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David Grann’s next book: The Wager

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

From the latest issue of Publisher’s Lunch daily newsletter comes the news that David Grann’s next book will be called The Wager, “an 18th century story of a shipwreck, a mutiny, a struggle for survival and a trial full of twists and turns”. The deal includes “two other works of narrative nonfiction” as well. Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon was excellent…can’t wait for this one! (thx, matt)

What is the mindful response to a school shooting?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

In the latest issue of the Mindful Resistance newsletter, Robert Wright, author of the great Why Buddhism is True, explores what a mindful response to a school shooting like the one in Parkland might look like and what benefits might accrue from such a response.

How do you deal mindfully with the emotions aroused by the shooting? For example: feelings like fear and anxiety (which you may feel if you have a school-aged child); or outrage (if you think politicians should offer better policy responses than they’re offering); or despair (if you believe politicians will never change, or you just feel that things are spinning out of control).

A meditation teacher, if asked this question, might say something like: you should experience these feelings mindfully, and this may give you a kind of critical distance from them, so they don’t dominate and distort your thinking.

And a meditation teacher trained in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) might add some facts to facilitate this perspective.

For example: There are more than 50 million public school students in America. So, to judge by the school shooting statistics of the past two years, the chances of a child of yours dying in a school shooting this year are less than one in a million.

And when you read about the “18 school shootings” that have occurred in 2018, remember that this statistic rests on a broad definition of a school shooting: the discharging of a firearm on school grounds. In about half of these “shootings,” no one was shot. Some of the others were either suicides or led to injuries but not deaths. If you define a mass shooting as a shooting that kills at least four people-as this Washington Post tally does-there have been two mass shootings at schools over the past three years (plus one at a college).

Wright’s explanation of what he means by mindful resistance is also worth reading.

When people hear “mindful,” they may think “Buddhism” or “meditation.” Which makes sense: “mindfulness” is the standard English translation of the ancient term sati, which refers to a kind of Buddhist meditation and to the frame of mind this meditation cultivates.

Still, the British scholar who settled on that translation more than a century ago-Thomas William Rhys Davids-was drawing on the simple, non-exotic meaning that the word “mindful” already had in English. And that meaning points to a frame of mind that even non-meditators can cultivate. Namely, a clear, alert, acutely aware mind. Rhys Davids said the Buddhist ideal of “right mindfulness” refers to “an active, watchful mind.”

So what does all this have to do with Donald Trump-and with fighting the dark forces he represents? For starters, an alert, attentive, watchful mind is, obviously, a good thing to go to battle with. But there’s more to it than that. If you delve into the mechanics of mindfulness meditation, you’ll see that the kind of alertness and attention it is meant to foster is a kind that’s unclouded by the sort of feelings that can lead to tactical blunders-such feelings as rage and hatred, and also subtler feelings that can distort our perceptions and color our thoughts.

One reason I started mindfulresistance.net is that I think the resistance to Trumpism is sometimes impaired by such feelings. To take one example: I think we sometimes react to Trump’s provocations with a level of outrage that, even if justified (as it often is), is tactically unwise because it winds up helping him. I’m not saying you have to meditate to avoid these overreactions (though I think meditation helps, and I do it myself). And I’m not saying I always avoid such overreactions myself. I just think it’s good for opponents of Trumpism — meditators and non-meditators alike — to be aware of this pitfall, and aware of how their feelings can lead them into it.

Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Coffee Lids

Coffee Lids

You’d think it’d be simple enough: make a disposable lid for a takeout coffee cup. You should be able to drink the coffee without removing the lid and the lid should stay on if the cup tips over (most of the time). But this simple design challenge has been solved in many different ways, as evidenced in Louise Harpman’s and Scott Specht’s forthcoming book, Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture.

The book is a partial catalogue of the authors’ extensive collection of coffee lids. Photos of the lids are organized into groups based on what you do with the lid to get at that sweet sweet beverage: peel, pinch, pucker, or puncture. They explained the four types of lid in an article for Cabinet magazine in 2005.

Certain lids, such as the Solo Traveler (1986) designed by Jack Clements, require the drinker only to place his or her mouth over the protruded polystyrene proboscis. The pucker-type lid requires its user to drink through the lid, not from the cup, as is the case in the peel-type lids. The Solo Traveler is the lid that Phil Patton championed in his 1996 article in I.D. magazine and also the lid that art and design curator Paola Antonelli selected for inclusion in last year’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Humble Masterpieces.” This type of lid offers a certain degree of “mouth comfort” and also has added “loft” space within the structure of the lid to accommodate beverages with frothy tops.

What a phrase: “protruded polystyrene proboscis”. Harpman also gives a short tour of the collection in this video:

The Winter Olympics, male & female physiology, and socially constructed bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

This is a fascinating thread by Milena Popova about the differing performances of male and female athletes at the Winter Olympics. As they point out, humans are sexually dimorphic but the story doesn’t end there. Bodies are also socially constructed.

Physiology is a thing, but physiology is shaped and mediated by our social context.

Look back at those pictures of “women”. Those petite, delicate bodies, those faces we process as “beautiful”. Those are the qualities that globally dominant Western cultures associate with “femininity”.

And sport is one of the institutions that fiercely guards and reproduces dominant ideas about gender, masculinity and femininity. This plays out differently in different sports.

Generally, men and women compete separately. And for the purposes of sport “men” and “women” are defined as people whose bodies were assigned male or female at birth and whose gender matches that assignment.

The obvious example here is South African runner Caster Semenya. But Popova continues with a more subtle (and admittedly speculative) situation:

Now, what really gets me is snowboarding. Because on the face of it that’s not a sport that’s judged on the same gendered criteria of artistry and aesthetics as figure skating or gymnastics.

You’d think under all the skiing gear, helmets, scarves and goggles, it would be quite hard to perform femininity.

And still, as my friend whom I made watch slope style and half pipe for the first time in her life last night pointed out, the body types of the men and women riders are really rather different. You can tell even under all the gear.

And that translates to performance. Women get an amplitude of about 3m above the half pipe, men about 4-5m. The best women do 1080s (three revolutions), the best men 1440s (four revolutions).

But much like any other subculture snowboarding reproduces hierarchical structures. Moves are named after people, some people find it easier to access than others (hint: it’s a massively expensive sport), some people set trends.

One of the structures it reproduces is a gendered hierarchy. It’s a very masculine culture. Women find it harder to access the sport, find it harder to be taken seriously as athletes in their own right rather than “just hangers-on”.

And I have the sneaky suspicion that because the people with the most subcultural capital tend to be men and they decide whom they will admit and accept to the community, there are certain looks and body types of women who find it less hard (not easy!) to gain access.

And those happen to be the body types that may find it harder to do 1440s and to get 5m amplitude above the half pipe.

Another example from figure skating is Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater who landed a backflip on one skate in a performance at the 1998 Olympics. While backflips weren’t banned because of Bonaly’s relative ease in performing them (as claimed here), her athletic style was outside the norm in women’s figure skating, in which traditional femininity is baked right into the rules & judging. This was also a factor in Tonya Harding’s career (as depicted in I, Tonya).

Anyway, super interesting to think about.

The Spielberg Light

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

Jorge Luengo Ruiz put together a supercut of scenes from Steven Spielberg movies where the director uses lighting to create high-contrast scenes.

Typically, Spielberg uses brightly lit backgrounds with silhouetted figures in the foreground…think Elliot riding his bike in front of a full moon in ET or Indiana Jones in any number of scenes.

Spielberg Light

Spielberg Light

Spielberg himself called it “God Lights”.

I’ve always loved what I call “God Lights,” shafts coming out of the sky, or out of a spaceship, or coming through a doorway.

Pairs well with The Spielberg Face.

My recent media diet, special Black Panther & Olympics edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I have fallen off the book reading wagon…I really really need to find some time to start reading more. Maybe after the Olympics are done and I’ve made it through all of the levels in Alto’s Odyssey

2018 Winter Olympic Games. Yes, the Olympics are corrupt & corporate and NBC’s coverage is often lacking, but on the other hand, all of America gets a two-week look at all of these amazing women, immigrants, children of immigrants, and openly gay athletes (some of them just children) displaying many different kinds of femininity and masculinity while performing amazing feats and suffering humbling defeats. The Olympics, as the joke goes, is the future that liberals want and America is watching and loving it. (A-)

Black Panther. Really entertaining and affecting after an expositional slow start. (B+)

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Leonardo da Vinci is not overrated. (B+)

Alto’s Odyssey. A worthy successor to one of my favorite games. (A-)

Reply All: The Bitcoin Hunter. Is admitting that you bought illegal drugs on Silk Road a thing you can do without the risk of being prosecuted? (B+)

Black Panther The Album. I can’t wait to drive around playing this as loud as I can. Also, based on my experience, movies should put more effort into their soundtracks. The really good ones (like this one) inspire repeat viewings and cause me to remember the movie more fondly. (A-)

Paddington. If more people in the UK over 65 had watched Paddington, Brexit wouldn’t have happened. (A-)

Paddington 2. Seriously, these Paddington movies are better than they have any right to be. Smart and lots of heart. (B+)

See You in the Cosmos. Read this to the kids as a bedtime story over the past few months. We all loved it. Rocketry, Carl Sagan, the Voyager Golden Record…what’s not to like? (A-)

Allied. Bland and forgettable. (C-)

On Being: interview with Isabel Wilkerson. An excellent interview of the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. (A-)

Phantom Thread soundtrack. More strong work by Jonny Greenwood. But don’t listen if you want something upbeat. (B+)

Song Exploder. A podcast where musicians break down their well-known songs. Always solid. I recently caught the episodes about the Stranger Things theme song and DJ Shadow. Oh, and I’m going to give the Arrival score a listen soon. (A-)

Apollo 13. One of my I’ll-watch-this-whenever-it’s-on movies. Love the scientific and engineering detective scenes. (B+)

Alias Grace. Several people asserted this was a better Margaret Atwood adaptation than The Handmaid’s Tale, but I didn’t think so. (B)

I, Tonya. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. (A-)

Goodthreads T-shirt. Goodthreads is one of Amazon’s house brands. Ordered a couple of these after a recommendation from Clayton Cubbitt and damn if they’re not some of the most comfortable and best-fitting t-shirts I’ve ever worn. And only $12! My new go-to. (A-)

Sleep. One of the best things I’ve done for my work and my sanity is going to bed at about the same time every night and getting at least 6.5 hours (and often 7-8 hours) of sleep every night. (A+)

This American Life: Chip in My Brain. Holy parenting nightmare. (B+)

Professor Marston & The Wonder Women. The surprising role of BDSM in the development of Wonder Woman. (B+)

Atomic Blonde. John Wick-like. I wanted to like this more but the plot was a little muddled. (B)

SpaceX launch of Falcon Heavy. That choreographed double booster landing… (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Warren Buffett won his ten-year bet about index funds outperforming hedge funds

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

Ten years ago, investor Warren Buffett made a bet with Ted Seides of the investment firm Protégé Partners about the relative performance of index funds and hedge funds. The bet stated:

Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.

Buffett has long been critical of money managers, recommending that most people put their money into low-fee index funds instead.

Over the years, I’ve often been asked for investment advice, and in the process of answering I’ve learned a good deal about human behavior. My regular recommendation has been a low-cost S&P 500 index fund. To their credit, my friends who possess only modest means have usually followed my suggestion.

I believe, however, that none of the mega-rich individuals, institutions or pension funds has followed that same advice when I’ve given it to them. Instead, these investors politely thank me for my thoughts and depart to listen to the siren song of a high-fee manager or, in the case of many institutions, to seek out another breed of hyper-helper called a consultant.

In defense of the bet, Seides wrote:

Having the flexibility to invest both long and short, hedge funds do not set out to beat the market. Rather, they seek to generate positive returns over time regardless of the market environment. They think very differently than do traditional “relative-return” investors, whose primary goal is to beat the market, even when that only means losing less than the market when it falls. For hedge funds, success can mean outperforming the market in lean times, while underperforming in the best of times. Through a cycle, nevertheless, top hedge fund managers have surpassed market returns net of all fees, while assuming less risk as well. We believe such results will continue.

So Buffett invested in a Vanguard index fund and Seides picked five hedge funds of funds. On December 31, 2017, the outcome was clear: the S&P 500 had trounced the hedge funds and Buffett won his bet.

A obsessive search for the Golden State Killer

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

At the time of her death, Michelle McNamara was in the middle of several years of research for a book on the Golden State Killer.1 After she died, her widower Patton Oswalt enlisted an investigative journalist and a researcher to comb through her notes and finish the book. The result, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is not only a book about the killer but about McNamara’s descent into obsession. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote:

What readers need to know — what makes this book so special — is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book.

A NY Times piece about the book describes how consumed she was by the case:

The research consumed her, and began to weigh on her. She suffered from insomnia and anxiety. Once, she panicked because she woke up to a scraping sound: A neighbor was dragging his trash can to the curb in the middle of the night, Mr. Oswalt said. Another time, when Mr. Oswalt tiptoed into their bedroom, trying not to wake her, she mistook him for an intruder and jumped out of bed and swung a lamp at his head. She felt an obligation to solve the case, and was devastated each time she developed a promising theory or zeroed in on a suspect but failed to find sufficient evidence.

“She had overloaded her mind with information with very dark implications,” Mr. Oswalt said.

  1. If you ask me, the guy in the middle here looks a lot like a certain YouTube star who’s been in hot water lately…

Mister Rogers is getting a US postage stamp!

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2018

The US Postal Service is honoring Fred Rogers with a stamp to be released next month.

Mr Rogers Stamp

Joanne Rogers, Mr. Rogers’s wife, said in an interview that her husband would have approved of his appearance on a postage stamp because of the personal outreach that a handwritten letter involves in an increasingly virtual world.

“I think he might have agreed with me that it is amazing,” she said. “I think that people must need him. Just look at what goes on in the world. He always wanted to provide a haven and a comfortable lap for children, and I think that is what so many of us need right now.”

The USPS will dedicate the stamp on March 23 at a ceremony in Pittsburgh at the WQED studio where his show was filmed. The event is free and open to the public. (thx, brad

Noticing the world’s wonders amidst its horrors

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2018

The latest issue of Noticing (kottke.org’s weekly newsletter) went out today. This issue includes a link to my interview with Laura Hazard Owen at NiemanLab about kottke.org turning 20 years old next month, the state of blogging, and the melancholy of the conversation around the decline of the open web.

I think that it’s been really hard, the last couple of years, to cover anything — I don’t know how to say this in a way that isn’t going to get all weirdly interpreted — it’s been hard to cover anything but things that are serious. Because, you know, a lot of people - I think very rightly - feel that if you’re someone who thinks the world is coming down around all of us, that you should be on a mission to try to fix that. And I think that there are plenty of sites and plenty of media outlets and plenty of people who are oriented in that direction and moving in that direction.

But I don’t think kottke.org is one of those things. I think that the site is much more about things that are a little bit more — I don’t want to say hopeful, but a lot of it is, like, look at this cool thing. Look at what humans can do when they have enough time and energy and whatnot to do them! When you called, I was had just been watching the SpaceX thing. Seeing those two booster rockets land at the same time blew my mind. I was just sitting here, yelling, like, oh my god!

There has to be room in our culture for that type of stuff — that stuff that is inspirational and aspirational — because it provides some sort of hope that we can actually have more of that in our lives, rather than less.

To which Tim added (italics mine):

I freely admit that this is something Jason does as a blogger way better than I do (along with writing fewer words more often). I think I look at the world and mostly think less “oh my god!” and more “how in the hell does that work?” But I think the two of them have to be complimentary. Learning begins in wonder (the Greeks would call it thauma) as much or more than in criticism (skepsis).

That last line sums up my approach here (and honestly, to life) as well as you can in one sentence. Noticing could very well have been called Wonder instead.

You can read the rest of this week’s newsletter here or subscribe here.

Franz Kafka: Great writer, bad boyfriend

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 16, 2018

Kafka Was A Terrible Boyfriend” is a sentence that is simultaneously unsurprising and revelatory. But it gives us a chance to dive into Kafka’s letters, which are, along with the stories, unfinished novels, and the conversation slips he passed back and forth at the end of his life when he could no longer speak, among his most treasured works.

This fact maybe illustrates why so many writers are bad boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives (but let’s face it, mostly bad boyfriends and husbands) — especially from the point of view of their writing to their significant others. Kafka in particular seemed incapable of thinking about his writing, on any topic, as anything but writing, in a literary sense. So his putative love letters are filled with sudden ironies and reversals, meditations on ambiguity, contingency, and the self. The dude couldn’t get out of his own head, or out of his own way.

Would it help if we write to each other only once a week? No, if my suffering could be cured by such means it would not be serious. And already I foresee that I shan’t be able to endure even the Sunday letters. And so, to compensate for Saturday’s lost opportunity, I ask you with what energy remains to me at the end of this letter: If we value our lives, let us abandon it all.

Did I think of signing myself Dein [Yours]? No, nothing could be more false. No, I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.

Franz

Needless to say, I identify with him completely.

The web is a library; the web is a shopping mall

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 16, 2018

Harper_memorial_reading_room-1024.jpg

Frank Chimero has a long, insightful essay about how commercial imperatives have creeped in on the public commonwealth of the web, creating a bunch of pseudo-public spaces whose experience continually degrades (think a negative stereotype of NYC’s Penn Station) as opposed to free and open public spaces (think a positive stereotype of NYC’s main public library).

Remember: the web is a marketplace and a commonwealth, so we have both commerce and culture; it’s just that the non-commercial bits of the web get more difficult to see in comparison to the outsized presence of the commercial web and all that caters to it. It’s a visibility problem that’s an inadvertent consequence of values. The commercial parts become more self-contained and link inside themselves to keep you around—after a while, you’re looping around their cul-de-sac because attention is money on the web. Non-commercial sites link out and will let you go, which immediately puts them at a disadvantage for mindshare.

Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon aren’t going anywhere at this point—nor should we expect them to—so it’s best to recalibrate the digital experience by increasing the footprint and mindshare of the kinds of cultural and communal value they can’t provide. The web isn’t like Manhattan real estate—if we want something, we can make space for it.

“If technology is increasingly a place where we live, it needs to have space for the soul,” Frank writes. For him, that means carving off pieces of it that don’t serve that goal: foregoing television, or Facebook, or anything where the net balance falls on the soul-draining more than the soul-nourishing.

I’m less sure; partly, I’ve never been able to be quite so deliberate about my physical or my media diet. I also have fewer options to step away: my day job is writing about advertising technology, after all, which mostly means plunging into the weird. But I am 100 percent about the idea that the web is a place of infinite space, where we can create new kinds of public spaces wherever we choose. It’s not that easy, of course. Nothing great ever is. But if we’re going to dream, let’s dream about that.

A short, melancholy review of Black Panther

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 16, 2018

Black_Panther_Fire.jpg

I’m certainly aware that one of the themes (perhaps the theme) of Black Panther is the gap between the world as it is and the world as it could be. I’m also aware that one of the main characters, when he finally sees the unimaginable beauty of Wakanda, finds it too bittersweet to bear. It’s a movie about hard choices and impossible expectations. Which makes it a movie about making movies, like all the other movies.

The closest analogy I can think of for Black Panther is The Lord of the Rings. (These are the two movies, in my lifetime, I have waited the longest to see, and held the highest expectations for.) Black Panther may be the closest Marvel has come, even counting the Thor movies, to merging high fantasy and superhero fiction. This pops up in deep and superficial ways: the characters fight with swords and spears more often than guns and blasters, and the plot is laden with intrigue of kings and clans, bloodlines, blood debts, and blood enemies, and magical (sometimes techno-magical) weapons that are too dangerous to be used lightly. I’ve heard other people call these parts of the movie Shakespearean, and I could see some parallels, but it feels more like fantasy.

Like the Lord of the Rings movies, Black Panther is a beautiful, improbably piece of filmmaking. Like them, the overlapping action plots sometimes get muddled, with one thread having to be sacrificed for another. And like them, when the movie has time to breathe, it is a quieter, emotional film, about characters who are able to convey or suggest deep connections with limited screen time.

It’s that movie, that other Black Panther, I want to stay in. The moments between friends, lovers, rivals, parents and their children quickly get bowled over by a very capable action fantasy superhero movie. And to make a version of Lord of the Rings that is antiracist and antiimperialist from start to finish, while preserving all the dramatic possibilities and ambiguities of what it means to be a king to a people, is no small thing.

But the genius of Creed — and as of today, after only one screening of Black Panther versus dozens of Creed, I’m going to provisionally maintain that Creed is the better Ryan Coogler film — was its ability to balance its obligations to the Rocky franchise with its subtle but penetrating portrayal of human relationships. Creed comes the closest I have seen, the closest I recognize, to what it means to love someone: a partner, a mother, a child, a father figure, a lost legacy. Black Panther only occasionally allows room for the same emotional range, and they’re the best moments of the film.

Creed’s Philadelphia shows the world as it is; Black Panther’s Wakanda staggers against the task of showing the world as it ought to be.

This brings me to the last way in which Black Panther is like The Lord of the Rings: its first cut, by several accounts was over four hours long. I am perfectly happy with the movie I saw. But I suspect that somewhere in those four hours, is the movie that I most especially wanted to see.

A list of Isaac Newton’s sins

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2018

In 1662 when he was 19 years old, Isaac Newton sat down to a fresh notebook and wrote out a list of the sins he’d committed “before and after Whitsunday of that year”. They included:

Eating an apple at Thy house
Making a mousetrap on Thy day
Making pies on Sunday night
Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
Wishing death and hoping it to some
Striking many
Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese.
Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee
Punching my sister
Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar
Calling Dorothy Rose a jade
Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne.
Denying my chamberfellow of the knowledge of him that took him for a sot.

Maps of UK national parks drawn in the style of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2018

Tolkien Maps

Tolkien Maps

Tolkien Maps

Artist Dan Bell has drawn maps of the UK’s national parks in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Bell has also drawn maps of Westeros (from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series) and places like London and Oxford. Both prints and the original hand-drawn maps are available for purchase from Bell’s online shop.