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The Universe is much bigger than it is old

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2017

In a Twitter thread, author Oliver Morton compares the physical scale of the Universe with its age (from the perspective of humans).

If a human life is 70 years long, there has been room for 200 million lives since the big bang, but 200 million humans, end to end, would reach just a bit further than the moon. If you had started walking towards the centre of the galaxy on the day of the big bang (had there been days, you, paths & galaxies), you would have got about 20 parsecs by now: just 0.25% of the way.

Maybe walking pace is the wrong metric. A nerve impulse travels around 70 times faster than a person walks. But even at the speed of thought, the age of the universe is too small for something to have reached the centre of the galaxy.

The situation is even worse when you choose another reference object, like UY Scuti, the largest known star. The red hypergiant is nearly 1.5 billion miles across and, because of its size and position near the center of the galaxy, is probably around 13 billion years old, just a few hundred million years younger than the age of the Universe itself.

Even if you use light as a marker, the size of Universe remains unfathomably immense. Over the course of the Universe’s lifetime, a photon could have travelled 13.8 billion light-years, just 15% of the current estimate of the Universe’s diameter of 93 billion light-years. See also what are the physical limits of humanity?

Great summary of Halt and Catch Fire. "Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets you to the thing."

1-800-EAT-SHIT Finally Publishes Decades Of Reckless-Driving Data

OMG, there's a baby formula dispenser that uses Keurig/Nespresso-style pods

Unbelievable story: woman gets catfished by someone using a model's photos then ends up falling in love w/ the model

A love letter to the 747; "the 747-100 was nearly twice as long as the Wright brothers' entire first flight"

Wirecutter Review: The Best Paper Towel for Mopping Up Tears

James Hamblin quit showering and his life continued (I also cut way back on showers and it's been fine)

Kickstarter for a book of 50 handwritten letters that answer the question "What's worth preserving?"

Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles

High school football teams from around the country are disbanding

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Paper Trail, a hand-drawn experimental animation

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2017

Paper Trails is a “hand-drawn animation with ink, white-out and collage” by Jake Fried. It’s only a minute long, but it’s got so much crammed into it, it looks as though it took years to make. I also really liked Brain Lapse from 2014:

(via colossal)

The Windows of New York

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2017

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

José Guizar is a Mexican designer living in NYC with an obsession for the city’s windows. For his Windows of New York project, he’s done dozens of illustrations of all styles of window from around the city (mostly lower Manhattan).

The Windows of New York project is a illustrated fix for an obsession that has increasingly grown in me since I first moved to this city. A product of countless steps of journey through the city streets, this is a collection of windows that somehow have caught my restless eye out from the never-ending buzz of the streets. This project is part an ode to architecture and part a self-challenge to never stop looking up.

(via @ladyslippers)

Swimming Pool by Maria Svarbova

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Maria Svarbova

Maria Svarbova

I love the retro, sterile, futuristic, bright (and also somehow dull) look of these swimming pool photos by Maria Svarbova. She’s collected them into a book called Swimming Pool coming out in November. (via colossal)

“The eclipse was not black but some other color that screamed evil”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Eclipse 2017 Mouser

Even two months later, I’m still reeling from seeing the total solar eclipse. When I think about that day and those two minutes, a chill goes right down my spine. Vi Hart, who took part in Atlas Obscura’s eclipse festival in Oregon, wrote a beautifully poetic piece about witnessing the eclipse that took me right back there.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but this wasn’t it. I’d seen photos of coronas around suns, but this wasn’t that. And I’d expected that those photos, like many astronomical pictures, are long exposure, other wavelengths, and otherwise capturing things the naked eye can’t see. I thought there might be a glow of light in a circle, or nothing, or, I don’t know. What I did not expect was an unholy horror sucking the life and light and warmth out of the universe with long reaching arms, that what I’d seen in pictures was not an exaggeration but a failure to capture the extent of this thing that human eyes, and not cameras, are uniquely suited to absorb the horror of.

I protest the idea that the sun, or the moon, or the hole in the universe where the sun was ripped away from us, was black. It was not black. It was a new color, perceivable to the human eye only in certain conditions. I’ve read the literature on color perception and color philosophy. I’ve got the ontological chops. I feel qualified to make this statement, that this thing in the sky was not black. I could understand why people would describe it as black, just as without a word for red you might describe blood as black. But it wasn’t, and so no photograph could possibly capture what it’s like, and no screen can yet display it.

(thx, geoff)

How balloons are made

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

A cool kid-friendly look at how balloons are made, from the origins of latex rubber to what looks like the very fun job of balloon quality control. I gasped while watching how they make the rubber ring at the end of the balloon…industrialization is bloody clever sometimes. Oh, and they also do hot air balloons…the air in the average hot air balloon weighs a ton! (via the kid should see this)

Leonardo da Vinci is overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Leonardo Overrated

Tyler Cowen asks Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated? and, in a rebuke to Betteridge, proceeds to answer “yes”.

He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them. The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading. Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.

So Leonardo was perhaps not the best at any one thing but he was very good or great at many different things. He is literally the quintessential “Renaissance man” and yet Cowen fails to evaluate him on that basis. Not surprising…history’s generalists are under-celebrated as a rule. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo in the next couple of weeks.

See also how the Mona Lisa became overrated.

A trip to the vast expanse of Mongolia

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Kevin Kelly Mongolia

Fulfilling a long-held dream, Kevin Kelly recently visited Mongolia and returned with dozens of photos of the country’s people and places.

40 years ago I had a vivid dream of flying into Mongolia, soaring over bare winter trees, but that vision did not come to pass. The parts of Mongolia I saw were much like my expectation: treeless to the horizon. There is much grass in Mongolia. Imagine a lawn 1,000 kilometers wide. It is hard to appreciate the vastness of Mongolia: for as far as you can see, no roads, no fences, no wires, just grass, rock, sky. And the occasional shepherd on a pony, happy to chat.

Most of the 3 million inhabitants live in the handful of towns and one capital city. The rest are distributed sparsely onto the grass, which they share with millions of herding animals: sheep, goats, cows, horses, yaks and camels. A large percent of rural Mongolians are nomadic herders, and proud of their nomadism. A few of them in the far west, where the culture and language is Kazak, they use eagles to hunt game and fur.

Dot Piano

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Dot Piano

Dot Piano is a web-based visual piano that works with a MIDI keyboard peripheral or with your regular computer keyboard. As you play, colorful dots dance across the screen in a variety of ways. Hit record and you can easily save and share your composition with others. This one is fun to watch. (via prosthetic knowledge)

The movement of David Fincher’s camera is a surrogate for your eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

This is a really keen observation by Evan Puschak about the camera movement in David Fincher’s films: it mimics your eyes in paying attention to the behavior in a scene. The effect is sometimes subtle. When a character shifts even slightly, the camera keeps that person’s eyes and face in the same place in the frame, just as you would if you were in the room with them.

The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Writing for the MIT Technology Review, robotics and AI pioneer Rodney Brooks, warns us against The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions. I particularly enjoyed his riff on Clarke’s third law — “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — using Isaac Newton’s imagined reaction to an iPhone.

Now show Newton an Apple. Pull out an iPhone from your pocket, and turn it on so that the screen is glowing and full of icons, and hand it to him. Newton, who revealed how white light is made from components of different-colored light by pulling apart sunlight with a prism and then putting it back together, would no doubt be surprised at such a small object producing such vivid colors in the darkness of the chapel. Now play a movie of an English country scene, and then some church music that he would have heard. And then show him a Web page with the 500-plus pages of his personally annotated copy of his masterpiece Principia, teaching him how to use the pinch gesture to zoom in on details.

Could Newton begin to explain how this small device did all that? Although he invented calculus and explained both optics and gravity, he was never able to sort out chemistry from alchemy. So I think he would be flummoxed, and unable to come up with even the barest coherent outline of what this device was. It would be no different to him from an embodiment of the occult — something that was of great interest to him. It would be indistinguishable from magic. And remember, Newton was a really smart dude.

Brooks’ point is that from our current standpoint, something like artificial general intelligence is still “indistinguishable from magic” and once something is magical, it can do anything, solve any problem, reach any goal, without limitations…like a god. Arguments about it become faith-based.

Political scientists warn: American democracy is in decline

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2017

Sean Illing reports on a recent gathering of political scientists at Yale where some alarm bells were going off about the state of democracy in the United States.

On October 6, some of America’s top political scientists gathered at Yale University to answer these questions. And nearly everyone agreed: American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts — socially, culturally, and economically.

The scholars pointed to breakdowns in social cohesion (meaning citizens are more fragmented than ever), the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion.

Illing highlighted a talk by Timothy Snyder as one of the most interesting of the gathering:

Strangely enough, Snyder talked about time as a kind of political construct. (I know that sounds weird, but bear with me.) His thesis was that you can tell a lot about the health of a democracy based on how its leaders - and citizens - orient themselves in time.

Take Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. The slogan itself invokes a nostalgia for a bygone era that Trump voters believe was better than today and better than their imagined future. By speaking in this way, Snyder says, Trump is rejecting conventional politics in a subtle but significant way.

Why, after all, do we strive for better policies today? Presumably it’s so that our lives can be improved tomorrow. But Trump reverses this. He anchors his discourse to a mythological past, so that voters are thinking less about the future and more about what they think they lost.

“Trump isn’t after success — he’s after failure,” Snyder argued. By that, he means that Trump isn’t after what we’d typically consider success — passing good legislation that improves the lives of voters. Instead, Trump has defined the problems in such a way that they can’t be solved. We can’t be young again. We can’t go backward in time. We can’t relive some lost golden age. So these voters are condemned to perpetual disappointment.

The counterargument is that Trump’s idealization of the past is, in its own way, an expression of a desire for a better future. If you’re a Trump voter, restoring some lost version of America or revamping trade policies or rebuilding the military is a way to create a better tomorrow based on a model from the past.

For Snyder, though, that’s not really the point. The point is that Trump’s nostalgia is a tactic designed to distract voters from the absence of serious solutions. Trump may not be an authoritarian, Snyder warns, but this is something authoritarians typically do. They need the public to be angry, resentful, and focused on problems that can’t be remedied.

Snyder calls this approach “the politics of eternity,” and he believes it’s a common sign of democratic backsliding because it tends to work only after society has fallen into disorder.

Snyder is the author of this list of lessons from the 20th century on how to fight authoritarianism, which he turned into a book, On Tyranny.

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

Goodbye Uncanny Valley

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2017

For years, the idea of the uncanny valley has dominated computer graphics. Computers were powerful enough to produce real-ish looking people, places, or things but not quite powerful enough to make audiences believe they were actually real…to the point where they’re actually kind of creepy. In this excellent video essay, Alan Warburton argues that the uncanny valley is behind us and previews where CG is headed next.

It’s 2017 and computer graphics have conquered the Uncanny Valley, that strange place where things are almost real… but not quite. After decades of innovation, we’re at the point where we can conjure just about anything with software.

The question is, now that computers can realistically simulate anything, what will big movie studios, individual filmmakers, game makers, artists, and media outlets do with this capability? Computer graphics are so good, how can we trust what our eyes are seeing on a screen?

Here’s why we like, really like, repetition in music.

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2017

Pop music songs have become increasingly repetitive in recent years — think Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, Beyonce’s 7/11 or Formation, and just about anything by Rihanna — and there’s a good reason for this: we like repetition. When people repeat words, it stops sounding like speaking and starts sounding like singing. Lyrical repetition makes songs sound more musical.