kottke.org posts about books
In a short film shot in 1957, Walt Disney described the multiplane camera, one of the many inventions and innovations his company had developed in order to produce more realistic and affecting animations. Instead of shooting single cels of animation on a single movable background, the multiplane camera could shoot several independently moving backgrounds, creating a sense of depth and perspective. A 1938 article in Popular Mechanics explained how the camera works.
Disney wanted to increase the eye value of the many paintings making up a picture by achieving a soft-focus effect on the backgrounds, illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating” background from foreground, thus keeping background objects to their proper relative size.
His production crew labored for three years to perfect the novel picture-taking device to achieve these results. It consists of four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages may be shifted both horizontally and vertically. On each carriage rides a frame containing a sheet of celluloid, on which is painted part of the action or background.
Resembling a printing press, the camera stands eleven feet tall and is six feet square. Made with almost micrometer precision, it permits the photographing of foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first is held firmly in place two feet from the lens and the lowest rests in its frame nine feet away. Where the script calls for the camera to “truck up” for a close-up, the lens actually remains stationary, while the various cels are moved upward. By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features, retain their relative sizes.
After being deployed on a short film as a test, the multiplane camera was used to film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film. In the chapter on “Illusion” in his newest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson writes that the use of the multiplane camera (along with other innovations in animation developed since the days of Steamboat Willie) had a profound effect on audiences.
All of these technical and procedural breakthroughs summed up to an artistic one: Snow White was the first animated film to feature both visual and emotional depth. It pulled at the heartstrings in a way that even live-action films had failed to do. This, more than anything, is why Snow White marks a milestone in the history of illusion. “No animated cartoon had ever looked like Snow White,” Disney’s biographer Neil Gabler writes, “and certainly none had packed its emotional wallop.” Before the film was shown to an audience, Disney and his team debated whether it might just be powerful enough to provoke tears — an implausible proposition given the shallow physical comedy that had governed every animated film to date. But when Snow White debuted at the Carthay Circle Theatre, near L.A.’s Hancock Park, on December 21, 1937, the celebrity audience was heard audibly sobbing during the final sequences where the dwarfs discover their poisoned princess and lay garlands of flowers on her. It was an experience that would be repeated a billion times over the decades to follow, but it happened there at the Carthay Circle first: a group of human beings gathered in a room and were moved to tears by hand-drawn static images flickering in the light.
In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion — the dancing mouse is whistling! — into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.
Interestingly, the multiplane camera also seems to be an instance of simultaneous invention (a concept also covered by Johnson in an earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From). In addition to Disney’s multiplane camera, there were a few earlier earlier efforts and it’s unclear whether they were invented independently or how one inventor influenced another. But one thing is for certain: only Disney’s camera was deployed so skillfully and artfully that it changed cinema and our culture forever.1
From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:
1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.
2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.
3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.
5. [Later.] OK, OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.
6. [Later.] Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more interesting and pays more!
7. [Later.] I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.
I predict that getting to #6 will be challenging for many people.
National Geographic Infographics is an anthology published by Taschen of some of the best infographics featured by National Geographic in the past 128 years.
Through seven sections — History, The Planet, Being Human, Animal World, World of Plants, Science and Technology, and Space — we encounter the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the mysterious origins of the Easter Island statues, Cleopatra’s Alexandria and a history of Hawaiian surfboarding, all distilled in expert, accessible graphic form. We discover how our genetic patterns have been pieced together over the years or how hip-hop emerged as a cultural heavyweight; we get to grips with global warming, and explore our ever-expanding study of an ever-expanding universe.
From psychotherapist Amy Morin, who expanded this list into a book of the same name, a list of 13 ways mentally strong people avoid negative behaviors.
1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
2. They Don’t Give Away Their Power
3. They Don’t Shy Away from Change
4. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
5. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
6. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks
7. They Don’t Dwell on the Past
8. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
9. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success
10. They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure
11. They Don’t Fear Alone Time
12. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything
13. They Don’t Expect Immediate Results
That’s all fine and those are worthy goals — and the book probably gets into more detail about this — but do you become more mentally strong by not doing these things or do you already need mental strength? Some of this seems to come down to personality or temperament, things that are difficult to change under even the best circumstances. And self-help lists like this always make me think of Simpsons pitchman Troy McClure’s introduction to a self-help video he’s hosting:
Oh hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from such self-help videos as Smoke Yourself Thin and Get Confident, Stupid!
It’s simple, just get confident! Just draw the rest of the fucking owl!
Research on an arrangement of massive granite blocks in the Brazilian Amazon has indicated that they were used as an astronomical observatory about 1000 years ago.
After conducting radiocarbon testing and carrying out measurements during the winter solstice, scholars in the field of archaeoastronomy determined that an indigenous culture arranged the megaliths into an astronomical observatory about 1,000 years ago, or five centuries before the European conquest of the Americas began.
Their findings, along with other archaeological discoveries in Brazil in recent years — including giant land carvings, remains of fortified settlements and even complex road networks — are upending earlier views of archaeologists who argued that the Amazon had been relatively untouched by humans except for small, nomadic tribes.
I still remember reading Charles Mann’s piece in 2002 about the mounting evidence against the idea of a largely wild and pristine pair of continents civilized and tamed by Europeans.
Erickson and Balée belong to a cohort of scholars that has radically challenged conventional notions of what the Western Hemisphere was like before Columbus. When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation it remained mostly wilderness. My son picked up the same ideas at his schools. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that in their opinion this picture of Indian life is wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind.
That article turned into 1491, which remains one of my favorite books.
See also Ars Technica’s recent piece Finding North America’s lost medieval city.
The film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is moving right along. The movie stars Tom Hanks and Emma Watson (as well as John Boyega from The Force Awakens) and the first trailer was released yesterday. Looks Black Mirror-ish…I think we’ll be getting a lot of that over the next four years.
Ben Pieratt, who you may recall as the cofounder of Svpply (and many other diverse projects), has a new project called Dead Bookstore, wherein full-sheet pages of old books become art prints for sale. But there’s a DIY component as well…Pieratt helps you track down the original texts and has posted instructions so you can make your own prints.
It’s just the beginning of December and the lists of the best books of the year are already starting to stack up like so many clichés about nightstand book piles. Here’s what book editors, voracious readers, and retailers have to say about the year’s top books.
Tyler Cowen almost never steers me wrong, so I’ll lead with his best fiction of 2016 and best non-fiction books of 2016 lists. Cowen seems more enthusiastic about the year’s non-fiction than fiction, recommending The Age of Em by Robin Hanson and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. He also recommends Atlas Obscura, which arrived in my book pile and was immediately commandeered by my 9-year-old who has read it straight through three or four times now.1
The NY Times somehow narrowed down the entire year’s output to The 10 Best Books of 2016. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad made this list and many others for good reason: it was an excellent and essential read. Also on the list is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.
From Buzzfeed, The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2016. Includes The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.
Amazon’s editors selected their top 100 picks for the year. Included are The Girls by Emma Cline, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a book that came out very early in the year and was well-regarded but got lost in the shuffle a little as the year went on.
For their list of the best books of 2016 (part two), The Guardian asked writers what they had enjoyed reading during the year. Yuval Noah Harari (whose Sapiens I’ve been yapping about all year) recommends Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie picked Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, and Taiye Selasi “adored” Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Oh and my fave Hilary Mantel (where’s that next Cromwell book?!) recommends Ian McGuire’s The North Water.
The Telegraph’s top 50 books of the year is a wider-ranging list than most, with picks ranging from the Man Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty to several books about sports, including an autobiography by FC Barcelona’s star midfielder Andrés Iniesta called The Artist.
On its list of the Top 20 Fiction Books of 2016 The What recommends Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie.
See also 2015’s best books. Ferrante and Ta-Nehisi Coates were the clear favorites last year. I haven’t read Between the World and Me yet, but the Neapolitan Novels were fantastic.
Update: Shane Parrish of Farnam Street offers 5 Noteable Nonfiction Books of 2016, including Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.
Update: At the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada shares his picks for the most surprising, hopeful, and overrated books of 2016. Among them are Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.
Update: Bill Gates just released his annual list of some of his favorite 2016 books. The first book on the list is David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his writing about tennis — here’s his full review.
When it comes to books, it’s pretty rare that I get intimidated. I read all kinds of books, including ones that only the harshest college professors would assign. And yet I must admit that for many years I steered clear of anything by David Foster Wallace. I often heard super literate friends talking in glowing terms about his books and essays. I even put a copy of his tour de force Infinite Jest on my nightstand at one point, but I just never got around to reading it.
If you’re a long-time reader, I’m not sure if there’s anything more I can say to convince you to read Wallace’s tennis writing, but just give his piece on Roger Federer a try.
Update: They just keep coming! For their Year in Reading 2016, The Millions surveyed a number of contributors for their favorite books of the year — Annie Proulx highlights Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. The Globe 100 Best Books of the Year list includes Nicholson Baker’s Substitute. NPR built a Book Concierge to help you find the perfect 2016 book — I found White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg by applying the Seriously Great Writing filter.
Update: From Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, The Greatest Science Books of 2016. On the list are Time Travel by James Gleick and Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game.
Update: The NY Times book critics selected their top books of 2016, including Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich.
A bunch of New Yorker writers selected books they loved in 2016. Among the picks were Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Works and Days by Bernadette Mayer.
Update: The WSJ asked some notable people what their favorite books of 2016 were. Stephen Curry read Dan Brown — calling him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy” — but also Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — but failed to call him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy”.
The readers of Goodreads chose their favorite books of 2016, including Hamilton: The Revolution and Adulthood Is a Myth by Sarah Andersen.
Every year, the New York Public Library picks the Best Books for Kids and Teens. Their 2016 lists include Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer and Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings.
Update: The NY Times also asked many notable people what they read in 2016. Bryan Cranston read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Update: From Buzzfeed, The 18 Best Nonfiction Books Of 2016 including Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography.
The North American Cartographic Information Society has published the third volume of The Atlas of Design, a book consisting of “beautiful and inspiring maps from around the world”.
National Geographic took a look at some of the maps included in the book.
The striking panorama above of Denali and the Alaska Range was created by draping satellite imagery over a three-dimensional model of the terrain. Brooke Marston, a cartographer at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was inspired by the Austrian artist Heinrich Berann, who is famed for his beautiful panoramas of mountain ranges.
While Berann took some artistic license with the precise location and positioning of mountains in his panoramas, Marston’s map is true to the geography. The oblique, bird’s-eye view emphasizes the sheer size of the mountains while maintaining a closeness with the viewer. “Good oblique mapping can transport the viewer straight into the landscape,” Elmer says. “This map makes me feel lost among the jagged, cold, majestic mountains just looking at it.”
Over at Literary Hub, Emily Temple offers a “reading list for resistance”, a list of 25 Works of Fiction and Poetry for Anger and Action.
Included are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:
This is the book women will be whispering about to one another in Trump’s America-an all-too-real vision of our country under a totalitarian theocracy where women are stripped of their rights and kept around only as breeders or servants.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real.
And of course, George Orwell’s 1984:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic…
1984 was my favorite book for a long time — I first read it when I was about 10 years old and reread it every year or two well into my 20s. I haven’t read it in more than 10 years…perhaps it’s time for another go.
A bestiary was a type of book popular in the Middle Ages, featuring descriptions of animals accompanied by moral lessons. The Aberdeen Bestiary is a particularly fine example of a 12th century bestiary.
The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library MS 24) is considered to be one of the best examples of its type due to its lavish and costly illuminations. The manuscript, written and illuminated in England around 1200, is of added interest since it contains notes, sketches and other evidence of the way it was designed and executed.
Thanks to the work of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where the book has been housed since the 1620s, a high-resolution copy of the book is available to browse online. The level of detail at full magnification is incredible. The text accompanying the top image of a panther is translated as:
There is an animal called the panther, multi-coloured, very beautiful and extremely gentle. Physiologus says of it, that it has only the dragon as an enemy. When it has fed and is full, it hides in its den and sleeps. After three days it awakes from its sleep and gives a great roar, and from its mouth comes a very sweet odour, as if it were a mixture of every perfume. When other animals hear its voice, they follow wherever it goes, because of the sweetness of its scent. Only the dragon, hearing its voice, is seized by fear and flees into the caves beneath the earth. There, unable to bear the scent, it grows numbed within itself and remains motionless, as if dead. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ, the true panther, descending from Heaven, snatched us from the power of the devil. And, through his incarnation, he united us to him as sons, taking everything, and ‘leading captivity captive, gave gifts to men’ (Ephesians, 4:8). The fact that the panther is a multi-coloured animal, signifies Christ, who is as Solomon said the wisdom of God the Father, an understanding spirit, a unique spirit, manifold, true, agreeable, fitting, compassionate, strong, steadfast, serene, all-powerful, all-seeing.
Jesus, the true panther. (via hyperallergic)
In a piece excerpted from his new book, Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years, Ian Mortimer argues that the introduction of glass mirrors circa 1300 in Venice spurred the shift to an individualistic society because people were able to see themselves clearly for the first time.
Polished metal and obsidian mirrors have existed from ancient times, and because of this, historians have usually passed over the introduction of the glass mirror as if it was just another variation on an old theme. But the development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. Polished metal mirrors of copper or bronze were very inefficient by comparison, reflecting only about 20 percent of the light; and even silver mirrors had to be exceptionally smooth to give any meaningful reflection. These were also prohibitively expensive: most medieval people would only have glimpsed their faces darkly, reflected in a pool of water.
What an odd thing, to not actually know what your face looks like, and yet for most of human history, that was the case. Also interesting that the rise of glass mirrors led to an increase of commissioned painted portraits:
People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy. While almost all the oil paintings that survive from the fourteenth century are of a religious nature, the few exceptions are portraits. This trend toward portraiture grew in the fifteenth century, and came to dominate nonreligious art. As important men increasingly commissioned artists to create their likenesses, the more those likenesses were viewed, encouraging other people to have their portraits painted.
Steven Johnson discussed glass mirrors in the opening chapter of his book How We Got To Now.
At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. “The most powerful prince in the world created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household,” Lewis Mumford writes in his Technics and Civilization. “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.”
Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. Hamlet ruminated onstage; the novel emerged as a dominant form of storytelling, probing the inner mental lives of its characters with an unrivaled depth. Entering a novel, particularly a first-person narrative, was a kind of conceptual parlor trick: it let you swim through the consciousness, the thoughts and emotions, of other people more effectively than any aesthetic form yet invented. The psychological novel, in a sense, is the kind of story you start wanting to hear once you begin spending meaningful hours of your life staring at yourself in the mirror.
If glass mirrors helped bring about such a shift in society, I wonder how society is shifting with the ability, only over the past 10-15 years or so, for people to instantly share their inner thoughts and selfies with friends, family, and even strangers many times every day? Is this more “seeing ourselves clearly” (individualism) or is the ability to allow others to see us clearly so frequently steering us back toward collectivism? Or somewhere else entirely?
In a short essay from Literary Hub titled New York is a Book Conservatives Should Read, Rebecca Solnit writes an open letter to Donald Trump urging him to take some lessons from the city in which he lives. Solnit argues that Trump’s wealth has insulated him from experiencing one of the true pleasures of American cities like New York: energetic and meaningful diversity.
You treat Muslims like dangerous outsiders but you seem ignorant of the fact that the town you claim to live in has about 285 mosques, and somewhere between 400,00 and 800,000 Muslims, according to New York’s wonderful religious scholar Tony Carnes. That means one out of ten or one out of twenty New Yorkers are practitioners of the Islamic faith. A handful of Muslims, including the Orlando mass murderer, who was born in Queens, have done bad things, but when you recognize how many Muslims there are, you can stop demonizing millions for the acts of a few.
NYC is only one-third white and is home to hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews and millions of blacks, Latinos, and Asians.
Speaking of African-Americans: have you ever been to Harlem or the Bronx? You keep talking about black people like you’ve never met any or visited any black neighborhoods. Seriously, during that last debate you said, “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos than she can ever do in ten lifetimes. All she’s done is talk to the African-Americans and to the Latinos.” Dude, seriously? Did you get this sense of things from watching TV-in 1975?
Solnit wrote the piece after compiling her most recent book, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.
Bringing together the insights of dozens of experts — from linguists to music historians, ethnographers, urbanists, and environmental journalists — amplified by cartographers, artists, and photographers, it explores all five boroughs of New York City and parts of nearby New Jersey. We are invited to travel through Manhattan’s playgrounds, from polyglot Queens to many-faceted Brooklyn, and from the resilient Bronx to the mystical kung fu hip-hop mecca of Staten Island.
This NY Times piece on the political inclinations of rural areas vs cities is an interesting companion to Solnit’s letter.
“There is something really kind of strange and interesting about the connection between peoples’ preferences — what they view as the good life, where they want to live — and their partisanship,” said Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford. His precinct-level maps of presidential election results show deep blue in the densest, central parts of metropolitan areas, where you’d find the Main Streets, city halls, row homes and apartment buildings. The farther you travel from there, the redder the precincts become. And this is true whether you look around New York City or Terre Haute, Ind.
When I watch Black Mirror, particularly the newest Netflix season, I don’t think it’s primarily classic science fiction or about our relationship to technology.1 What I’m reminded of most strongly is The Twilight Zone and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, both of which appear on the list of movies, books, and TV shows that influenced Charlie Brooker while making Black Mirror.
I read Tales of the Unexpected when I was a kid, having exhausted all of the other Roald Dahl books in our small town library and one day randomly discovering that he’d written this book of short stories for adults. His use of horror and black comedy are evident in the most celebrated story, Lamb to the Slaughter, in which a woman murders her husband by whacking him in the head with a frozen leg of lamb and then serves the lamb to the police detectives who come round to investigate the death.
Anyway, what I didn’t know was that Tales of the Unexpected was also adapted into a TV show hosted by Dahl himself. I’ve embedded the Lamb to the Slaughter episode above and there are many more of the full episodes available on YouTube.
Over at GQ, Lincoln Michel shares 12 Books to Read After Binge-Watching Black Mirror. Among them:
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Version Control by Dexter Palmer.
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.
Earlier this month, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker shared 105 cultural artifacts that influenced the series, including some surprises like Fawlty Towers — “often in our episodes, someone is trapped at the center of a dilemma they never get out of, and that describes every episode of Fawlty Towers” — Airplane!, and Radiohead’s The National Anthem, as well as more familiar influences like 2001, The X-Files, and The Matrix. Only a handful of books on the list though, including:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders.
On Killing by Dave Grossman.
On Twitter recently, Joshua Topolsky called Black Mirror “the show for people who’ve never read any science fiction”. Perhaps that’s because Brooker hasn’t really either?
America is no longer a majority white, Christian country.
At 45 percent of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic — and the backlash from many members of the group against the increasing diversification of America has been swift and bitter.
The narrator of the video, Robert P. Jones, wrote a book about this new reality called The End of White Christian America.
For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA) — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence, following declines within both its mainline and evangelical branches. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation.
Due to its popularity, the Harry Potter series of books has been translated into dozens of different languages from around the world. Given the books’ setting in Britain, heavy use of wordplay & allusions, and all of the invented words, translating the books accurately and faithfully was difficult.
Translators weren’t given a head-start — they had to wait until the English editions came out to begin the difficult and lengthy task of adapting the books. Working day and night, translators were racing against intense deadlines. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the longest book in the series at 870 pages for the US edition, was originally published on June 21, 2003. Its first official translation appeared in Vietnamese on July 21, 2003. Not long after, the Serbian edition was released in early September 2003.
Also not mentioned in the video is all of the foreshadowing Rowling uses in the first few books in the series that pays off in later books. Since the translators probably didn’t know the plot details of the later books, some of that foreshadowing might have been edited out, downplayed, or misinterpreted.
Phil Edwards talks to James Gleick about his new book, Time Travel: A History, and of course the subject of killing Baby Hitler comes up. Turns out, the idea of using time travel to kill Adolf Hitler was first used by writer Ralph Milne Farley in 1941, before the US ever entered World War II or before the world learned the horrifying scope of the Holocaust.
I’m currently reading Gleick’s book and the most surprising thing so far is how recently time travel was invented…it’s only about 120 years old. The idea of progress was not really evident to people before the pace of technology and the importance of history became apparent in the 19th century. Progress made time travel relevant…without it, people couldn’t imagine going back in time to see how far they’d come or forward in time to see how much they’d progress.
Small Spanish publisher Kronecker Wallis is doing a Kickstarter campaign to print a well-designed version of Isaac Newton’s Principia, one of the most important texts in science.
We have spent several months working on a desire. The desire to have a new edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia in our hands that is on a par with the importance of the text and of modern editorial design. To put it back on our shelves so that we can leaf through it from time to time and feel the pages beneath our fingers.
An opportunity has now arisen. Taking advantage of the fact that the original publication is to celebrate its 330th anniversary in 2017, we wish to republish it with an editorial design that pays attention to every last detail.
I am enjoying this trend of reviving old classics through the lens of modern design and packaging; see also the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual, the NASA Graphics Standards Manual, and the Voyager Golden Record.
From James Lovelock, The Earth and I is a look at our planet and the living things on it…how Earth came to be, what we understand about our planet, and how we live today. Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, Edward O. Wilson, and Eric Kandel have contributed writing to the book.
Anil Dash recently asked his Twitter followers: “If you could get everybody to read one book, what would it be?” Dash followed up right away with his answer: The Power Broker by Robert Caro.1 Here are some of the other interesting responses:
Letters from A Self-Made Merchant to his Son by George Horace Lorimer.
George Horace Lorimer was an American journalist and author. He is best known as the editor of The Saturday Evening Post. His Letters From A Self-Made Merchant To His Son is a timeless collection of Gilded Age aphorisms from a rich man — a prosperous pork-packer in Chicago to his son, Pierrepont, whom he ‘affectionately’ calls ‘Piggy.’ The writing is subtle and brilliant.
A Simpler Way by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers.
Constructed around five major themes — play, organization, self, emergence, and coherence — A Simpler Way challenges the way we live and work, presenting a profound worldview. In thoughtful, creative prose, the authors help readers connect their own personal experiences to the idea that organizations are evolving systems.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.
In volume one of his America in the King Years, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a masterly account of the American civil rights movement. Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American civil rights movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit.
In her comic, scathing essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men-bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton.
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
Since its original landmark publication in 1980, A People’s History of the United States has been chronicling American history from the bottom up, throwing out the official version of history taught in schools — with its emphasis on great men in high places — to focus on the street, the home, and the workplace.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis — that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
Kindred by Octavia Butler.
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
That’s a nice little syllabus for a What Is America? class. I’m not entirely sure what my answer would be. Infinite Jest is my favorite book, but I’m wary of recommending it to people — it was an important book for me but perhaps not for others. Maybe A People’s History of the United States or Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing The Warmth of Other Suns?
More than 40 years ago, food enthusiast and artist Salvador Dali published a cookbook called Les Diners de Gala. The book mixes Dali’s surrealist imagery and with dozens of recipes, including some that originated from the top restaurants in Paris at that time. The original book is quite rare and valuable now, but Taschen is reprinting it; it’s available for pre-order here.
This reprint features all 136 recipes over 12 chapters, specially illustrated by Dal’i, and organized by meal courses, including aphrodisiacs. The illustrations and recipes are accompanied by Dal’i’s extravagant musings on subjects such as dinner conversation: “The jaw is our best tool to grasp philosophical knowledge.”
See also The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook. (via colossal)
Designing Your Life is one of the most popular courses at Stanford. Taught by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, the class teaches how you can use design thinking and techniques to shape your life and career. Burnett and Evans just came out with a book based on the class, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
In this book, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans show us how design thinking can help us create a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of who or where we are, what we do or have done for a living, or how young or old we are. The same design thinking responsible for amazing technology, products, and spaces can be used to design and build your career and your life, a life of fulfillment and joy, constantly creative and productive, one that always holds the possibility of surprise.
The course itself isn’t available online, but there are a couple of lectures from the class available on YouTube: Reframe Your Passion and Prototypes for Personal Success.
I first ran across the work of designer Olly Moss several years ago, when he designed some super-simple alternate posters for iconic movies. He’s since worked on a whole bunch of great stuff, like Firewatch and posters for Studio Ghibli. Just the other day, while the kids and I were finding out what our Patronuses are,1 I discovered that Moss not only designed the cover of the forthcoming ebook of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them but also did the covers for all seven of the Harry Potter ebooks.
Moss’ main technique, of combining two or more aspects of the story into a single image, is on full display in the Potter covers — the prison on a rock shaped like a dog for Azkaban, Voldemort as Harry’s scar for Hallows, and Dumbledore’s spell casting forming the pages of a textbook for Half-Blood Prince.
In a 1959 talk at Caltech titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman outlined a new field of study in physics: nanotechnology. He argued there was much to be explored in the realm of the very small — information storage, more powerful microscopes, biological research, computing — and that that exploration would be enormously useful.
I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.
In a reaction to Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, David Galbraith suggests there might be plenty of room at the bottom for human civilization as well. Don’t colonize Mars, miniaturize humanity. Create nano sapiens.
If we think of this as a design problem, there is a much better solution. Instead of expanding our environment to another planet at massive cost, why wouldn’t we miniaturise ourselves so we can expand without increasing our habitat or energy requirements, but still maintain our ability to create culture and knowledge, via information exchange.
The history of information technology and the preservation of Moore’s law has been driven by exactly this phenomenon of miniaturization. So why shouldn’t the same apply to the post technological evolution of humankind as it approaches the hypothetical ‘singularity’ and the potential ability for us to be physically embodied in silicon rather than carbon form.
When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.1
Galbraith also speculates about nano aliens as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox:
Interestingly, the same rules of energy use and distance between planets and stars would apply to any extraterrestrial aliens, so one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that we all get smaller and less visible as we get more technologically advanced. Rather than favoring interstellar colonization with its mind boggling distances which are impossible to communicate across within the lifetimes of individuals (and therefore impossible to hold together in any meaningful way as a civilization) perhaps advanced civilizations stick to their home planets but just get more efficient to be sustainable.
Humans are explorers. Curiosity about new worlds and ideas is one of humanity’s defining traits. One of the most striking things about the Eames’ Powers of Ten video is how similar outer space and inner space look — vast distances punctuated occasionally by matter. What if, instead of using more and more energy exploring planets, stars, and galaxies across larger and larger distances (the first half of the Eames’ video), we went the other way and focused on using less energy to explore cells, molecules, and atoms across smaller and smaller distances. It wouldn’t be so much giving up human space exploration as it would be exchanging it for a very similar and more accessible exploration of the molecular and atomic realm. There is, after all, plenty of room down there.
Update: I knew the responses to this would be good. Galbraith’s idea has a name: the transcension hypothesis, formulated by the aptly named John Smart. Jason Silva explains in this video:
The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.
Before we get there, however, there are a few challenges we need to overcome, as Joe Hanson explains in The Small Problem With Shrinking Ourselves:
As it often seems in such matters, science follows science fiction here. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (Amazon), the Chinese miniaturize themselves in response to the Earth’s decreasing resources.
In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.
Blood Music by Greg Bear (Amazon) has a nano-civilization theme:
Through infection, conversion and assimilation of humans and other organisms the cells eventually aggregate most of the biosphere of North America into a region seven thousand kilometres wide. This civilization, which incorporates both the evolved noocytes and recently assimilated conventional humans, is eventually forced to abandon the normal plane of existence in favor of one in which thought does not require a physical substrate.
James Blish’s short story Surface Tension tells the tale of microscopic human colonists. (via @harryh, @mariosaldana, @EndlessForms, @vanjacosic, @chumunculus)
Update: For some years, director Alexander Payne has been working on a film called Downsizing:
“Downsizing,” after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth’s natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. “Smalls” get small, then become members of small cities (the main characters moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney’s Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.
Word is that Matt Damon will play the lead role. Mr. Payne, consider a title change to “Nano Sapiens”? (via @stephenosberg)
Photo by Poy.
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.
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”.
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)
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.
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)