kottke.org posts about hbdjk

Happy Birthday, Jason!Sep 27 2013

HPBDJ.jpg

And scene! No Kottke.org guest editor takeover would be complete without a birthday card by frequent Kottke.org illustrator, Chris Piascik.

The craziest thing about this thing we put together is that it wasn't until the last minute that we knew for sure it was your 40th birthday. But we figured even if you were turning 39, we were going for it anyway. Thanks for the good times, and for leaving your back door open. We hope you and everyone who reads Kottke.org liked the party we threw.

Aaron, Adam, Ainsley, Anil, Choire, Chris, David, Greg, Joel, Sarah, and Tim!

Computers are for peopleSep 27 2013

The Kottke post I probably think about most often is 2009's "One-handed computing with the iPhone." It just has all these perfectly rounded sentences in it, like this one:

A portable networked computing and gaming device that can be easily operated with one hand can be used in a surprising variety of situations.

Try to take the adjectives and adverbs out of that sentence. (Strunk and White say to "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. Strunk and White are often surprisingly stupid.)

But also try adding any more adjectives or adverbs in. Try adding in or taking away any of the clauses. Try writing a better sentence that describes the same thing. (This is also known as "the Mohammed Test.") Try to misunderstand what the sentence means. I'm a professional writer. So is Jason. I appreciate this stuff.

There's also a lot of structural and emotional variety in this post. The author gets mad. He makes jokes. But mostly, he observes. He studies. He empathizes.

People carry things. Coffee, shopping bags, books, bags, babies, small dogs, hot dogs, water bottles, coats, etc. It's nice to be able to not put all that crap down just to quickly Google for the closest public restroom (aka Starbucks).

It is very occasionally necessary to use the iPhone while driving. No, not for checking your stock portfolio, you asshole. For directions. Glance quickly and keep your thoughts on the road ahead.

My wife spends about five hours a day breastfeeding our daughter and has only one hand available for non-feeding activities. That hand is frequently occupied by her iPhone; it helps her keep abreast (hey'o!) of current events, stay connected with pals through Twitter & email, track feeding/sleeping/diaper changing times, keep notes (she plans meals and grocery "shops" at 3am), and alert her layabout husband via SMS to come and get the damned baby already.

I liked "layabout husband" so much when I read it, I started referring to Jason as "noted layabout Jason Kottke." At a certain point, I forgot where the phrase came from.

But read that last paragraph again. You can't read that description of Meg and not think of it every time you either are or aren't doing any of the things she does in that sentence, every time you have to have to carry a bag and use your phone, every time you have to open a door and use your phone, every time you don't have to use your phone while walking down the street but you do it anyways, because you can, and the fact that you can now means that you have to.

I think about it every time I cover a new gadget and companies start touting its hands-free features, how it's added a new voice interface, how its new keyboard algorithm makes it easier to correct for typos. People didn't use to market that sort of thing. But companies started to notice it was one of the things their customers liked best.

I also thought about it when I read these tweets Meg wrote, just yesterday and this morning, about how the newer iPhone's longer screen borks its one-handed functionality.






I have enormous man-hands, and I still think that the trend toward enormous screen sizes on smartphones stinks. Not only is it harder to use a phone with one hand, it's harder to fit a phone in a pants pocket, and a long, thin phone is more likely to tip over and get knocked off a table or shelf.

Markets are gonna market, and specs are gonna spec, but it often feels like companies are forgetting that computers are for people, first. And people have bodies, those bodies have limitations, and all of us have limitations in specific situations.

We're all disabled sometimes. If I turn off the lights in your room, you can't see. If I fill the room with enough noise, you can't hear. If your hands are full, you can't use them to do anything else.

But as Sara Hendren writes, "all technology is assistive technology." When it's working right, technology helps people of every ability overcome these limitations. It doesn't throw us back into the world of assumptions that expects us all to be fully capable all of the time.

That's not what good technology does. That's not what good design does. That's what assholes do.

I think often about Jason's post on one-handed computing because I'm in the story. He wrote it for his wife, and he wrote it for me. I'd badly broken my right arm in an accident, snapping my radius in half and shooting it out of my body. Emergency room doctors stabilized my arm, then surgeons took the fibula from the left leg and used it to create a graft to replace my missing arm bone.

I'd broken my right leg, too, and sustained a concussion. With both legs unstable, I was stuck in a bed most days, and even when I could start putting weight on my left leg again, I couldn't climb in or out of bed to get into a wheelchair without help. I'm over six feet tall and I weigh about 300 pounds, so most nurses and orderlies were out of luck helping me. I couldn't type. I couldn't use the bathroom. I had hallucinations from the pain medicine. I was extremely fucked up.

Another victim of the accident was my Blackberry, my first-ever smartphone, which I bought just before I finally got my PhD. (I revealed this once in a 2010 post for Wired. Commenters called for my head, saying anyone whose first smartphone was bought in 2009 had no business writing for a gadget blog. "I'm sorry," I told them. "I spent my twenties learning things, not buying things.")

After I was discharged from the hospital, I spent money I didn't have to get an iPhone 3G, which was my phone for the next three years. It was mailed to me at the rehab institute where I learned how to walk again. And it changed everything for me. Even with my left hand, I could tweet, send emails, browse the web. I could even read books again -- even print books weren't as easy as the iPhone.

And then I read Jason's post about one-handed computing. And I thought and thought and thought.

I started blogging again. I even started my own community blog about the future of reading. The next year, that led to some articles for Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

I was back home by then. My injuries had cost me my postdoctoral fellowship and a second crack at the academic job market. But I was able to audition for and win an entry-level job writing for Wired the same week that I did my first stint guest-hosting for Kottke.

And I swore to myself that I would never forget: technology is for people.

Anyways, the accident that broke my arm in half was four years ago today.

It was on Jason's birthday. He was 36 then; I was 29. His son was two, almost exactly the same age as my son, his brand new baby daughter less than a week old.

It was all so very long ago. It was the beginning of the rest of my life.

If you ask me why Jason Kottke is important to me, it's because in 2005, he found my little Blogspot blog when it only had a couple dozen readers and started linking to it. It's because his idea of "Liberal Arts 2.0" led to a book I made with friends, some of whom went off to make extraordinary things of their own. (We offered to let Jason write the forward; characteristically, he declined.)

Then Jason became my friend. Every so often, he gives me the keys to this place he's built -- home to the best audience on the internet -- and lets me write about things I care about. And because of all of that, I got a second chance -- me, with all of my flaws and frailties, my misdeeds and mistakes.

But really Jason is important to me because Jason is always writing about how technology is for human beings. He doesn't bang gavels and rattle sabres and shout "TECHNOLOGY IS FOR HUMAN BEINGS!" That's partly because Jason is not a gavel-banging, sabre-rattling sort of person. But it's mostly because it wouldn't occur to him to talk about it in any other way. It's so obvious.

The thing that tech companies forget -- that journalists forget, that Wall Street never knew, that commenters who root for tech companies like sports fans for their teams could never formulate -- that technology is for people -- is obvious to Jason. Technology is for us. All of us. People who carry things.

People. Us. These stupid, stubborn, spectacular machines made of meat and electricity, friends and laughter, genes and dreams.

Happy birthday, Jason. Here's to the next forty years of Kottke.org.

Unshrinking wool sweatersSep 27 2013

It's maybe the least Kottke-like Kottke post imaginable, but "How to unshrink a wool sweater" still holds up for me after more than a dozen years. It's a personal anecdote with no links, deeply focused on domestic service journalism instead of the liberal arts or technology or society. But it kinda, sorta changed the course of my career and my life.

Jason had noticed my site linking to his before, but we actually emailed about the sweater post and I was totally geeked out that he replied to me. It cemented the idea that I could participate in this medium, even though I was years behind the experts and pioneers like him. And from that point, it was a short journey to making all of the friends I've made online, and discovering so much more about what we could do online.

So while there are the planes-on-treadmills and girls-on-bikes are the crowdpleasers for other Kottke fans, on Jason's birthday I wanted to point out a post that's simple, useful, memorable, personal, and effortlessly combines midwestern earnestness with big city pragmatism. In other words, exactly what I've come to expect from my friend Jason.

A little girl was riding her bikeSep 27 2013

If -- among a certain and increasingly geriatric set of bloggers -- you say the words, "a little girl was riding her bike," the response you'll get will be some combination of wistful nostalgia and the belligerent pride of the old-school. Back in the day, man, when people edited their sites by hand.

Memes have always dropped out of the Web, with the regularity and frequency of fertilizer from a well-fed horse. Witness your Dancing Babies, your Mahirs, your Hamster Dances. But the little girl thing -- and only the most obtuse definition of "thing" does it justice -- was the first time I'd seen something just... go. By itself. From and among people I knew, and counted (a bit desperately) as peers. Viewed today, it's infinitely small, undocumented by even the obsessive completists who obsessively complete documentation, but among the tight-knit community of early bloggers (modulo rivalries and jealousies and pettiness; it was still the Internet), it seemed like something new.

From this distance, a billion Web-years later, it's difficult to fully explain, except in the most rote way possible: Almost a decade and a half ago, a bunch of bloggers copied a post from kottke.org (and megnut.com), spreading it from site to site to site, for no reason whatsoever, except that nobody had bothered before. What started as the smallest conspiratorial joke possible quickly took on a life of its own, moving out of the house and getting drunk and causing trouble. Looking back, this random bit of Command-C, Command-V presaged reblogs and questions of attribution; the coordination of metadata to establish narrative; anonymous, poker-faced net.art; even the public pointlessness of telling the world about your lunch. It was people in a small community in a new medium pushing against the sides of the womb, seeing if there was a way out into a larger world.

That's an awful lot of half-assed deep-think for a single paragraph about a little girl riding a bike, but this long-lost bit of serendipity is exactly the sort of thing that Jason Kottke has been doing with the Web almost every day, year in and year out and year in and year out and year in and year out: experimenting, playing, refining, honing, perfecting. Jason was the first person I knew to suffer a cease and desist; the first to run a comment thread out to a thousand entires; the first to ask his audience to support him financially.

Blogging has changed a hell of a lot over these past thirteen years -- only the most wild-eyed optimists and glower-faced doom-sayers were anywhere close to being right about how things would turn out -- but one rock-steady constant has been the work Jason Kottke has done. Early bloggers, dressed in animal skins and flung forward in time, would be dizzy with the technologies and economics of Internet publishing today. But they'd eventually find their footing, load up kottke.org, and discover some small improvement, some new touch, some tiny experiment, another little girl riding another bike, improving blogging and the Web along with it. Still.

Fine Hypertext ProductsSep 27 2013

My favorite of Jason's posts are the ones that are wrong. I love the spirited debate, looking at the @messages directed to him, and I especially love the "Post Updates" feature and its self-documenting "wha?" Kottke.org is not about viral videos or amazing facts (although it has those, too), it's about Jason saying: "Look at this cool thing," and starting a conversation around it. Jason has worked for almost fifteen years as programmer, editor, designer and of course blogger of the site with sharing at its core.

I've always loved how he thinks and talks about the way the site works:

Stellar is the natural extension of Jason's work. The site is an enthusiasm engine, allowing you to see the best of the Internet through the eyes of friends and trusted strangers. It's one of the Top Five pieces of software of all time.1 Jason's fine hypertext products buy us time by filtering out the crap. If you want something good to read or look at or retweet, Stellar won't let you down. And it's made Kottke.org better too.

Last night I swung by Jason's neighborhood place to raise a glass in Jason's honor. Meg generously offered me a few glasses more and soon I was telling strangers to buy the Stellar fun pass. Some people are angry drunks, I tell strangers about Stellar. But I do want to take this (sober!) moment to encourage you to buy the stellar fun pass, it helps Jason do what Jason does best - he does it better than anyone else, and it makes all of us better at internet.

Jason was way ahead of his time with his Micropatronage project, which has been a huge influence on how I work and think about the web ever since. I also love How Cranberries are Harvested, NFL maps, God Fave the Queen,
Hilarious bad lip reading of NFL players
, Megway, the old domain "yoink.org," kottke.org/random, and kottke.org posts tagged kottke.org. I love kottke.org.

Happy Birthday, Jason!

1. I am tweaking this list in my head almost weekly, but Stellar is always on it.

Margaret Thatcher Margaret ThatcherSep 27 2013

When one is forced to compare one's genitals to a nightshade to a paramedic during the course of bedroom activities gone wrong, that medical intervention can actually be the precursor to romantic morning-after breakfasts. Today's a great day to take another look at this post, which reminds us the power of love, collegiate sweatpants, and the power of using Margaret Thatcher as a sexual aid.

Just for the mapsSep 27 2013

Kottke loves maps. My favorite of last few years is "Local vs Tourists," but so, so many are fantastic & so is the fact that Kottke loves maps. So there's that to get out of the way: I would be a rabid Kottke fan just for the maps.

But he also loves, among others, Eggers and Tufte and Morris (if you missed this, go back and read the series) and generally keeps his smart-o-meter well-calibrated and active. There's also design and sports and computing and po -- well, no, not politics, but that's just not his thing. Jason can sometimes be snarky (this take-down was epic), but he never throws elbows and what's politics about if not elbows?

I sometimes ask myself, "What don't I get introduced to by Kottke anymore?" A lot, I suppose (I thought I was introduced to parkour by him, but checked and his first post on the sport was a link to a piece in The New Yorker by Alec Wilkinson, which I would have read) -- but what does it say that even if he didn't introduce me to something, it feels like he did? That is the secret ingredient of Kottke -- which will not, must not, ever be distilled or revealed. It certainly can't be imitated, as those of us posting today learned as one-or-another-time guest-bloggers here on Kottke.org.

And now Jason is 40. Can't believe how far back on the Wayback Machine I went to write this post, but hope it continues to go Wayforward: Happy Birthday, Jason!

Room 237 is Crazy Good: A Dissenting OpinionSep 27 2013

Because I like and respect Jason Kottke, I'm taking this opportunity to express a contrary viewpoint on a documentary he reviewed not two days ago, Rodney Ascher's "Room 237".

Before I forget, happy birthday, Jason.

Now, what I suspect has happened here is that both he and our friend John Gruber, whose tweet spurred Jason's post, sort of missed the point. Which is that the film's ambition was not to cast light on the conspiracy theories around their beloved Kubrick film ("The Shining", in case you're coming to this late), it was not to document further context around the film or to disclose any of its master filmmaker's process or intentions, but rather to paint an artful picture--a media collage if you will-of obsession, and mania.

But "Room 237" isn't about "The Shining" or about Kubrick, it's about a small assortment of unrelated film scholars(?) who have selected "The Shining" as their thing. It's about the degree of their obsessions, the intricacies of their fixations.

Or rather, it's not about the people, it's about the infatuation. Watching the film, you'll notice fairly quickly that the filmmakers have made the unique and brilliant choice to never show the theorists' faces on-camera. All we know of them is their voices and their theories. This was at once a respectful and calculated choice. Respectful in that it protects the interviewees from some of the involuntary judgments we the audience will tend to make when given the benefit of someone's physical appearance. And calculated in that presenting the subjects in audio only frees the viewer from the distraction of a fully fleshed-out human connection. Sure, we can extrapolate character and make judgments based on vocal tone and demographic (not to mention the content of the speech). But the main focus is on the visualizations themselves, which are nightmarishly brilliant.

What we have in the supporting media is a mashup of Kubrickian archive, bizarro warpy analog synth music, some digital wizardy, and old dollar-bin stock footage, all coming together to form a spooky dream fort -- a haunted factory built of unfamiliar nostalgia.

You know that psychological effect that has no name, when you used to find an old VHS tape in the back of the cabinet, one that your family would use to record TV shows a decade before, and you'd play it, only to find that the commercials were still intact? Remember that creepy, kind of gross but comfortable remembrance? That's what "Room 237" has in spades.

I have a unique (or at least memorable) story of my first viewing of "The Shining". Short version: impacted largely by the medium through which I viewed it, the movie scared the living piss out of me. But I'm willing to put a stake in the ground and say that as scary as "The Shining" is to me, "Room 237" is even scarier. Not because I believe any of the conspiracy theories to be true, but because our minds are capable of manufacturing them.

HorseSep 27 2013

A lot of us come from small towns and remote places and find ourselves in big cities, maybe to live in ways we couldn't or shouldn't imagine. Once upon a time there was a horse, free and proud. He lived in Russia. Then when he was old enough to want more than his simple life he poked his head up and found he had admirers, people who liked listening to him. You are who your last dozen tweets say you are, he knew. Some of those admirers wanted to pay for his thoughts. He had an invitation from a sponsor who paid him to move to New York City.

First horse had a bad apartment then he had a big apartment. Horse went to work for his sponsor. He liked it here, but it was scary. Living in a big city, you get to hear other people's conversations all the time. Inane, or robotic, or cool, or sad. A lot of people in NYC live alone, and all they have to keep them company sometimes are their pets.

Horse wondered if he was a pet.

One night horse's sponsor came over and slit horse's throat. It turns out horse had been sponsored by a necromancer. The necromancer put horse's head on himself and wore it to horse's job and punched horse's time cards. Everyone had to work. The necromancer worked at a company that gets the joke and participates meaningfully in an actual conversation with a full awareness of the context. He liked it there! Somehow no one really noticed that he was living as horse.

It was hard being two things though. Was he man or horse? He had to lie to everyone, he thought. He had planned to use the tools of public relations and press management to make horse more important--the most famous, the most beautiful. And also to make some money from horse.

Every night he'd come home and the headless body of horse was rotting in the guest room. Horse was half a black puddle by now. The necromancer had tried so hard to be like horse, but something had gone wrong. We can't have nice things on the internet.

Tragedy and empathySep 27 2013

The one piece of advice Jason had for me when I started guest editing was don't write about politics. kottke.org is usually a pretty apolitical site and politics coming from a guest editor would be especially weird so that made sense. But I think Jason and kottke.org were at their best and most relevant in December 2012 deep in national politics.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, Jason spent the next week adding context and perspective to what was a very untethered national conversation.

His informative, thoughtful posts on gun culture, talking to children about violence, and the media's role in shaping these events were a rallying point for a lot of people looking to make sense of what was going on and have a productive dialogue.

It's been 10 months since Newtown and, nationally, we still haven't stopped the flow of guns in general or even into schools specifically. But maybe the pragmatic empathy kottke.org and others have may be one way of stopping further tragedy.

"I just started talking to him ... and let him know what was going on with me and that it would be OK," the clerk, Antoinette Tuff, told Atlanta's Channel 2 Action News during a lengthy sit-down interview. Tuff described Hill as "a young man that was ready to kill anybody that he could."

School staff have regular run-throughs of scenarios like this one and Tuff was one of three staff members who were specifically trained to handle shooters. In fact, "the training is so often and extensive," a district spokesman told reporters, that Tuff "thought it was a drill" at first. "Let me tell you something, babe, I've never been so scared in all the days of my life."

After The ShiningSep 27 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will an airplane on a treadmill take off?Sep 27 2013

Friday morning is as good a time as any to revisit what I consider one of the quintessential Kottke.org post(s), The case of the plane and conveyor belt. Essentially, will an airplane take off on a treadmill. Prompted by a question on The Straight Dope, the post, now over 7 years old, has everything you need for a Kottke.org post: airplanes, physics, a waffle, and careful consideration of the facts. The question was addressed again a few days later to definitively and succinctly put the argument to rest.

Now that I've closed the comments on the question of the airplane and the conveyor belt, I'm still getting emails calling me an idiot for thinking that the plane will take off. Having believed that after first hearing the question and formulating several reasons reinforcing my belief, I can sympathize with that POV, but that doesn't change the fact that I was initially wrong and that if you believe the plane won't take off, you're wrong too.

A 2008 liveblog of an episode of Mythbusters, further cemented the following notion:

The Plane Takes Off

For what it's worth commenters almost everywhere continue to disagree. For more opinions, see here, here, here, here.

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