; that the league cited research data that minimized the dangers of concussions while emphasizing the league's own flawed research; and that league executives employed an aggressive public relations strategy designed to keep the public unaware of what league executives really knew about the effects of playing the game.

Excerpts of the book are available from ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated. An episode of Frontline based in part on the book airs next week. Interestingly, ESPN was collaborating with Frontline on this program, but they pulled out of it in August.

David and Goliath and GladwellOct 02 2013

Huh, Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Here's the synopsis:

Three thousand years ago on a battlefield in ancient Palestine, a shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a stone and a sling, and ever since then the names of David and Goliath have stood for battles between underdogs and giants. David's victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn't have won.

Or should he have?

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks.

Tyler Cowen liked it:

Take the book's central message to be "here's how to think more deeply about what you are seeing." To be sure, this is not a book for econometricians, but it so unambiguously improves the quality of the usual public debates, in addition to entertaining and inspiring and informing us, I am very happy to recommend it to anyone who might be tempted.

Christopher Chabris at the Wall Street Journal was not so kind:

One thing "David and Goliath" shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works. Mr. Gladwell should acknowledge when he is speculating or working with thin evidentiary soup. Yet far from abandoning his hand or even standing pat, Mr. Gladwell has doubled down. This will surely bring more success to a Goliath of nonfiction writing, but not to his readers.

I enjoy Gladwell's writing and am able to take it with the proper portion of salt...I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on. I skipped Outliers but maybe I should give this one a try?

After The ShiningSep 27 2013

The documentary Room 237 doesn't sound like it's about any of the things I like about Stanley Kubrick's films, especially The Shining. But Stephen King reminds us that he doesn't like The Shining either, and for better reasons than novelists usually give when talking about movies based on their books:

Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she's basically just there to scream and be stupid and that's not the woman that I wrote about.

Wendy's best moments in the film are when she's not that thing, but yeah, she's mostly that thing.

But at the same time King is bothered by one of the things that is actually super-distinctive and weirdly compelling about Kubrick, fucked up as that dude clearly was:

I'm not a cold guy. I think one of the things people relate to in my books is this warmth, there's a reaching out and saying to the reader, "I want you to be a part of this." With Kubrick's The Shining I felt that it was very cold, very "We're looking at these people, but they're like ants in an anthill, aren't they doing interesting things, these little insects."

So wait, why is Stephen King talking about The Shining? Because he has a sequel to the book, just out today, called Doctor Sleep. It's about Daniel Torrance, the little boy from the novel. It follows him through his childhood, and now he's all grown up.

Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant "shining" power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes "Doctor Sleep."

"Aided by a prescient cat"! Oh, whoever at Studio Ghibli becomes the anointed heir of Hayao Miyazaki, please give us a warm, weird, spooky film version of this. This book trailer isn't doing it for me.

King's BBC interview is better. Besides Kubrick's movie, he talks about how The Shining was in retrospect a way for him to autobiographically work through his own drinking problems and resentment for literary fiction.

The night lightSep 11 2013

Paul Bogard recently published a book on darkness called The End of Night. Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Bogard about the book, the night sky, astronomy, security, cities, and prisons, among other things. The interview is interesting throughout but one of my favorite things is this illustration of the Bortle scale.

Bortle Scale

Twilley: It's astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There's a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That's not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I've been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can't have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it's bright. That's the great thing-the darker it gets, if it's clear, the brighter the night is. That's something we never see either, because it's so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

I can also recommend reading David Owen's 2007 NYer piece on light pollution.

Trashed in New York CitySep 05 2013

Robin Nagle, the Anthropologist in Residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation, recently wrote a book about the city's sanitation department. Collectors Weekly has an interview with Nagle about the book and sanitation in general.

Waring also dressed the workers in white, and even his wife said, 'What, are you crazy?' But he wanted them to be associated with notions of hygiene. Of course, those in the medical profession wore white, and he understood, quite rightly, that it was an issue of public health and hygiene to keep the street clean. He also put them in the helmets that the police wore to signify authority, and they quickly were nicknamed the White Wings.

These men became heroes because, for the first time in anyone's memory, they actually cleaned the city. It was a very bright day in the history of the department. Waring was only in office for three years, but after he left, nobody could use the old excuses that Tammany had used to dodge the issue of waste management. They had always said it was too crowded, with too many diverse kinds of people, and never mind that London and Paris and Philadelphia and Boston cleaned their streets. New York was different and it just couldn't be done. Waring proved them wrong. Rates of preventable disease went down. Mortality rates went down. It also had a ripple effect across all different areas of the city.

Now, NYC is not the cleanest city in the world, not by a long-shot, but it used to be so much worse. In the early 1890s, the streets were literally covered in trash because the Department of Street Cleaning (as it was known then) was so inept; look at the difference made by a 1895 reorganization of the department:

Before and After: NYC Trash

Bleeding Edge book trailerSep 04 2013

The book trailer for Thomas Pynchon's new novel is either brilliant or the dumbest thing ever.

Fun fact: the phrase "I don't even" was invented to react to this video. (via @GreatDismal)

On the prescient nature of On the Nature of ThingsAug 21 2013

I took a Greek and Roman literature class in college. Among the texts we studied was Lucretius' On The Nature of Things. Shamefully, about the only thing I remembered from it was that the poem was an early articulation of the concept of atoms (see also Democritus). Impressive, chatting about atoms in 50 BCE. But reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve has reminded me what an impressive and prescient document it is, quite apart from its beauty as a poem. In chapter eight of his book, Greenblatt summarizes the main points of Lucretius' poem:

Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of matter -- "the seeds of things" -- are eternal.
The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.

[Ok, the swerve deserves a bit of explanation. Here's Greenblatt:

If all the individual particles, in their infinite numbers, fell through the void in straight lines, pulled down by their own weight like raindrops, nothing would ever exist. But the particles do no move lockstep in a preordained single direction. Instead, "at absolutely unpredictable time and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement." The position of the elementary particles is thus indeterminate.

I can't help but think of quantum mechanics here. Anyway, back to the list.]

The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

The seeds of atomic theory, quantum mechanics, evolution, agnosticism, atheism...they're all right there, in a poem written by a man who died more than 2000 years ago.

The Pioneer DetectivesAug 13 2013

If you're at all interested in the Pioneer Anomaly (and you really should be, it's fascinating), The Pioneer Detectives ebook by Konstantin Kakaes looks interesting.

Explore one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the Pioneer Anomaly: in the 1980s, NASA scientists detected an unknown force acting on the spacecraft Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to journey through the asteroid belt and study Jupiter, eventually leaving the solar system. No one seemed able to agree on a cause. (Dark matter? Tensor-vector-scalar gravity? Collisions with gravitons?) What did seem clear to those who became obsessed with it was that the Pioneer Anomaly had the potential to upend Einstein and Newton -- to change everything we know about the universe.

Kakaes was a science writer for The Economist and studied physics at Harvard, so this topic seems right up his alley. Available for $2.99 for the Kindle and for iBooks on iOS.

How a convicted murderer prepares for a job interviewAug 01 2013

Sabine Heinlein follows several people through a post-prison jobs program to see how ex-convicts prepare for re-entry into the workforce.

In prison Angel thought that it wouldn't be too hard to find a job once he got out. He believed he had come a long way. At eighteen he hadn't been able to read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. At forty-seven he had studied at the college level. He told me he had read several thousand books. He earned numerous certificates while incarcerated -- a Vocational Appliance Repair Certificate, a Certificate of Proficiency of Computer Operator, a Certificate in Library Training, an IPA (Inmate Program Assistant) II Training Certificate, and several welding certifications -- but in the outside world these credentials counted for little.

"Irrelevant," Angel said. "They might as well be toilet paper."

This piece is the seventh chapter from Heinlein's book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison.

Zeitoun rewrite?Jul 30 2013

In 2009, Dave Eggers published a book called Zeitoun, the story of a man and his family experiencing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Through the story of one man's experience after Hurricane Katrina, Eggers draws an indelible picture of Bush-era crisis management. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-born painting contractor, decides to stay in New Orleans and protect his property while his family flees. After the levees break, he uses a small canoe to rescue people, before being arrested by an armed squad and swept powerlessly into a vortex of bureaucratic brutality. When a guard accuses him of being a member of Al Qaeda, he sees that race and culture may explain his predicament.

The story has taken an unexpected turn since its publication. The protagonist of the story, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is currently on trial for the attempted first-degree murder of his wife.

Zeitoun made an offer: $20,000 to kill his ex-wife, Kathy, according to Pugh's testimony. Zeitoun instructed Pugh, who was to be released soon from jail, to call Kathy Zeitoun -- Zeitoun allegedly wrote her phone number on an envelope, which was introduced as evidence -- and ask to see one of the family's rental properties. When she took him to a certain property in Algiers, he could kill her there, he allegedly said. Zeitoun also allegedly told Pugh to buy a "throwaway phone" and take pictures to confirm she was dead.

(via digg)

Update: Zeitoun was found not guilty.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was found not guilty Tuesday of trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife.

The verdict came from Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo. Zeitoun, 55, had waived his right to a jury trial. He had been charged with solicitation of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder of his ex-wife. He was acquitted on both counts.

(thx, mike)

Cover by Peter MendelsundJul 24 2013

Details are scarce and publication is months away, but hotshot book designer Peter Mendelsund is coming out with a book called Cover. I bet it will contain a collection of his covers. Or will be about covers. Or something. But I love book covers so whatever it is, I am covered.

The aggressively low-key Jack HandeyJul 16 2013

Even as a religious watcher of SNL in high school and into college, I had no idea Jack Handey was a real person until much later. So this profile of him comes in handy (ahem).

This idea -- the notion of real jokes and the existence of pure comedy -- came up again and again when I asked other writers about Handey. It seemed as if to them Handey is not just writing jokes but trying to achieve some kind of Platonic ideal of the joke form. "There is purity to his comedy," Semple said. "His references are all grandmas and Martians and cowboys. It's so completely free from topical references and pop culture that I feel like everyone who's gonna make a Honey Boo Boo joke should do some penance and read Jack Handey."

"For a lot of us, he was our favorite writer, and the one we were most in awe of," said James Downey, who wrote for "S.N.L." "When I was head writer there, my policy was just to let him do his thing and to make sure that nothing got in the way of him creating."

"He was the purest writer," Franken said. "It was pure humor, it wasn't topical at all. It was Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer."

Handey's first novel is out today: The Stench of Honolulu. (via df)

Behind the scenes of The WireJul 09 2013

Adapted from Brett Martin's Difficult Men, this piece in Slate gives a glimpse of what it was like on the set of The Wire.

In the isolated hothouse of Baltimore, immersed in the world of the streets, the cast of The Wire showed a bizarre tendency to mirror its onscreen characters in ways that took a toll on its members' outside lives: Lance Reddick, who played the ramrod-straight Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, tormented by McNulty's lack of discipline, had a similarly testy relationship with West, who would fool around and try to make Reddick crack up during his camera takes. Gilliam and Lombardozzi, much like Herc and Carver, would spend the bulk of Seasons 2 and 3 exiled to the periphery of the action, stewing on stakeout in second-unit production and eventually lobbying to be released from their contracts.

Oh, McNutty. (thx, sam)

The power of failureJun 27 2013

Malcolm Gladwell on economist Albert Hirschman, who embraced the roles of adversity, anxiety, and failure in creativity and success.

"The Principle of the Hiding Hand," one of Hirschman's many memorable essays, drew on an account of the Troy-Greenfield "folly," and then presented an even more elaborate series of paradoxes. Hirschman had studied the enormous Karnaphuli Paper Mills, in what was then East Pakistan. The mill was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But not long after the mill came online the bamboo unexpectedly flowered and then died, a phenomenon now known to recur every fifty years or so. Dead bamboo was useless for pulping; it fell apart as it was floated down the river. Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industrial plant was suddenly without the raw material it needed to function.

But what impressed Hirschman was the response to the crisis. The mill's operators quickly found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout East Pakistan, building a new supply chain using the country's many waterways. They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined. If bad planning hadn't led to the crisis at the Karnaphuli plant, the mill's operators would never have been forced to be creative. And the plant would not have been nearly as valuable as it became.

"We may be dealing here with a general principle of action," Hirschman wrote, "Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be."

Gladwell's piece is based on Jeremy Adelman's recent biography of Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher.

Social networking in ancient Rome and 17th century EnglandJun 24 2013

Here are pair of articles by Tom Standage, drawn from his forthcoming book on the 2,000-year history of social media, Writing on the Wall. In Share it like Cicero, Standage writes about how Roman authors used social networking to spread and publish their work.

One of the stories I tell in "Writing on the Wall" is about the way the Roman book-trade worked. There were no printing presses, so copying of books, which took the form of multiple papyrus rolls, was done entirely by hand, by scribes, most of whom were slaves. There were no formal publishers either, so Roman authors had to rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and social distribution of their works via their networks of friends and acquaintances.

In the late 1600s, a particularly effective social networking tool arose in England: the coffeehouse.

Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world. England's first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in the early 1650s, and hundreds of similar establishments sprang up in London and other cities in the following years. People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip.

Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.

Standage previously wrote about the European coffeehouse in A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

Tools for thinkingJun 11 2013

An excerpt from Daniel Dennett's new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, outlines seven of Dennett's tools for thinking. His second tool is "respect your opponent":

The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one's opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

How to invent things: edit your messJun 10 2013

In an essay that covers similar ground to Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, David Galbraith offers an interesting perspective on maximizing your creative potential.

I remember the very instant that I learned to be creative, to 'invent' things, to do things in an interesting and unusual way, and it happened by accident, literally.

I created mess around myself, the kind of chaos that would be very dangerous in an operating theater but which is synonymous with artists' studios, and in that mess I edited the accidents. By increasing the amount of mess I had freed things up and increased the possibilities, I had maximised the adjacent possible and was able to create the appearance of inventing new things by editing the mistakes which appeared novel and interesting.

The adjacent possible is one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you want to apply to everything around you.

You commit three felonies a dayJun 10 2013

In a book called Three Felonies A Day, Boston civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate says that everyone in the US commits felonies everyday and if the government takes a dislike to you for any reason, they'll dig in and find a felony you're guilty of.

The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague. In Three Felonies a Day, Harvey A. Silverglate reveals how federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from the English common law tradition and how prosecutors can pin arguable federal crimes on any one of us, for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior. The volume of federal crimes in recent decades has increased well beyond the statute books and into the morass of the Code of Federal Regulations, handing federal prosecutors an additional trove of vague and exceedingly complex and technical prohibitions to stick on their hapless targets. The dangers spelled out in Three Felonies a Day do not apply solely to "white collar criminals," state and local politicians, and professionals. No social class or profession is safe from this troubling form of social control by the executive branch, and nothing less than the integrity of our constitutional democracy hangs in the balance.

In response to a question about what happens to big company CEOs who refuse to go along with government surveillance requests, John Gilmore offers a case study in what Silverglate is talking about.

We know what happened in the case of QWest before 9/11. They contacted the CEO/Chairman asking to wiretap all the customers. After he consulted with Legal, he refused. As a result, NSA canceled a bunch of unrelated billion dollar contracts that QWest was the top bidder for. And then the DoJ targeted him and prosecuted him and put him in prison for insider trading -- on the theory that he knew of anticipated income from secret programs that QWest was planning for the government, while the public didn't because it was classified and he couldn't legally tell them, and then he bought or sold QWest stock knowing those things.

This CEO's name is Joseph P. Nacchio and TODAY he's still serving a trumped-up 6-year federal prison sentence today for quietly refusing an NSA demand to massively wiretap his customers.

You combine this with the uber-surveillance allegedly being undertaken by the NSA and other governmental agencies and you've got a system for more or less automatically accusing any US citizen of a felony. Free society, LOL ROFLcopter.

Update: For the past two years, the Wall Street Journal has been "examining the vastly expanding federal criminal law book and its consequences". (thx, jesse)

The three types of specialistMay 16 2013

From a passage of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, the three types of specialists needed for the success of any revolution.

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius -- a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. "A genius working alone," he says, "is invariably ignored as a lunatic."

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. "A person like this working alone," says Slazinger, "can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be."

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. "He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting," says Slazinger. "Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey."

Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top -- Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia's, Christ being the one in Christianity's.

He says that if you can't get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.

(via @moleitau)

Angelina Jolie had a preventive double mastectomyMay 14 2013

In this morning's NY Times, Angelina Jolie writes about her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy to hopefully ward off cancer.

My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.

We often speak of "Mommy's mommy," and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a "faulty" gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

It happens that just last night I read about the BRCA-1 gene in Siddhartha Mukhergee's excellent biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. This part is right near the end of the book:

Like cancer prevention, cancer screening will also be reinvigorated by the molecular understanding of cancer. Indeed, it has already been. The discovery of the BRCA genes for breast cancer epitomizes the integration of cancer screening and cancer genetics. In the mid-1990s, building on the prior decade's advances, researchers isolated two related genes, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, that vastly increase the risk of developing breast cancer. A woman with an inherited mutation in BRCA-1 has a 50 to 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime (the gene also increases the risk for ovarian cancer), about three to five times the normal risk. Today, testing for this gene mutation has been integrated into prevention efforts. Women found positive for a mutation in the two genes are screened more intensively using more sensitive imaging techniques such as breast MRI. Women with BRCA mutations might choose to take the drug tamoxifen to prevent breast cancer, a strategy shown effective in clinical trials. Or, perhaps most radically, women with BRCA mutations might choose a prophylactic mastectomy of both breasts and ovaries before cancer develops, another strategy that dramatically decreases the chances of developing breast cancer.

Radical is an understatement...what a tough and brave decision to make. Again from the book, I liked this woman's take on it:

An Israeli woman with a BRCA-1 mutation who chose this strategy after developing cancer in one breast told me that at least part of her choice was symbolic. "I am rejecting cancer from my body," she said. "My breasts had become no more to me than a site for my cancer. They were of no more use to me. They harmed my body, my survival. I went to the surgeon and asked him to remove them."

The genetic testing company 23andme screens for three common types of mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes:

Five to 10 percent of breast cancers occur in women with a genetic predisposition for the disease, usually due to mutations in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. These mutations greatly increase not only the risk for breast cancer in women, but also the risk for ovarian cancer in women as well as prostate and breast cancer among men. Hundreds of cancer-associated BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have been documented, but three specific BRCA mutations are worthy of note because they are responsible for a substantial fraction of hereditary breast cancers and ovarian cancers among women with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. The three mutations have also been found in individuals not known to have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, but such cases are rare.

23andme testing kits are only $99.

Update: Two things. First, and I hope this isn't actually necessary because you are all intelligent people who can read things and make up your own minds, but let me just state for the official record that you should never never never never NEVER take medical advice, inferred or otherwise, from celebrities or bloggers. Come on, seriously. If you're concerned, go see a doctor.

Two: I have no idea what the $99 23andme test covers with regard to BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations beyond what the company states. The most comprehensive test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations was developed by a company called Myriad Genetics and costs about $3000. Myriad has patented the genes, a decision that has been sharply criticized and is currently being decided by the Supreme Court.

But many doctors, patients and scientists aren't happy with the situation.

Some are offended by the very notion that a private company can own a patent based on a gene that was invented not by researchers in a lab but by Mother Nature. Every single cell in every single person has copies of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

Myriad officials say they deserves the patent because they invested a great deal of money to figure out the sequence and develop "synthetic molecules" based on that sequence that can be used to test the variants in a patient.

"We think it is right for a company to be able to own its discoveries, earn back its investment, and make a reasonable profit," the company wrote on its blog.

I do know the 23andme test covers something related to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations...a friend of a friend did the 23andme test, tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation, and decided to have a preventive double mastectomy after consulting her doctor and further tests. (thx, mark, allison, and ★spavis)

Art forgery is high art in its own rightApr 30 2013

We all know that art forgeries are just cheap rip-offs of real art. What Jonathan Keats' new book presupposes is, maybe they're not?

Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.

I'm not talking about the objects they make. Their real art is to con us into accepting the works as authentic. They do so, inevitably, by finding our blind spots, and by exploiting our common-sense assumptions. When they're caught (if they're caught), the scandal that ensues is their accidental masterpiece. Learning that we've been defrauded makes us anxious -- much more so than any painting ever could -- provoking us to examine our poor judgment. This effect is inescapable, since we certainly didn't ask to be duped. A forgery is more direct, more powerful, and more universal than any legitimate artwork.

See also Uncreative Writing, fake is the new real, even if it's fake it's real, and this paragraph from Joe Posnanski's piece on pitching phenoms:

You have to understand that to a boy of the 1970s, the line between comic books and real life people was hopelessly blurred. Was Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, real or fake? Fake? Well, then, how about Evel Knievel jumping over busses on his motorcycle? Oh, he was real. The Superman ads said, "You will believe a man can fly," and Fonzie started jukeboxes by simply hitting them, and Elvis Presley wore capes, and Nolan Ryan threw pitches 102 mph, and Roger Staubach (who they called Captain America) kept bringing the Cowboys back from certain defeat, and Muhammad Ali let George Foreman tire himself out by leaning against the ropes and taking every punch he could throw. What was real anyway?

The wisdom of crowdsourcing manhuntsApr 25 2013

James Surowiecki, the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, wrote about what was right and wrong about Reddit's crowdsourced hunt for the Boston bombing suspects.

The truth is that if Reddit is actually interested in using the power of its crowd to help the authorities, it needs to dramatically rethink its approach, because the process it used to try to find the bombers wasn't actually tapping the wisdom of crowds at all -- at least not as I would define that wisdom. For a crowd to be smart, the people in it need to be not only diverse in their perspectives but also, relatively speaking, independent of each other. In other words, you need people to be thinking for themselves, rather than following the lead of those around them.

When the book came out in 2004, I wrote a short post that summarizes the four main conditions you need for a wise crowd. What's striking about most social media and software, as Surowiecki notes in the case of Reddit, is how most of these conditions are not satisfied. There's little diversity and independence: Twitter and Facebook mostly show you people who are like you and things your social group is into. And social media is becoming ever more centralized: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Pinterest, etc. instead of a decentralized network of independent blogs. In fact, the nature of social media is to be centralized, peer-dependent, and homogeneous because that's how people naturally group themselves together. It's a wonder the social media crowd ever gets anything right.

A pair of 2011 blog comments by "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"Apr 19 2013

UMass Dartmouth is reporting that "a person being sought in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing has been identified as a student registered at UMass Dartmouth":

Umass Dart Closed

I don't know that there's any verified report that registered student is bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but I found a blog post from August 2011 that suggests that Tsarnaev was participating in the school's summer reading program for incoming first-year students. The students were participating in a group discussion blog while reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The post in question was written by UMass Dartmouth English teacher Shelagh Smith on the concept of thin-slicing as it pertained to the case of the West Memphis Three. The post reads, in part:

I believe that thin slicing put them in jail. It helped an entire community make a rash decision and justify their actions in convicting three teens of murder. Once the town was able to identify the bogeyman, they could rest easy again.

But it all went horribly wrong. The real murderers were never found. These young men went into prison at 18 years old. Today, they walked out at 36 years old.

Being different - being unique - is a right we're supposed to enjoy in this country. But what we can't control is how people view us.

So what do we do about that? Is there anything we can do about it?

In response, a commenter listing his name as "Dzhokhar Tsarnaev" posted the following about a week and a half after the original posting:

In this case it would have been hard to protect or defend these young boys if the whole town exclaimed in happiness at the arrest. Also, to go against the authorities isn't the easiest thing to do. Don't get me wrong though, I am appalled at the situation but I think that the town was scared and desperate to blame someone. It's because of stories like this and such occurrences that make a positive change in this world. I'm pretty sure there won't be anymore similar tales like this. In any case, if they do, people won't stand quiet, i hope.

Tsarnaev also made another comment in another thread on the blog a few minutes earlier in which he offered a critique of Gladwell's book:

While I understand and agree with most of the concepts that Gladwell explained in his book, there are several ideas of his that I cannot fathom or just choose not to believe. Yes, this book was very interesting but the idea that a person can predict whether you and your partner are going to be together in the future is honestly a little hard to believe. Sure, if you put two obvious celebrities in a room talking about how they're going to adopt six children, that's just not going to work out. And the idea that a more experienced doctor is more likely to be sued is likely to happen because they would have way more patients and more time in the work force. "Thin-slicing" and other concepts made me want to keep reading.

Drawing all the buildings in NYCApr 12 2013

James Gulliver Hancock is on a mission to draw all the buildings in New York City.

All Bldg NYC

Hancock's blog has spawned a book and prints are available as well. (via brain pickings)

The quick rise of cigarette smokingMar 28 2013

I'm currently reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (which is excellent) and I'm up to the chapters on prevention, specifically the prevention of lung cancer through reduction of cigarette smoking. I had no idea cigarette smoking was so uncommon in the US as recently as 1870...but we caught up quickly.

In 1870, the per capita consumption in America was less than one cigarette per year. A mere thirty years later, Americans were consuming 3.5 billion cigarettes and 6 billion cigars every year. By 1953, the average annual consumption of cigarettes had reached thirty-five hundred per person. On average, an adult American smoked ten cigarettes every day, an average Englishman twelve, and a Scotsman nearly twenty.

For some context on that 3500/yr per person number (and the unbelievable 7000/yr Scottish rate), the current rate in the US is around 1000/yr and the highest current rate in the world is in Serbia at almost 2900/yr per person.

Advertising from the Mad Men eraMar 19 2013

If the advertising parts of Mad Men are your favorite bits of the show, might I recommend Taschen's two-volume Mid-Century Ads (on Amazon).

VW Think Small

It's a beautiful set of books, tons of ads from the 50s and 60s presented in large format.

Fact-checking at The New YorkerMar 15 2013

Excerpted from a book called The Art of Making Magazines, a piece on how fact-checking works at the New Yorker.

So that was the old New Yorker. The biggest difference between David Remnick's New Yorker today and the Shawn New Yorker is timeliness. During the Shawn years, book reviews ran months, even years out of sync with publication dates. Writers wrote about major issues without any concern for news pegs or what was going on in the outside world. That was the way people thought, and it was really the way the whole editorial staff was tuned.

All this changed when Tina Brown arrived. Whereas before, editorial schedules were predictable for weeks or a month in advance, under Tina we began getting 8,000-, 10,000-, 12,000-word pieces in on a Thursday that were to close the following Wednesday. But something else changed in a way that is more important. Prior to Tina, the magazine really had been writer-driven, and I think this is why they gave the writers so much liberty. They wanted the writers to develop their own, often eccentric, interests.

Under Tina, writing concepts began to originate in editors' meetings, and assignments were given out to writers who were essentially told what to write. And a lot of what the editors wanted was designed to be timely and of the moment and tended to change from day to day. So the result was that we were working on pieces that were really much more controversial and much less well-formulated than anything we had dealt with previously, and often we would put teams of checkers to work on these pieces and checking and editing could go on all night.

An atlas of world maps by illustrators and storytellersMar 13 2013

This looks beautiful: A Map of the World is a collection of maps by illustrators and storytellers. I've featured at least a few of the maps in the book here on kottke.org. Here's a sample:

Map Of The World Book

You can see more of the maps in the book on the publisher's web site. (via raul, who says "This book is insanely beautiful. Buy it if you love maps. It will make you happy.")

How well did Galileo observe Jupiter's moons?Mar 13 2013

In the pages of Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo described the four large moons of Jupiter in a series of 64 sketches which looked a lot like ASCII art in the text:

Sidereus Nuncius

Using an online tool for computing the positions of Jupiter's moons, Ernie Wright compared Galileo's sketches to the moons' actual motions.

Galileo moons

Click through for an animated GIF of all the comparisons. Not bad for the telescopic state of the art in 1610. For a taste of how celestial objects actually appeared when viewed through Galileo's telescope, check out this video starting around 7:30. (thx, john)

Remembering Roberto Clemente's 3000th hitMar 12 2013

This story by Kevin Guilfoile about his aging father (who worked for the Pirates and the Baseball Hall of Fame) and the mystery of what happened to the bat that Roberto Clemente got his 3,000th hit with is one of my favorite things that I've read over the past few months.

[My father's] personality is present, if his memories are a jumble. He is still funny, and surprisingly quick with one-liners to crack up the staff at the facility where he lives. He is exceedingly polite, same as he ever was. He is good at faking a casual conversation, especially on the phone. But if you sit and talk with him for a long time, he gets very anxious. He starts tapping his forehead with his fingers. "Shouldn't we be going?" he'll say. You tell him there's no place we need to be, but 30 seconds later he'll ask again, "Shouldn't we be going?"

What happens to memories when they're collapsed inside time like this? They don't exactly disappear, they just become impossible to unpack. And so my father, who loved stories so much -- who loved to tell them, who loved to hear them -- can no longer comprehend them. The structure of any story, after all, is that this happened and then that happened, and he can't make sense of any sequence.

That is the real hell of this disease. His own identity has become a puzzle he can't solve.

Objects have stories, too. Puzzles that need to be solved. Like a pair of baseball bats, for instance, that each passed through Roberto Clemente's hands before they passed through my father's. One hung on my bedroom wall throughout my childhood. The other is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These objects never forget, but they never tell their stories, either.

Without a little bit of luck, we'd never hear them.

Or more than a little luck:

My father has lots of old baseball bats given to him by players he worked with over the years. He has Mickey Mantle bats from his years with the Yankees, and Willie Stargell and Dave Parker bats from his days with the Pirates. The one I always loved best was an Adirondack model with R CLEMENTE embossed in modest block letters, instead of the usual signature burned into the barrel. On the bottom of the knob, Roberto had written a tiny "37" in ballpoint pen, presumably to indicate its weight: 37 ounces. It also had a series of scrapes around the middle where someone had scratched off the trademark stripe that encircled all Adirondack bats. Former Pirates GM Joe Brown gave my dad this bat several years after Roberto died. For much of my childhood it hung on the wall of my bedroom, on a long rack with about a dozen other game-used bats.

My dad had been working at the Hall of Fame for more than a decade when, in 1993, his old friend Tony Bartirome, a one-time Pirates infielder who had become their longtime trainer, came to Cooperstown for a visit. Tony and his wife went to dinner with my folks and then came back to our house to chat. The only way to go to the first-floor washroom in that house was through my old bedroom, and on a trip there, Tony noticed that Adirondack of Clemente's hanging on the wall.

Tony carried it into the living room. He said to Dad, "Where did you get this bat?" My dad told him that Joe Brown had given him the bat as a gift, sometime in the late '70s. "Bill," Tony said. "This is the bat Roberto used to get his 3,000th hit."

My father was confused by this. "That's impossible," he told Tony. "The day he hit 3,000 I went down to the clubhouse, and Roberto himself handed me the bat he used. I sent it to the Hall of Fame. I walk by it every day."

"Well," Tony said. "I have a story to tell you."

It's a wonderful story, read the whole thing. Or get the book: the story is excerpted from Guilfoile's A Drive into the Gap, available here or for the Kindle.

Reading all the popular booksMar 06 2013

Matt Kahn is reading every bestselling novel from each of the past 100 years.

For this blog I plan, among other things, to read and review every novel to reach the number one spot on Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list, starting in 1913. Beyond just a book review, I'm going to provide some information on the authors and the time at which these books were written in an attempt to figure out just what made these particular books popular at that particular time.

A few things. The Silmarillion?! Was the top selling book in 1977? John Grisham appears on the list 11 different times; the guy is a machine. And it's interesting to see when popularity and critical acclaim part ways, when the Roths, le Carrés, and E.L. Doctorows give way to the Clancys, Grishams, and Dan Browns.

Pynchon's next novel is about Silicon AlleyFeb 25 2013

According to Penguin's year-end financial report, Thomas Pynchon's next novel will deal with "Silicon Alley between dotcom boom collapse and 9/11". The title is Bleeding Edge.

Taleb: technology "ages" backwardsFeb 21 2013

Nassim Taleb asserts that, on average, old technologies have longer life expectancies than younger technologies, which helps explain why books are still around and CD-ROM magazines aren't.

For example: Let's assume the sole information I have about a gentleman is that he is 40 years old, and I want to predict how long he will live. I can look at actuarial tables and find his age-adjusted life expectancy as used by insurance companies. The table will predict he has an extra 44 years to go; next year, when he turns 41, he will have a little more than 43 years to go.

For a perishable human, every year that elapses reduces his life expectancy by a little less than a year.

The opposite applies to non-perishables like technology and information. If a book has been in print for 40 years, I can expect it to be in print for at least another 40 years. But -- and this is the main difference -- if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another 50 years.

This is adapted from Taleb's recent book, Antifragile. Anyone read this yet? I really liked The Black Swan.

The Monster at the End of This TweetJan 31 2013

Sesame Street did a series of tweets the other day in the style of The Monster at the End of This Book, which is a favorite of mine and my kids.

Grover: That tweet, did it say there was a MONSTER at the end of it?

Grover: It did? Well, please do not retweet that tweet!

Grover: YOU RETWEETED THE TWEET!

A history of the "epic fail"Jan 28 2013

In a new ebook called Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever published by The Millions, Mark O'Connell traces the history of futile culture-making.

In this original e-book from the online magazine The Millions, Mark O'Connell, one of our funniest and most adroit young literary critics, sets out to answer these questions. He uncovers the historical context for our affinity for terrible art, tracing it back to Shakespeare and discovering the early-20th-century novelist who was dinner-party fodder for C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He tracks the ascendancy of a once esoteric phenomenon into the mainstream, where "what Marshall McLuhan famously referred to as the Global Village now anoints a new Global Village Idiot every other week." He offers in-depth accounts of Rebecca Black, Tommy Wiseau, and the "Monkey Jesus"... and he probes the roots of his own obsession with terrible art. In this charming and insightful investigation into why we laugh, O'Connell not only spins a good tale, but he emerges as our leading analyst of the "so bad it's good" phenomenon. And his discoveries may make you think twice the next time someone passes along a link to the latest, greatest "Epic Fail."

Here's an excerpt.

Social media's 2000-year historyJan 28 2013

Tom Standage's upcoming book, which we have to unfairly wait until October for, is called Writing on the Wall: Social Media -- The First Two Thousand Years.

Papyrus rolls and Twitter have much in common: They were their generation's signature means of "instant" communication. Indeed, as Tom Standage reveals in his scintillating new book, social media is anything but a new phenomenon. From the papyrus letters that Cicero and other Roman statesmen used to exchange news across the Empire to the rise of hand-printed tracts of the Reformation to the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions, Standage chronicles the increasingly sophisticated ways people shared information with each other, spontaneously and organically, down the centuries.

I kinda wish he would have called it The Victorian Internet 2: Electric Boogaloo. A couple of excerpts/adaptations from the book have already made it out into the world: social networking in 17th century English coffeehouses and how Martin Luther's message went viral.

Legal analysis of Bilbo's contract in The HobbitJan 22 2013

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins signs a contract with a company of dwarves to serve as their burglar in their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from a dragon. Lawyer James Daily analyzed the contract in detail for Wired.

Even in the book's version we see an issue: the dwarves accept Bilbo's "offer" but then proceed to give terms. This is not actually an acceptance but rather a counter-offer, since they're adding terms. In the end it doesn't matter because Bilbo effectively accepts the counter-offer by showing up and rendering his services as a burglar, but the basic point is that the words of a contract do not always have the legal effect that they claim to have. Sometimes you have to look past the form to the substance.

See also How valid is the implied legal advice in Jay-Z's "99 Problems"?

Lawrence Wright's Scientology bookJan 16 2013

Here's just one of the many odd revelations from Lawrence Wright's book on Scientology that's coming out this week:

John Travolta began taking Scientology courses before his audition for the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter, and fellow students pointed in the direction of ABC Studios to telepathically communicate: 'We want John Travolta for the part.' (He got the part.)

Thankfully, Horshack got the part the old-fashioned way. He raised his hand and said, oooooohhhhh! oooooohhhhh! oooooohhhhh!

If Dr. Seuss books were titled according to their subtextsJan 16 2013

If Dr. Seuss books were titled more like academic journal articles, that might look something like this:

Seuss Gets Real

(thx, jeffrey)

Tolkien family not impressed with Peter JacksonJan 09 2013

In a profile this summer from Le Monde, Christopher Tolkien, the 88 year-old son of J.R.R. Tolkien blasted Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit movies. (If you can't speak French, you should see the translation of the profile.) Tolkien, who drew the maps for the Lord of the Rings books, has spent most of his life protecting the legacy of his father's works, and the movies are, apparently, a bridge too far.

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? "They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25," Christopher says regretfully. "And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film."

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. "Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time," Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. "The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."

(via ★Stellar)

Brilliant book cover design for Orwell's 1984Jan 05 2013

A new series of George Orwell's books are being published by Penguin and this is the cover for 1984:

Penguin 1984

Cover design by David Pearson...more covers from the same series here. (via @torrez)

Designers pick their favorite book covers of 2012Dec 28 2012

The NY Times asked a bunch of designers for their favorite book cover designs of 2012. Lots of nice work here.

Important author Choire Sicha announces important bookDec 27 2012

Oh ho, what's this? Choire Sicha's book is available for pre-order on Amazon. It's called Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c.2009 A.D.) in a Large City. I don't know what the book is about beyond that, but Choire wrote a bit about writing and publishing in his non-announcement of it, the book.

Portraits of gun owners in their homesDec 18 2012

In 2007, Kyle Cassidy published a book called Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes. He asked his subjects a simple question: Why do you own a gun?

Cassidy traveled over 20,000 miles, crisscrossing the country to meet with gun owners in their homes. Cassidy's photo essays create a powerful, thought provoking and sometimes startling view of gun ownership in the U.S. These "everyman" portraits, and the accompanying views of gun owners, fashion a riveting and provocative hardcover book.

From book's web site, a sampling of images and answers:

Kyle Cassidy 01

Paul: My family had guns the whole time I was a kid. then i went off and joined the army and went away and come back. I have guns now largely for the same reason I have fire extinguishers in the house and spare tires in the car. I'm a self reliant kind of guy. and there could come a time when I need to protect my family and i'm a self reliant kind of guy.

Beth: I have one for self protection. I was raised to never rely on anyone else to protect me or watch my back. It took me a year to pick out one that I liked.

Kyle Cassidy 02

Bashir: I just think it's a good thing to have

Kyle Cassidy 03

Joe: The first time I was introduced to guns was when I was 5 years old; hunting with my dad, grandfather and uncle. I remember my dad shooting a ringneck pheasant and a rabbit. I carried those two animals until I thought my arms were going to fall off. As a little guy, that made a great impression on me. I've hunted all of my life; in Pennsylvania, Idaho, Colorado and Maine. I have a tremendous respect for life, especially wildlife. It never ceases to amaze me how much satisfaction I get from just simply being in the Great Outdoors, whether I make a kill or not.

(via virtual memories)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell TV adaptationDec 03 2012

The BBC is making a 6-part miniseries out of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it's a sweeping fantasy novel set during the Napoleonic Wars where two magicians have emerged in Britain. As well as telling the story of their rivalry, it also details an amazing alternate history where the North of England was the dominion of a magical overlord known as the Raven King, and pulls in many notable historical characters.

Can't wait...I loved JS&MN.

What sort of town is Richard Scarry's Busytown?Nov 28 2012

From a planning and transportation professional, a deconstruction of Busytown, the fictional town that features in many of Richard Scarry's children's books, including What Do People Do All Day?, Busy, Busy Town, and my personal favorite, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.

Scarry moved to Switzerland in 1968, and if nothing else, Swiss architecture permeates the old town center of What Do People Do All Day. The Town Hall of Busytown on the cover is nothing if not Tudor. There is a small gate through which a small car is driving. Something to note about the vehicles in Busytown is that they are all just the right size for the number of passengers they carry. The Bus on the cover is full, with a hanger-on. The taxi holds one driver in the front and one passenger in the rear. The police officer (Seargant Murphy) is riding a motorcycle. When he has a passenger, the motorcycle always has a sidecar. Similarly, each window in town has someone in it, sometimes more than one person. Of course, this is a busy town, so the activity makes sense. The cover of this includes the grocery store, butcher, and baker (no supermarkets in 1968 Busytown), one block in front of Town Hall. One thing to note about the Butcher is that he is a pig, and clearly butchering sausages.

The self-slaughter and cannibalism of the pigs is documented in Merlin Mann's Scarry Pigs in Peril Flickr set.

Scarry Pig Butcher

See also this examination of What Do People Do All Day?:

Nonetheless, Busytown is a place that works. Literally, in that it appears to enjoy full employment, and also in the sense that it has few obvious social problems. The police force, consisting of Sergeant Murphy, Policeman Louie and their chief, is charged with 'keeping things safe and peaceful' and 'protecting the townspeople from harm', which appears to largely consist of directing traffic, ticketing hoons and apprehending the town's notorious thief, Gorilla Banana [sic].

Now of course one could opine that it's in fact diffuse surveillance and self-surveillance that keep such remarkable order. All those open windows and doors, all that neighbourly cheerfulness, have a slightly sinister edge to them, if you're inclined to look for it, as do the lengths that some of the citizens will go to in order to promote proper behaviour amongst children.

(via @inthefade)

Update: And here's another installment of the Busytown police blotter.

Traffic officer reported busiest traffic jam ever at intersection of Main and Hippopotamus. Gridlock started when a peanut car stalled in the intersection and the elderly cricket driver was unable to restart the vehicle. Officer and several drivers assisted the elderly cricket in moving his vehicle to the side of the road, where it was then struck by an alligator car driven by a female rabbit. Officer reported smelling alcohol in the female rabbit's breath and placed her in handcuffs until backup arrived. Officers then cleared the jam with the aid of two tow trucks.

(thx, elaine)

NY Times' list of 100 notable books of 2012Nov 28 2012

And so it begins, the end of the year lists. Love 'em or hate 'em, you've got to, um, ... I've got nothing here. You either love them or hate them. Anyway, the NY Times' list of the 100 notable books of the year is predictably solid and Timesish.

BRING UP THE BODIES. By Hilary Mantel. (Macrae/Holt, $28.) Mantel's sequel to "Wolf Hall" traces the fall of Anne Boleyn, and makes the familiar story fascinating and suspenseful again.

BUILDING STORIES. By Chris Ware. (Pantheon, $50.) A big, sturdy box containing hard-bound volumes, pamphlets and a tabloid houses Ware's demanding, melancholy and magnificent graphic novel about the inhabitants of a Chicago building.

I absolutely demolished Bring Up the Bodies over Thanksgiving break and loved it. I haven't had a chance to sit down with Building Stories yet, but that massive and gorgeous collection is a steal at $28 from Amazon. And as far as lists go, another early favorite is Tyler Cowen's list of his favorite non-fiction books of the year. Cowen is a demanding reader and I always find something worth reading there. (via @DavidGrann)

Ways In Which The Movie 'Cloud Atlas' Has Changed Liam Callanan's LifeNov 28 2012

In 2004, Liam Callanan published a book called The Cloud Atlas that takes place in Alaska near the end of World War II. Also in 2004, David Mitchell published a book called Cloud Atlas that is told in six stories that unfold, Matryoshka-like, over a period of 200 years. Mitchell's book was recently adapted into a blockbuster film of the same name by the Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer and starring Tom Hanks & Halle Berry, but Callanan has been affected by the movie as well.

1. My website, cloudatlas.com, was hacked by Russians and blacklisted by Google.

2. My novel, The Cloud Atlas, zoomed to a triple-digit Amazon ranking without my having to email-as I did back when my novel was first published-a single parent, aunt, cousin, neighbor, classmate, ex-girlfriend, former teacher or current student and beg them to buy the book instead of "waiting until the library gets a copy," as a friend promised he would.

3. Instead, I get a lot of email, from loads more readers than I used to.

4. Including one at 12:14 a.m. this week from someone who had accidentally checked my book out of the library, and was still reading it.

Callanan's experience aside, I am bummed that Cloud Atlas (the film) did not do better at the box office. It was daring, engaging, and inventive. Not everyone's cup of tea certainly, but not as weird/challenging as everyone thought it might be. (via the awl: weekend companion)

The changing face of Bleecker StreetNov 26 2012

In their book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, James and Karla Murray are documenting the changing commercial facade of NYC's streets. A recent post on their blog focuses on a strip of Bleecker St between 6th and 7th Avenues in the West Village. This is Murray's old location circa 2001, before they moved across the street into a bigger space, expanded that space, and opened an adjacent restaurant:

Murrays 2001

I moved to the West Village in 2002 and, after a few stops in other neighborhoods around the city, moved back a couple years ago. Walking around the neighborhood these days, I'm amazed at how much has changed in 10 years. Sometimes it seems as though every single store front has turned over in the interim. (via @kathrynyu)

Serfing the webNov 26 2012

I wondered how long it would be before someone connected Facebook and especially Twitter with the idea of extractive and inclusive economic systems forwarded by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail. The winner, in a delightfully over-the-top fashion, is David Heinemeier Hansson from 37signals.

Twitter started out life as a wonderfully inclusive society. There were very few rules and the ones there were the people loved. Thou shall be brief, retweet to respect. Under this constrained freedom, Twitter prospered and grew rapidly for the joy of all.

Budding entrepreneurs built apps that made life better for everyone. Better, in fact, than many of Twitter's own attempts. They competed for attention on a level playing field and the very best rose to the top. Users saw that this was good and rewarded Twitter with their attention. Twitter grew.

Unfortunately this inclusive world was not meant to last. From the beginning, an extractive time bomb was ticking. One billion dollars worth of eagerness for return. Hundreds and hundreds of hungry mouths to feed in a San Francisco lair.

And thus began Twitter's descent into the extractive.

Chrystia Freeland provided the gist of the book in a NY Times essay earlier in the fall:

Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

Britain has invaded all but 22 countriesNov 16 2012

Of the current 200 nations in the world, the British have invaded all but 22 of them. The lucky 22 include Sweden, Luxembourg, Mongolia, Bolivia, and Belarus. The full analysis is available in Laycock's book, All the Countries We've Ever Invaded.

Stuart Laycock, the author, has worked his way around the globe, through each country alphabetically, researching its history to establish whether, at any point, they have experienced an incursion by Britain.

Only a comparatively small proportion of the total in Mr Laycock's list of invaded states actually formed an official part of the empire.

The remainder have been included because the British were found to have achieved some sort of military presence in the territory -- however transitory -- either through force, the threat of force, negotiation or payment.

Incursions by British pirates, privateers or armed explorers have also been included, provided they were operating with the approval of their government.

The US currently has military personnel stationed in all but 43 countries.

For instance, as of Sept. 30, 2011, there were 53,766 military personnel in Germany, 39,222 in Japan, 10,801 in Italy and 9,382 in the United Kingdom. That makes sense. But wait, scanning the list, you also see nine troops in Mali, eight in Barbados, seven in Laos, six in Lithuania, five in Lebanon, four in Moldova, three in Mongolia, two in Suriname and one in Gabon.

But the presence in most of those countries is due to diplomatic usage of military personnel. (thx, aaron)

My American LemonadeNov 15 2012

In October 2011, after 20 years of living legally in the United States, Atanas Entchev and his 21-year-old son were detained by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, given orange jumpsuits to wear, and held for 65 days. Entchev is writing a book about his experience called My American Lemonade.

Day after day from my bunk, I listened to the immigration stories of my roommates. We all had one. Mine involved over 20 years of countless dollars spent on lawyers who would help me navigate the paperwork and court dates necessary for immigration, based on my request for political asylum. Meanwhile I strived to be tops in my field, starting with a presidential certificate from George H. W. Bush and receiving an Outstanding Professor designation from INS, ICE's predecessor agency. I started my own company, paid taxes, and raised two children here. But that obviously wasn't enough. I had failed at giving me and my family what we wanted most: U.S. citizenship. I dug deep, used what my family had taught me about resolve and hope, and thought a lot about my past to remind myself why I'd left Bulgaria. Why I'd bothered. The irony was especially palpable to me lying in that bunk, recalling the moment I knew for sure I must leave.

Entchev is one of kottke.org's most thoughtful readers...he's been sending email, links, and typo corrections regularly for more than four years now. From what I understand, he's completed a book proposal consisting of the first three chapters and is looking for an agent. If you can help him out in that regard, drop him a line.

From the diary of Jim Henson: Imagination IllustratedNov 01 2012

Here's a look at a new book based on the diary of Jim Henson called Imagination Illustrated. Here's the foreword by his daughter Lisa and the first few pages:

Love this idea, BTW...embeddable book excerpts. More like this, please. Actually, if I were Amazon I would make Kindle previews embeddable with a big old "buy the full book at Amazon" button on the last page of the excerpt and tie it in with the Associates Program. Apparently they did offer this once upon a time but not anymore.

The devil and Hilary MantelOct 24 2012

I loved this profile of novelist Hilary Mantel written by Larissa MacFarquhar. Not just for the subject matter but the lyrically novelistic way in which it's written.

During this time, she discovered that her house was haunted. It wasn't only she who felt it-she overheard adults talking about the ghosts as well. She realized that they were as frightened as she was, and were helpless to protect her. She already understood that the world was denser and more crowded than her senses could perceive: there were ghosts, but even those dead who were not ghosts still existed; she was used to hearing talk in which family members alive and dead were discussed without distinction. The dead seemed to her only barely dead.

Until she was twelve or so, she was deeply religious. "When you're inculcated with religion at such an early age, or when you're receptive to it, as I was, you become preoccupied with the unseen reality," she says. "This other world, the next world, to me in my childhood seemed just as real as the world I was living in. It wasn't that I had a mental picture of it -- it was that I never questioned its existence. I used to conduct a lot of imaginary conversations with God. I don't think Jesus was any less real to me than my aunts and uncles; the fact that I happened not to be able to see him was pretty irrelevant to me."

She felt, as a child, in a permanent state of sin. There was something terribly wrong about her, for which she was to blame, but which she had only limited ability to change. Catholic guilt continued to grip her even after she stopped believing in God. Her family's misery was encompassing and bewildering, and was it not likely that she was responsible for making her parents so unhappy? Might they not, without her, have a chance at a better life? But these suspicions were not so powerful as the effect of a thing that happened to her one day that she cannot explain.

That "thing that happened" was seeing... well, I don't want to spoil it. Mantel wrote Wolf Hall, a recent favorite of mine, and a few days after this profile ran in the New Yorker, she won the Man Booker Prize for her new novel, Bring Up the Bodies.

How to permanently save and store your Kindle booksOct 23 2012

Our small corner of the internet freaked out yesterday when Linn Nygaard noticed that all her books had been wiped from her Kindle and her Amazon account had been closed. Nygaard's account and books have since been restored but the incident has caused many to remember that, oh yeah, the Kindle is more of a Blockbuster Video-like rental store than a reading device. To that end, Zachary West has posted instructions for converting all of your DRM'd Kindle books into a non-DRM format that you can read on any number of devices.

Is the US becoming an extractive state?Oct 22 2012

Following up on her piece in the New Yorker on how hedge fund billionaires have become disillusioned with President Obama, Chrystia Freeland says that the 1% are repeating a mistake made many times throughout history of moving from an inclusive economic system to an extractive one.

Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

Freeland is riffing on an argument forwarded by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail. Their chief example cited by Freeland is that of Venice:

In the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

Venice's elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d'Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren't on it, you couldn't join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn't long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice's population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

BTW, Acemoglu and Robinson have been going back and forth with Jared Diamond about the latter's geographical hypothesis for national differences in prosperity forwarded in Guns, Germs, and Steel. I read 36% of Why Nations Fail earlier in the year...I should pick it back up again.

The fancy gentlemen from the CongoOct 09 2012

Gentlemen of Bacongo is a book of photography by Daniele Tamagni documenting a group of men from the Congo who dress in designer suits. Meet Le Sapeurs.

Daniele Tamagni

Photographer Daniele Tamagni's new book Gentlemen of Bacongo captures the fascinating subculture of the Congo in which men (and a few women) dress in designer and handmade suits and other luxury items. The movement, called Le Sape, combines French styles from their colonial roots and the individual's (often flamboyant) style. Le Sapeurs, as they're called, wear pink suits and D&G belts while living in the slums of this coastal African region.

In interviews with some notable sapeurs, Tamagni unearths the complex and varied rules and standards of Le Sape, short for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People. Sapeur Michel comments on the strange combination of poverty and fashion, "A Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body."

Solange Knowles recently shot Losing You in South Africa and it features many gentlemen of Le Sape. Tamagni went along as an advisor and photographed Solange along the way. (via @youngna)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore eventSep 26 2012

To celebrate the release of his new novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan is doing two related events at the Center for Fiction in NYC.

Second thing first: At 7pm on Thu, Oct 4, there will be a launch party at the Center for Fiction hosted by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Electric Literature. RSVP here.

But before the party, Robin will be interviewing a variety of people over a 24-hour period and streaming the whole thing online. I am one of the scheduled interviewees and I have no idea what we'll talk about. But because my slot is right before the party starts, after almost 20 non-stop hours of Robin interviewing people, it's possible we'll just change into our sweatpants, split a pint of Cherry Garcia, and spoon on the couch.

Both Flesh and Not, a new book of David Foster Wallace essaysSep 25 2012

A selection of previously uncollected essays from David Foster Wallace is coming out in book form in November.

Both Flesh and Not gathers 15 essays never published in book form, including "Federer Both Flesh and Not," considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece; "The (As it Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2," which deftly dissects James Cameron's blockbuster; and "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," an examination of television's effect on a new generation of writers.

Wallace's previous collections often included expanded articles with extra material cut from previously published pieces (like the cruise ship one and the state fair one). It would be wonderful to read a longer version of his NY Times piece on Federer but for obvious reasons I'm not holding my breath. Even just the first paragraph makes me want to sit down and read the whole thing for like a fifth time:

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men's tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K.

Long profile of J.K. Rowling in the New YorkerSep 25 2012

On the eve of the release of her first novel specifically written for adult readers, Ian Parker profiles J.K. Rowling for the New Yorker. In many ways, this passage about Harry Potter sums up Parker's take on Rowling herself:

For all the satisfying closure provided by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," gloomier readers may still detect a note of melancholy; there is a narrowness of life for former Hogwarts students, whose career opportunities barely extend beyond the wizard civil service, wizard schoolteaching, and professional Quidditch. This magical society has no use for science; there's little commerce; and thousands of years of wizarding seems to have generated no culture beyond a short volume of fables and a tabloid newspaper. (Wizard technology is often a cutely flawed approximation of non-wizard technology -- owls for e-mail -- and one wonders how quickly Harry and his schoolfriends could have won their battles against the evil Lord Voldemort, given two or three cell phones and a gun.) In a time of wizard peace, at least, Harry's separation from the real world -- even as he lives in it -- can seem tragic.

In a time of personal prosperity, Rowling's separation from the real world -- even as she lives in it -- can seem tragic.

Future PerfectSep 21 2012

From Steven Johnson comes Future Perfect, a new book about "progress in a networked age".

Combining the deft social analysis of Where Good Ideas Come From with the optimistic arguments of Everything Bad Is Good For You, New York Times bestselling author Steven Johnson's Future Perfect makes the case that a new model of political change is on the rise, transforming everything from local governments to classrooms, from protest movements to health care. Johnson paints a compelling portrait of this new political worldview -- influenced by the success and interconnectedness of the Internet, but not dependent on high-tech solutions -- that breaks with the conventional categories of liberal or conservative thinking.

With his acclaimed gift for multi-disciplinary storytelling and big ideas, Johnson explores this new vision of progress through a series of fascinating narratives: from the "miracle on the Hudson" to the planning of the French railway system; from the battle against malnutrition in Vietnam to a mysterious outbreak of strange smells in downtown Manhattan; from underground music video artists to the invention of the Internet itself.

At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that new solutions are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture.

This is contrary to what we've been hearing from The Shallows et al.

Rushdie: what it's like to live under threat of deathSep 12 2012

In the New Yorker, Salman Rushdie describes how quickly his entire life changed after Iran's Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's "execution".

He unlocked the front door, went outside, got into the car, and was driven away. Although he did not know it then -- so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning -- he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter's Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.

The article is excerpted from Rushdie's memoir, Joseph Anton, which comes out next week. Joseph Anton was the name Rushdie adopted in hiding and, now that I think about it, explains why the NYer piece was written in the third person.

Bad children's booksSep 11 2012

Bob Staake imagines some children's books that might not be so good for kids.

Bad Kids Books

(via @bdeskin)

Philip Roth needs a secondary sourceSep 08 2012

Author Philip Roth was unable to correct an error on the Wikipedia page for his novel The Human Stain because, while Wikipedia agrees "the author is the greatest authority on their own work," they "require secondary sources." To create this secondary source, Roth wrote an open letter explaining the error, and posted it on The New Yorker's site.

A few hours later, the Wikipedia page for The Human Stain was updated to reflect Roth's letter.

Roth was motivated in 2012 to explain the inspiration for the book after he noticed an error in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His efforts to correct the entry were thwarted by Wikipedia editors because he was told he did not have a secondary source for his inspiration. He was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic. Roth has repeatedly said these opinions are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard's ancestry until "months and months after" starting to write the novel.

(via @yappelbaum)

The Kindle PaperwhiteSep 07 2012

Against all odds, I have become a (belated) fan of the Kindle. I still hate doing anything with it but reading words on its screen, but it's light, runs on a single charge for seemingly ever, and I've really been enjoying reading on it lately.

If this trend continues, I might have to get the Kindle Paperwhite, which offers a built-in light, a touchscreen (I currently own a touchless Kindle 3), more resolution, more font choices, and a higher contrast screen.

Infinite Atlas and Infinite MapSep 06 2012

In July, we mentioned Infinite Boston, a project from William Beutler to map and photo the Boston-related locations in Infinite Jest. Today Beutler announced Infinite Atlas, which expands nationally on this project, and Infinite Map, a limited edition print featuring 250 "of the most interesting locations" from Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest Map

Lance Armstrong totally dopedSep 04 2012

If you had any remaining doubts about Lance Armstrong's involvement in doping, Tyler Hamilton's book should put those to rest. Hamilton was Armstrong's teammate on the U.S. Postal Service team, and in the book, he tells the story (corroborated by no fewer than nine former Armstrong/Hamilton teammates) of how Armstrong, the USPS team, and practically everyone else on the racing circuit doped in the 1990s/2000s. From an early look at the book by Christopher Keys at Outside Magazine:

The drugs are everywhere, and as Hamilton explains, Armstrong was not just another cyclist caught in the middle of an established drug culture -- he was a pioneer pushing into uncharted territory. In this sense, the book destroys another myth: that everyone was doing it, so Armstrong was, in a weird way, just competing on a level playing field. There was no level playing field. With his connections to Michele Ferrari, the best dishonest doctor in the business, Armstrong was always "two years ahead of what everybody else was doing," Hamilton writes. Even on the Postal squad there was a pecking order. Armstrong got the superior treatments.

What ultimately makes the book so damning, however, is that it doesn't require readers to put their full faith in Hamilton's word. In the book's preface, which details its genesis, Coyle not so subtly addresses Armstrong's supporters by pointing out that, while the story is told through Hamilton, nine former Postal teammates agreed to cooperate with him on The Secret Race, verifying and corroborating Hamilton's account. Nine teammates.

No wonder he gave up.

Sex, lies, and Park SlopeAug 24 2012

You may have read Amy Sohn's piece in The Awl last month about Park Slope's sexynaughty parents.

When "Girls" hit this spring, I was shocked by how true the show rang to my life -- not my old life as a post-collegiate single girl but my new one, as a married, monogamous, home-owning mother. My generation of moms isn't getting shocking HPV news (we're so old we've cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we're masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively -- though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions -- Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce? -- by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters. Call us the Regressives.

Jake Dobkin interviewed Sohn about the piece and her new book for Gothamist. Well, he attempted to anyway.

Can I suggest that maybe you're just hanging out with the wrong group of people? I mean, if everyone around you is throwing back Xanax and raw-dogging it just to FEEL SOMETHING and then having unplanned kids because they're too stupid to use birth control, is it possible it's not Park Slope's fault, and rather, it might be hanging around with really immature people?

(via @djacobs)

David Foster Wallace biographyAug 21 2012

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, is out next week.

David Foster Wallace was the leading literary light of his era, a man who not only captivated readers with his prose but also mesmerized them with his brilliant mind. In this, the first biography of the writer, D. T. Max sets out to chart Wallace's tormented, anguished and often triumphant battle to succeed as a novelist as he fights off depression and addiction to emerge with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.

Since his untimely death by suicide at the age of forty-six in 2008, Wallace has become more than the quintessential writer for his time -- he has become a symbol of sincerity and honesty in an inauthentic age. In the end, as Max shows us, what is most interesting about Wallace is not just what he wrote but how he taught us all to live. Written with the cooperation of Wallace's family and friends and with access to hundreds of his unpublished letters, manuscripts, and audio tapes, this portrait of an extraordinarily gifted writer is as fresh as news, as intimate as a love note, as painful as a goodbye.

The Daily Beast has an excerpt of the book. Max also wrote an article about Wallace in 2009 for the New Yorker. (via df)

How to read a Victorian novelAug 16 2012

The Victorian novel can present a daunting challenge to today's Twitter-addled brains, so Rohan Maitzen has some advice on how to read them.

Now that you're properly equipped, your next challenge is time! You're going to want to read, and read, and read-but modern life sometimes makes that difficult. What's to be done?

Take the book with you everywhere, that's what. Bank line-ups, buses, bathrooms, those precious 8 minutes while the pasta boils - you know what to do! A few pages here, a few pages there, and next thing you know, you're 500 pages in, with only another 200 to go.

Then there's all the time you'll save by not watching television. Remember: the most highly-praised shows in recent years are always compared to ... Victorian novels! Some of them are straight-up based on them! Just read the originals. They are always better.

What the hell is going on with Jonah Lehrer?Jul 31 2012

First there was the self-plagiarism. And now, just a month later, Lehrer was caught fabricating some Bob Dylan quotes for his most recent book and then tried to cover it up.

Mr. Lehrer might have kept his job at The New Yorker if not for the Tablet article, by Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist who is something of an authority on Mr. Dylan.

Reading "Imagine," Mr. Moynihan was stopped by a quote cited by Mr. Lehrer in the first chapter. "It's a hard thing to describe," Mr. Dylan said. "It's just this sense that you got something to say."

After searching for a source, Mr. Moynihan could not verify the authenticity of the quote. Pressed for an explanation, Mr. Lehrer "stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me" over several weeks, Mr. Moynihan wrote, first claiming to have been given access by Mr. Dylan's manager to an unreleased interview with the musician. Eventually, Mr. Lehrer confessed that he had made it up.

I've posted about many articles written by Lehrer and even interviewed him after I read Proust Was a Neuroscientist. When this sort of thing happens, you wonder how much else was, shall we say, embellished for effect.

Bathing suits that match book coversJul 31 2012

Matchbook is a blog of bathing suits that happen to visually match up with book covers. Like so:

Infinite Jest Bikini

(via @nickbilton)

Perfume that smells like a freshly printed bookJul 24 2012

Paper Passion is a perfume that smells like a book.

This is an opportunity to celebrate all the gloriosensuality of books, at a time when many in the industry are turning against them. The idea is that is should relax you, like when you read a book, to a level of meditation and concentration. Paper Passion has evolved into something quite beautiful and unique. To wear the smell of a book is something very chic. Books are players in the intellectual world, but also in the world of luxury.

Gloriosensuality! (via @jjg)

Carl Sagan's reading listJul 11 2012

From a collection of his papers recently acquired by The Library of Congress, a 1954 reading list from physicist Carl Sagan. Huxley, Plato, Shakespeare, and the Bible are all on there among many others. If I understand mathematics properly, and I think I do, using the associative property, if you read all these books, you will become as smart and cool as Carl Sagan was. Or is it the transitive property?

Building Stories, new Chris Ware graphic novel!Jul 10 2012

Ware Building Stories

Chris Ware is coming out with a new graphic novel called Building Stories, which has appeared in bits and pieces in other places.

Building Stories imagines the inhabitants of a three-story Chicago apartment building: a 30-something woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple, possibly married, who wonder if they can bear each other's company another minute; and the building's landlady, an elderly woman who has lived alone for decades. Taking advantage of the absolute latest advances in wood pulp technology, Building Stories is a book with no deliberate beginning nor end, the scope, ambition, artistry and emotional prevarication beyond anything yet seen from this artist or in this medium, probably for good reason.

(via @mrgan)

Update: Building Stories is actually a boxed set of small volumes. Photos and more at Comics Beat. (thx, @thebrd)

New York Times critic pans book's plot because of misreadJul 06 2012

Author Patrick Somerville recently received the bittersweet honor of a "soggy" review in the New York Times of his new book, The Bright River. As he read the review, however, he realized the critic, Janet Maslin, had misunderstood a critical plot point in the book's prologue, thus coloring her understanding of the entire novel. Somerville wrote about this experience in Salon. The best part is since the character in his book has an email address, the New York Times used that address to fact-check the review (after it had been published), addressing the question to the character.

Dear Mr. Hanson,

Given the vagaries of fictional life, I understand that you might not be able to answer this question, which has come up after one of our readers read the review of "This Bright River" that we published. But - in the prologue, are you the person who is hit on the head?

-Ed Marks, Culture Desk

Somerville responds in character leading to my favorite part, a bit into the back and forth: "But that is just my opinion, and I am not real."

*This post wouldn't be complete without a general warning to authors to make sure your prologue does not convey important plot details in a manner potentially confusing to NYT reviewers. (via @alexanderchee)

Cicero's Web, a prehistory of social mediaJul 02 2012

One of my favorite books about technology is Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, a history of the telegraph told through the lens/mirror of the Internet.

For many people, the Internet is the epitome of cutting-edge technology. But in the nineteenth century, the first online communications network was already in place -- the telegraph. And at the time, it was just as perplexing, controversial, and revolutionary as the Internet is today.

The Victorian Internet tells the story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it. With the invention of the telegraph, the world of communications was forever changed. The telegraph gave rise to creative business practices and new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over its wires. And attitudes toward everything from news gathering to war had to be completely rethought. The saga of the telegraph offers many parallels to that of the Internet in our own time, and is a remarkable episode in the history of technology.

Standage is currently at work on a book called Cicero's Web that draws similar parallels between contemporary online social media and things like Luther's 95 Theses and "the Facebook of the Tudor court". He recently posted an excerpt from the book about 17th century English coffeehouses.

Enthusiasm for coffeehouses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented that coffeehouses were distracting people who ought to be doing useful work, rather than networking and sharing trivia with their acquaintances.

When coffee became popular in Oxford and the coffeehouses selling it began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that coffeehouses were promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new drink. "Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?" he asked. "Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time."

Sounds familiar, no?

The Half-Life of FactsJun 29 2012

Sam Arbesman has turned his mesofacts concept into an upcoming book called The Half-Life of Facts.

Facts change all the time. The age at which women should get a mammogram has increased. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly while the healthiness of carbs and fat seems to be in constant flux. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe, that Pluto was a planet, and that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. What we know about the world is constantly changing.

Samuel Arbesman is an expert in scientometrics, literally the science of science-how we know what we know. It turns out that knowledge in most fields evolves in systematic and predictable ways, and understanding that evolution can be enormously powerful. For instance, knowing how different branches of medicine overturn their bodies of knowledge can improve the way we train (and retrain) physicians.

The Half-Life of Facts features fascinating examples from fields as diverse as technology and literature. It will help us find new ways to measure the world while accepting the limits of how much we can know with certainty.

The Bible's book of Revelation explainedJun 26 2012

Adam Gopnik reviews Elaine Pagels' book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, for the New Yorker. Like much of the Bible, Revelation is largely a reaction to what was happening in that part of the world at the time.

Pagels then shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It's essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the "Left Behind" books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look. "When John says that 'the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear's and its mouth was like a lion's mouth,' he revises Daniel's vision to picture Rome as the worst empire of all," Pagels writes. "When he says that the beast's seven heads are 'seven kings,' John probably means the Roman emperors who ruled from the time of Augustus until his own time." As for the creepy 666, the "number of the beast," the original text adds, helpfully, "Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person." This almost certainly refers-by way of Gematria, the Jewish numerological system-to the contemporary Emperor Nero. Even John's vision of a great mountain exploding is a topical reference to the recent eruption of Vesuvius, in C.E. 79. Revelation is a highly colored picture of the present, not a prophecy of the future.

You'll have to read through the article to discover what early Christianity has to do with this ad for Prada perfume directed by Ridley Scott and starring Daria Werbowy:

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