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Overview, a book packed with amazing satellite imagery of Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 27, 2016

Daily Overview Book

The Daily Overview has been serving up gorgeous satellite imagery of Earth for a few years now and they’ve taken some of their greatest hits and packaged it up into a book called Overview: A New Perspective of Earth.

Inspired by the “Overview Effect” — a sensation that astronauts experience when given the opportunity to look down and view the Earth as a whole — the breathtaking, high definition satellite photographs in OVERVIEW offer a new way to look at the landscape that we have shaped. More than 200 images of industry, agriculture, architecture, and nature highlight incredible patterns while also revealing a deeper story about human impact.

I got my hands on an early copy and it’s a beautiful book.

We Work Remotely

A beginner’s guide to meditation

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2016

Contemporary culture has a way of making everything seem daunting, even something as simple as meditation. This 2-minute video presents a very straightforward way to start meditating: sit up straight and concentrate on your breathing for five minutes.

Your brain’s gonna go nuts, and that’s fine. The whole game is to notice when you’ve gotten lost, and then to start over. And then start over again. And again. And again. Every time you do that, it’s like a bicep curl for your brain. […] Meditation is unlike anything you do in the rest of your life. Failure is actually success.

The video is narrated by Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier, which has a subtitle many of you might be able to relate to: “How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works”.

The story of the modern cocktail revival

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2016

This looks quite good… A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World.

A Proper Drink is the first-ever book to tell the full, unflinching story of the contemporary craft cocktail revival. Award-winning writer Robert Simonson interviewed more than 200 key players from around the world, and the result is a rollicking (if slightly tipsy) story of the characters — bars, bartenders, patrons, and visionaries — who in the last 25 years have changed the course of modern drink-making. The book also features a curated list of about 40 cocktails — 25 modern classics, plus an additional 15 to 20 rediscovered classics and classic contenders — to emerge from the movement.

I know bits and pieces of the story, but it’d be cool to hear the whole thing. Simonson also wrote the book on The Old-Fashioned, which would probably be my desert island cocktail. Ok, maybe a daiquiri if there were limes on the island. (via @buzz)

A nonfiction literary map of the United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2016

From Nylon, Kristin Iversen compiled her list of the best pieces of nonfiction — books, essays, memoirs — from every state in the US (plus DC and NYC). Here’s a sampling:

Alaska: Coming into the Country by John McPhee.

Connecticut: The Story of How, and Why, Martha Stewart Became the Queen of Living Well by Margaret Talbot.

Florida: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. (Love this choice!)

Illinois: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Strong runner-up here is the amazing The Warmth of Other Suns (which I reviewed here).

Vermont: Where the Roads Have No Name by Geoff Manaugh.

The internet of trees: how trees talk to each other underground

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2016

In June, ecologist Suzanne Simard gave a talk at TED about her 30 years of research into how trees talk to each other. Underneath the forest floor, there is a communications network on which trees — even those from different species — trade carbon with each other, send warnings, and trade messages. Simard described one of her first experiments (from the transcript):

I pulled on my white paper suit, I put on my respirator, and then I put the plastic bags over my trees. I got my giant syringes, and I injected the bags with my tracer isotope carbon dioxide gases, first the birch. I injected carbon-14, the radioactive gas, into the bag of birch. And then for fir, I injected the stable isotope carbon-13 carbon dioxide gas. I used two isotopes, because I was wondering whether there was two-way communication going on between these species.

The idea was to use the isotopes to track whether the trees were trading carbon when some of them were shaded and less able to make their own energy.

The evidence was clear. The C-13 and C-14 was showing me that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then in later experiments, we found the opposite, that fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. So it turns out the two species were interdependent, like yin and yang.

Fascinating. German forester Peter Wohlleben came out with a book this week called The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Simard contributed a note to the book). From a Guardian review:

Trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the “woodwide web”. Some act as parents and good neighbours. Others do more than just throw shade — they’re brutal bullies to rival species. The young ones take risks with their drinking and leaf-dropping then remember the hard lessons from their mistakes. It’s a hard-knock life.

The Monthly, Maclean’s, and Scribd all have excerpts of Wohlleben’s book if you’re interested.

Update: See also this episode of Radiolab, From Tree to Shining Tree. (via @Chan_ing)

The Murder of Stephen King

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2016

Murder Of Stephen King

This is weird. Super-prolific author James Patterson, who has written hundreds of books and earns millions of dollars a year from royalties, has co-authored a book called The Murder of Stephen King. King is, of course, a merely prolific author who also publishes popular novels with massive appeal, including one about a writer being victimized by his biggest fan.

Stephen King is being hunted by a killer obsessed with his novels. How far will their reenactments go?

All of Stephen King’s greatest villains, rolled into one.

Stephen King is facing a nightmare. A stalker is reenacting the horrors from his novels. And he won’t stop until he kills the master of suspense himself — unless King puts him out of his Misery first.

Misery! Get it? Patterson is quoted on the front cover of the book:

I am a Stephen King fan, but Stephen did not participate in the making of this novel, nor is he affiliated with it in any way.

According to this AP story, King and Patterson do not know each other and King is not complimentary about his fellow writer’s skills.

While Patterson speaks warmly of King, King has not returned the compliments in the past. In a 2009 interview with USA Weekend, he said Patterson was “a terrible writer but he’s very successful.” Speaking to the AP, Patterson is dismissive of King’s remarks, calling them “hyperbole,” in the style of Donald Trump.

“I know I’m not a terrible writer,” Patterson says. “That’s a little over the top.”

Update: Upon reflection, Patterson has decided not to release the book.

In a statement released Thursday through Little, Brown and Company, Patterson said he didn’t want to cause King or his family “any discomfort.” The book was intended as a tribute to King, a King-like story of an obsessed fan out to get the writer. But Patterson, who co-authored the 150-page novel with Derek Nikitas, said he had learned that fans in real life had “disrupted” King’s home.

“My book is a positive portrayal of a fictional character, and, spoiler alert, the main character is not actually murdered,” he said. “Nevertheless, I do not want to cause Stephen King or his family any discomfort. Out of respect for them, I have decided not to publish ‘The Murder of Stephen King.’”

RIP, The Murder of Stephen King. (via @koaostrem)

Medieval Europe by Chris Wickham

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 14, 2016

Medieval Europe Wickham

Ooh, this looks good: Medieval Europe is Oxford historian Chris Wickham’s “spirited and thought-provoking history of the vast changes that transformed Europe during the 1,000-year span of the Middle Ages”.

Tracking the entire sweep of the Middle Ages across Europe, Wickham focuses on important changes century by century, including such pivotal crises and moments as the fall of the western Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s reforms, the feudal revolution, the challenge of heresy, the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of late medieval states, and the appalling devastation of the Black Death. He provides illuminating vignettes that underscore how shifting social, economic, and political circumstances affected individual lives and international events.

Here’s a short excerpt on the Yale University Press blog.

The Middle Ages get short shrift in tellings of European history (as evidenced by the term “Dark Ages”…and even “Middle” implies something moving between two better eras), but recently historians have been working on filling out the story and rehabilitating that period. I really enjoyed Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, so I’m looking forward to digging into this when it comes out in November.

The Illustrated Book of Poultry

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2016

Illustrated Poultry

Illustrated Poultry

Illustrated Poultry

Illustrated Poultry

Illustrated Poultry

The Illustrated Book of Poultry by Lewis Wright, first published in 1870 and revised several times in the decades following, was “regarded as the most desirable of the English poultry books”. Poultry was very popular in Victorian England and the book housed a tremendous amount of practical poultry knowledge. From a Harvard Library blog post:

“Hen Fever”, as it became known during the Victorian Age, was an unprecedented obsession with owning, breeding, and showing the finest chickens in the world. The genesis of the poultry fancier owes much to Queen Victoria and her royal menagerie. In 1842, she acquired exotic chickens from China, and whatever the Queen did, the public would soon try to imitate and incorporate at home. The Illustrated London News reported “Her Majesty’s collection of fowls is very considerable, occupying half-a-dozen very extensive yards, several small fields, and numerous feeding-houses, laying-sheds, hospitals, winter courts, &c.”. From this point forward, poultry was no longer viewed as common farmyard critters, but valued and appreciated throughout the classes of Victorian Britain. The import and breeding of poultry was not just a leisurely hobby, but a profitable endeavor with sky rocketing price tags for the finest examples.

But the books also contained many wonderful illustrations of the finest examples of chickens and other poultry in the style of Audubon. The different breeds have amazing names like Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, Dark Dorkingtons, and Gold Pencilled Hamburghs.

I pulled the images above from a 1911 edition of the book. (via @john_overholt)

Update: I removed a link to a reproduction of the book on Amazon because a reader reported that the quality was not great. (thx, alex)

Hillary Clinton on why she appears aloof and unemotional in public

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2016

Hillary Clinton

Humans of New York recently caught up with Hillary Clinton and she talked about how her public persona came to be.

I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena. And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.

Clinton is just a different type of politician than her husband or Obama, for good reason.

Women are seen through a different lens. It’s not bad. It’s just a fact. It’s really quite funny. I’ll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they’ll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’ Which is funny, because I’m always convinced that the people in the front row are loving it.

When she says “it’s not bad,” that’s a perfect illustration of not being able to say exactly what you want how you want. A woman gets excited and she seems deranged or unhinged but a man gets excited and he’s seen as passionate? That seems bad to me.

P.S. Clinton is reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels!

“You know what I have started reading and it’s just hypnotic is the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante,” she tells Linsky, commenting on Ferrante’s intoxicating novels about female relationships in Naples, Italy that have an intense cult following. “I had to stop myself so I read the first one. I could not stop reading it or thinking about it.”

They’re the best fiction I’ve read in ages…so sad I’ve finished them all.

Koya Bound, beautiful photographs from Japanese pilgrimage path

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2016

Koya Bound

Craig Mod and Dan Rubin recently walked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage path in Japan, taking thousands of photos along the way. They made a book of the photographs and have launched a Kickstarter project to make more copies of the book and do some other fun stuff.

The book, of course, is beautiful — Rubin and Mod are great photographers and designers - but direct your attention to the economy of their project description:

In March of this year, Dan Rubin and I went on a walk. The walk was along Japan’s 1,000+ year old Kumano Kodo pilgrimage path.

From that walk, we made one copy of a book of photographs called Koya Bound.

Together, with your help, we’d like to make/do a whole lot more…

This is what we did, here’s what we made, and we’d like your help to do more. That’s how you do Kickstarter, folks.

Extremely abridged books

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2016

Abridged Classics

From cartoonist John Atkinson, the plots of some classic books distilled down to just a few words. Like The Grapes of Wrath:

Farming sucks. Road trip! Road trip sucks.

Atkinson followed this up with two additional cartoons: (more) abridged classics and (even more) abridged classics. (via @mkonnikova)

Update: From back near the web’s Big Bang comes Book-A-Minute, which contains ultra-condensed versions of classic books. Here’s the summary of War and Peace:

History controls everything we do, so there is no point in observing individual actions. Let’s examine the individual actions of over 500 characters at great length.

(via @philgyford)

If Our Bodies Could Talk, a FAQ for human bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 02, 2016

If Our Bodies Could Talk

James Hamblin, the dishy brainiac doctor who does those entertaining and informative videos for The Atlantic, is coming out with a book in December called If Our Bodies Could Talk. He calls it “a FAQ about human bodies”.

Now, in this original and entertaining book, Hamblin explores the stories behind health questions that never seem to go away — and which tend to be mischaracterized and oversimplified by marketing and news media. He covers topics such as sleep, aging, diet, and much more:

Can I “boost” my immune system?
Does caffeine make me live longer?
Do we still not know if cell phones cause cancer?
How much sleep do I actually need?
Is there any harm in taking a multivitamin?
Is life long enough?

Ethan Hawke’s 20 rules on how to behave like a knight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2016

Rules For A Knight

Late last year, actor Ethan Hawke published a book called Rules for a Knight. The book consists of a letter from one of Hawke’s ancestors, a 15th-century Cornish knight, written to his children outlining the rules for being a good person. The letter and ancestor are fictional, but Hawke wrote the book as a guide on living a virtuous life for his own children.

A knight, fearing he may not return from battle, writes a letter to his children in an attempt to leave a record of all he knows. In a series of ruminations on solitude, humility, forgiveness, honesty, courage, grace, pride, and patience, he draws on the ancient teachings of Eastern and Western philosophy, and on the great spiritual and political writings of our time. His intent: to give his children a compass for a journey they will have to make alone, a short guide to what gives life meaning and beauty.

I missed this when it came out, but I’ve run across it twice in the past two weeks, so it appears to be one of those books — perhaps like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — that’s hanging around and resonating with people. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street wrote about the book last week and shared the book’s 20 rules for being a knight.

2. Humility. Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one. You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.

6. Friendship. The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.

10. Grace. Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.

14. Discipline. In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home. The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.

“Don’t save anything for the walk home.” That’s a nice little homage to Gattaca, in which Ethan Hawke’s genetically flawed character is asked by his brother how he’s been able to excel in society and Hawke answers, “I never saved anything for the swim back.”

The Kingdom of Speech

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2016

Kingdom Of Speech

In his new book The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe argues that speech and not evolution is responsible for the many achievements of humans. Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, went on NPR the other day to talk about the book. This comment about Darwin’s view of speech stuck out (emphasis mine):

He could not figure out what it was. He assumed, because of his theory, that everything evolved from animals. And didn’t even include it in his theory, language, until he decided that it came from our imitation of the cries of birds. And I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals — actually, nobody knows whether they did or not. There are very few physical signs, aside from the general resemblance of apes and humans. The big evolution, if you want to call it that, is that this one species, Homo sapiens, came up with this ingenious trick, which is language.

It’s one thing to say that speech did not evolve from the utterances of previous animals and was instead invented by humans, but it’s quite another to assert that humans did not evolve from animals at all.1 Gonna be fun to sit back and watch the controversy roil on this one. (via @JossFong who said “lazy saturday, just listening to @NPR when ….. WHAT”)

  1. Q: Where does Tom Wolfe get his water?

    A: From a “Well, actually…”

Every spell from the Harry Potter movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2016

From Accio to Wingardium Leviosa, this is a supercut of every spell uttered in the 8 Harry Potter movies. Lots of Expecto Patronum, Expelliarmis, and Stupefy. As supplementary reading, here’s a list of spells in Harry Potter from Wikipedia.

Frodo’s Lord of the Rings journey on Google Maps

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2016

Lotr Google Maps

Frodo (and Sam) made their way from Hobbiton to Mordor in six months and now you can see the route they took on Google Maps. “This route has trolls.” LOL. Full size image here. (via bb)

Update: From 2002, Mapquest directions for walking from Hobbiton to Mt Doom. (thx, seth)

Timeless tips for “simple sabotage” from the CIA

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2016

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

In 1944, the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) produced a document called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. It was designed to be used by agents in the field to hinder our WWII adversaries. The CIA recently highlighted five tips from the manual as timelessly relevant:

1. Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

2. Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

3. Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

4. Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.

5. Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.

Ha, some of these things are practically best practices in American business, not against enemies but against their employees, customers, and themselves. You can also find the manual in book or ebook format. (via @craigmod)

President Obama’s summer reading list 2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2016

Obama Reading List 2016

The White House just released President Obama’s summer reading list. Here’s what’s on it:

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I’m currently reading Seveneves and The Underground Railroad is next. More convinced than ever that a) Barry and I would be good friends if such an opportunity arose, and b) he should be reading kottke.org if he isn’t already. He could peruse it between his fifth and sixth almonds at the end of the day. Think about it, Mr. President.

Limits are fun? Limits are fun!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

Play Anything

Play Anything is a forthcoming book by game designer and philosopher Ian Bogost. The subtitle — The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games — provides a clue as to what it’s about. Here’s more from the book’s description:

Play is what happens when we accept these limitations, narrow our focus, and, consequently, have fun. Which is also how to live a good life. Manipulating a soccer ball into a goal is no different than treating ordinary circumstances — like grocery shopping, lawn mowing, and making PowerPoints — as sources for meaning and joy. We can “play anything” by filling our days with attention and discipline, devotion and love for the world as it really is, beyond our desires and fears.

Reading this little blurb, I immediately thought of two things:

1. One thing you hear from pediatricians and early childhood educators is: set limits. Children thrive on boundaries. There’s a certain sort of person for whom this appeals to their authoritarian nature, which is not the intended message. Then there are those who can’t abide by the thought of limiting their children in any way. But perhaps, per Bogost, the boundaries parents set for their children can be thought of as a series of games designed to keep their lives interesting and meaningful.1

2. This recent post about turning anxiety into excitement. Shifting from finding life’s limitations annoying to thinking of them as playable moments seems similar. Problems become opportunities, etc.

3. Ok, three things. I once wrote a post about bagging groceries and mowing the lawn as games.

Two chores I find extremely satisfying are bagging groceries and (especially) mowing the lawn. Getting all those different types of products — with their various shapes, sizes, weights, levels of fragility, temperatures — quickly into the least possible number of bags…quite pleasurable. Reminds me a little of Tetris. And mowing the lawn…making all the grass the same height, surrounding the remaining uncut lawn with concentric rectangles of freshly mowed grass.

What I’m saying is, I’m looking forward to reading this book. See also Steven Johnson’s forthcoming book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

  1. I don’t know about other parents, but 75% of my parental energy is taken up by thinking about what limits are appropriate for my kids. (The other 25% is meal-planning.) What do they need right now? What do they want? What can I give them? How do I balance all of those concerns? What makes it particularly difficult for me sometimes is that my instincts and my intellect are not always in agreement with what is appropriate. What is easiest for me is not always best for them. This shit keeps me up at night. :|

Gone Girl: lessons from the screenplay

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

Using Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for Gone Girl as an example, Michael Tucker walks us through some important aspects of screenwriting techniques. This makes me want to read a book on screenwriting and watch Gone Girl again. (via one perfect shot)

Update: As expected, I got recommendations from readers for screenwriting books: Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 and Invisible Ink. There is also Story by Robert McKee, who you may remember as the screenwriting guru consulted by Donald Kaufman in Adaptation. (via @byBrettJohnson & @poritsky)

Ten lessons learned by rereading Jane Jacobs

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2016

Martin Pedersen recently reread Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and came away with ten lessons.

3. Jacobs was remarkably prescient on gentrification.
She didn’t invent the term or even use it. But she observed (and I don’t know how, since most cities were in decline at the time) that lively diverse neighborhoods are always at risk for becoming victims of their own success, because newcomers invariably alter the characteristics that made these neighborhoods appealing to them in the first place. Today this seems obvious and self-evident, but that’s largely because of Jane Jacobs.

Yeah, it’s time for a reread…it’s been more than 12 years for me. (via @michaelbierut)

How it happened: the discovery of bacteria in the 1670s

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2016

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek ran a draper’s shop and was a local politician in Delft, Netherlands in the mid-17th century. During this time, he developed an interest in making lenses and hit upon a technique for making lenses with extremely high magnifications for the time, 270x and perhaps even 500x normal magnification. These lenses allowed him to discover that there were tiny organisms living in his mouth.

Ed Yong, Joss Fong, and Julia Belluz discuss van Leeuwenhoek’s achievement and microorganisms in general in the video above and in an interview.

It is undeniable that antibiotics have been a tremendous health good, maybe one of the greatest health goods of all time. They have brought so many infectious diseases to heel and saved so many lives.

But it’s also clear that they have negative effects on our microbiome. So they are indiscriminate weapons. They kill the microbes that we depend upon and that are good for us as well as the ones that are causing disease and causing us harm. They’re like nukes, rather than precision weapons.

So we’re in a difficult situation now, where on the one hand we’re running out of antibiotics, and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a huge public health threat. But at the same time we’re aware of the need to preserve the microbiome.

Yong just came out with a book on microbes called I Contain Multitudes. (Perhaps Whitman was speaking literally?)

The Origin of (almost) Everything

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2016

Origin Almost Everything

Oh, this new book from Jennifer Daniel and New Scientist looks great: The Origin of (almost) Everything.

Together they take us on a whistle-stop tour from the start of our universe (through the history of stars, galaxies, meteorites, the Moon and dark energy) to our planet (through oceans and weather to oil) and life (through dinosaurs to emotions and sex) to civilization (from cities to alcohol and cooking), knowledge (from alphabets to alchemy) ending up with technology (computers to rocket science). Witty essays explore the concepts alongside enlightening infographics that zoom from how many people have ever lived to showing you how a left-wing brain differs from a right-wing one.

And Stephen Hawking wrote the foreword. You fancy, Jennifer Daniel!

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2016

Wonderland, Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson’s new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, will be out in November. In it, he describes how novelties and games have been responsible for scientific innovation and technological change for hundreds of years.

This lushly illustrated history of popular entertainment takes a long-zoom approach, contending that the pursuit of novelty and wonder is a powerful driver of world-shaping technological change. Steven Johnson argues that, throughout history, the cutting edge of innovation lies wherever people are working the hardest to keep themselves and others amused.

Johnson’s storytelling is just as delightful as the inventions he describes, full of surprising stops along the journey from simple concepts to complex modern systems. He introduces us to the colorful innovators of leisure: the explorers, proprietors, showmen, and artists who changed the trajectory of history with their luxurious wares, exotic meals, taverns, gambling tables, and magic shows.

Here’s Johnson’s introduction on How We Get To Next.

They all revolve around the creative power of play: ideas and innovations that initially came into the world because people were trying to come up with fresh ways to trigger the feeling of delight or surprise, by making new sounds with a musical instrument, or devising clever games of chance, or projecting fanciful images on a screen. And here’s the fascinating bit: Those amusements, as trivial as they seemed at the time, ended up setting in motion momentous changes in science, technology, politics, and society.

[Ok, riff mode engaged…I have no idea if Johnson talks about learning while playing in his book, but I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately so…ready or not, here I come.] Being the parent of young children, you hear a lot about the power of play. I’ve never been a fan of a lot of screen time for kids, but lately I’ve been letting them play more apps on the iPad and also Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. I’ve even come to think of their Kart playing as educational as well as entertaining. Watching them level up in the game has been fascinating to watch — Minna (my almost 7-year-old) has gone from not even being able to steer the kart to winning Grand Prix gold cups at 50cc (and she’s a better shot with a green shell than I am) and Ollie (my 9-year-old) is improving so rapidly that with his superior neuroplasticity and desire, he’ll be beating me in just a few months.1

Ok, but what is Mario Kart really teaching them? This isn’t about preparing them for their driver’s license exam. As dumb as it sounds,2 Mario Kart is a good vehicle (har!) for learning some of life’s most essential skills. They’re learning how persistant practice leads to steady improvement (something which isn’t always readily visible with schoolwork). They’re learning how to ignore what they can’t control and focus on what they can (Minna still watches green shells after shooting them but Ollie no longer does…helloooooo Stoicism). They’re learning how to lose gracefully and try again with determination. Most of all, they’re learning how to navigate an unfamiliar system. Teaching someone how to learn — knowing how to learn things is one of life’s greatest superpowers — is about exposing them to many different kinds of systems and helping them figure them out.

Update: Johnson is hosting a podcast based on the ideas in the book.

  1. Ok, maybe in a year or two. Old Man Kottke is pretty good at Kart and has a few tricks left up his sleeve. Wisdom and experience can often be more than a match for youthful brilliance.

  2. It’s a bummer to have to caveat this. Even in the age of Minecraft, video games aren’t often thought of as learning opportunities. Very few in the US would bat an eyelash if I were talking about basketball or Little League.

Christoph Niemann, Words

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2016

Christoph Niemann, Words

Ace illustrator Christoph Niemann has a new book coming out called Words, an illustrated compilation of 300+ sight words

What can you do with a word? Read it, spell it, say it, picture it, understand it, make a sentence with it, tell a story with it, share it with a friend. Everything starts with a love of words! More than 300 words inspired by Dr. Edward Fry’s list of sight words are paired with striking and playful illustrations by internationally renowned designer and artist Christoph Niemann to deepen understanding, to enrich, and to enlighten those learning to read and write English, whether they be children or adults.

“I’ve never had a goal”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2016

Jason Fried, founder of 37signals (which became Basecamp a few years back) writes about not having goals.

I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.

There are things I’ve wanted to do, but if I didn’t do them I’d be fine with that too. There are targets that would have been nice to hit, but if I didn’t hit them I wouldn’t look back and say I missed them.

I don’t aim for things that way.

I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.

A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.

This is my exact approach, which can drive the more goal oriented people in your life a little bit nuts. Oliver Burkeman wrote about goals being potentially counter-productive in The Antidote, which is perhaps the book I’ve thought most about over the past year. An excerpt from the book about goals was published as a piece for Fast Company.

It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.

One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. As the Boston Globe reported, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallized in a number: 29. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.

Yet the plan not only failed to work-it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended-and thus more uncertain-research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles.

Update: Forgot to add: For the longest time, I thought I was wrong to not have goals. Setting goals is the only way of achieving things, right? When I was criticizing my goalless approach to my therapist a few years ago, he looked at me and said, “It seems like you’ve done pretty well for yourself so far without worrying about goals. That’s just the way you are and it’s working for you. You don’t have to change.” That was a huge realization for me and it’s really helped me become more comfortable with my approach.

The Complacent Class

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2016

Complacent Class

The Complacent Class is a forthcoming book by Tyler Cowen.

Since Alexis de Tocqueville, restlessness has been accepted as a signature American trait. Our willingness to move, take risks, and adapt to change have produced a dynamic economy and a tradition of innovation from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs.

The problem, according to legendary blogger, economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen, is that Americans today have broken from this tradition — we’re working harder than ever to avoid change. We’re moving residences less, marrying people more like ourselves and choosing our music and our mates based on algorithms that wall us off from anything that might be too new or too different. Match.com matches us in love. Spotify and Pandora match us in music. Facebook matches us to just about everything else.

Of course, this “matching culture” brings tremendous positives: music we like, partners who make us happy, neighbors who want the same things. We’re more comfortable. But, according to Cowen, there are significant collateral downsides attending this comfort, among them heightened inequality and segregation and decreased incentives to innovate and create.

Cowen is also releasing another book called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”

It is only available by emailing him that you’ve pre-ordered The Complacent Class. Oh, and a reminder about how I (try to) read books.

The quest to upgrade humans to gods

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2016

In Sapiens (which I enjoyed and recommend), Yuval Noah Harari gave us a “brief history of humankind”. In his upcoming Homo Deus, Harari turns “his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods”.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style — thorough, yet riveting — famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century — from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

The legs of New York

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 15, 2016

NY Legs

NY Legs

NY Legs

NY Legs

Stacey Baker, who is a photo editor at the NY Times, spends some of her leisure time photographing the legs of women on the streets of NYC. Her Instagram account has 78K+ followers and now she’s turned the project into a book: New York Legs.

NY Legs Cover

Great cover.

The man who became a goat

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2016

Goatman

In response to feeling like he was psychologically “stuck in a big, dark hole”, designer Thomas Thwaites decided to become a goat. At least part time.

From this, he builds a goat exoskeleton-artificial legs, helmet, chest protector, raincoat from his mum, and a prosthetic goat stomach to digest grass (with help from a pressure cooker and campfire)-before setting off across the Alps on four legs with a herd of his fellow creatures. Will he make it? Do Thwaites and his readers discover what it truly means to be human?

A book detailing his experience came out earlier this year.

You may remember Thwaites as the guy who built a toaster from scratch (also a book). Like completely from scratch…he smelted his own iron ore.