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On the nature of wormholes

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2018

Are wormholes science or just science fiction? As this video by Kurzgesagt shows, they’re actually a little bit of both. Einstein and string theory both posit that these “short cuts” through spacetime could exist, but finding or building a stable wormhole, a la Star Trek, is another matter altogether.

In the description of the video, they link to a pair of papers published by Michael Morris and Kip Thorne in the late 80s: Wormholes, Time Machines, and the Weak Energy Condition and Wormholes in spacetime and their use for interstellar travel: A tool for teaching general relativity. For a high school physics class, I gave a presentation on wormholes & time travel and I’m pretty sure I used at least one of those papers as a reference. The presentation also included a clip of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The teacher gave me a B+ — he felt the presentation was excellent (*guitar riff*) but that I had, in spite of the movie clip, “lost most of the other students” and should have chosen a more suitable topic.

There’s Waldo, an AI trained to find Waldo

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2018

Add finding Waldo to the long list of things that machines can do better than humans. Creative agency Redpepper built a program that uses Google’s drag-and-drop machine learning service to find the eponymous character in the Where’s Waldo? series of books. After the AI finds a promising Waldo candidate, a robotic arm points to it on the page.

While only a prototype, the fastest There’s Waldo has pointed out a match has been 4.45 seconds which is better than most 5 year olds.

I know Skynet references are a little passé these days, but the plot of Terminator 2 is basically an intelligent machine playing Where’s Waldo I Want to Kill Him. We’re getting there!

The return of The Fantastic Four

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

FF1 - Origin.png

All superhero origin stories are preposterous. For that reason, as much as in spite of it, they are repeated again and again, to make them myths, something truer than mere credibility can allow.

The Fantastic Four’s origin story has been repeated more times than maybe any superhero’s but Batman’s. And it remains totally preposterous. The smartest man in the universe takes his best friend, girlfriend, and girlfriend’s teenage brother in a rocket he’s built, but forgot to shield against cosmic rays? And the rays give each of them different kinds of monster powers? It’s beautifully absurd.

But the 1961 Fantastic Four #1 remains one of the most important comics ever, primarily for injecting (get this) realism into superhero comics. Not because the characters looked like real people, but because they acted like real people transformed into monsters might act. They bickered, they got depressed, they ran into money problems; they tried to figure out their place in the world, which increasingly included things more preposterous than them. And that formula — a real family, in a real New York City, peeled open to reveal all the cosmic wonder underneath and just out of reach, changed storytelling forever.

This is all to say, there’s a brand-new Fantastic Four #1. (It’s at least the sixth “number one” issue released under that title.) The FF have been on hiatus in the comics for a few years; I wrote about why in this essay in The Verge from around that time. Now, since Disney/Marvel will soon own the Fantastic Four’s film rights again, we can probably expect yet another reboot in the movies as well. (Maybe even in the teaser after the end of the second half of Infinity War? I’m just spitballing.)

Like a lot of fans, I’m wary but excited. When the FF is really good — the 102-issue long original run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the early reboot by writer/artist John Byrne, the expansionist canvas of writer Jonathan Hickman — it really is the world’s greatest comic magazine. It makes comics bigger than any movie, big in the way only a two-dimensional artform can be. When the FF is not so good, it feels like all of its nostalgic Cold War-era ideas have passed by their sell date, a shabby stew of worn-out plots and bad guys too hammy for cartoons.

In comics and the movies, it’s all execution-dependent. Still, bringing back the Fantastic Four gives both the Marvel Comics Universe (which, some exceptions aside, has not been at its best for a while) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is rapidly running out of characters and stories to turn to) someplace new to go. It’s just a bit of historical irony that the future turns out to be where it all got started in the first place.

The mysteries of the supply chain

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

I’m a sucker for good attempts to think about the supply chain and global logistics networks — or rather, thinking through the impossibility of thinking about these networks, because of the systemic sublime. In “See No Evil,” Miriam Posner has a doozy of an essay that does just that. In particular, she picks up and runs with modularity: the feature that makes individual commodities, shipping containers, software components, and suppliers interchangeable and to no small extent invisible to each other.

How do you manage the complexity of a system that procures goods from a huge variety of locations? You make it modular: when you black-box each component, you don’t need to know anything about it except that it meets your specifications. Information about provenance, labor conditions, and environmental impact is unwieldy when the goal of your system is simply to procure and assemble goods quickly. “You could imagine a different way of doing things, so that you do know all of that,” said Russell, “so that your gaze is more immersive and continuous. But what that does is inhibit scale.” And scale, of course, is key to a globalized economy.

On the one hand, this all seems very logical and straightforward: to manage complexity, we’ve learned to break objects and processes into interchangeable parts. But the consequences of this decision are wide-ranging and profound.

It helps explain, for one thing, why it’s so hard to “see” down the branches of a supply network. It also helps explain why transnational labor organizing has been so difficult: to fit market demands, workshops have learned to make themselves interchangeable. It sometimes seems as though there’s a psychological way in which we’ve absorbed the lessons of modularity—although the world is more connected than ever, we seem to have trouble imagining and articulating how we’re linked to the other denizens of global manufacturing networks.

Modularity, one of Posner’s sources says, has become a “characteristic of modernity.” And because each box is invisible to the next, even technologies like RFID tags, blockchain ledgers, and machine learning just become new black boxes, or “one more technology to counterfeit,” as another source puts it. There’s no putting Humpty Dumpty together again.

Music and depression

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Consuming media when you’re depressed is a delicate business. Too much emotion, too much novelty, too much engagement can be overwhelming. You want familiarity, but you don’t want to spiral into rumination on your own past. You want reassurance, you want escape, you want meaning and meaninglessness. You want something that can square the circle of proximity and distance when your own thoughts feel all too unfamiliar, yet too close.

For me, it’s doo-wop, and/or old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But writer Blair Thornburgh loves sea shanties, and she makes a compelling case for why they were so moving to her during her own depression.

In the shanties, there are gals: the gals o’ Dublin Town, the gals o’ Chile, New York gals, Spanish ladies, the girl in Portland Street, Maggie May, Lucy Long, Susiana Brown. There is food—salt beef, salt bread, oatcake, codfish—and (of course) there is drink: grog, rum, whiskey, lime juice, beer. There are ports in Quebec, Bonnie Scotland, South Australia, ‘Frisco Bay. There is longing, there is forward motion, there is purpose; a shore behind and a shore before.

But there is also endlessness, the futility of a horizon that spills wave over wave. A life adrift is the only life that can endure, one journey after another the only way to earn your keep. There is certainty without stability, there is solid ground only briefly under your feet. Then poor old Jack must understand / There’s ships in docks all wanting hands; / So he goes on board as he did before, / And bids adieu to his native shore. / For he is outward bound, hurrah, he is outward bound.

The language of depression can be curiously maritime. It comes in waves; it drowns us; it’s the Mariner’s albatross around our necks. We long for smooth sailing, for hope on the horizon, an even keel. And the summer I stopped taking Seroquel, my depression was a riptide. I could see the shimmering okayness of everything around me, all the way to the edge: I was employed, insured, well-fed, loved. And yet it was useless to me: I was either plunged into hopelessness, or dying slowly of thirst.

Family snapshots of ancient Earth

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Earth 240 Million Years Ago.png

This is fun to play with: Dinosaur Pictures has a Google Earth-style globe that shows the state of the planet at various intervals 20 million, 200 million, or 750 million years ago, with plenty of stops in between. You can watch India collide into the rest of Asia, or jump to the birth (and death) of dinosaurs, the first flowers, the first hominids, etc. And you can watch the whole planet or zero in on an individual contemporary address.

One point of view that I found oddly soothing: the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All over the planet, millions of years are passing by, transforming the land-bound flora and fauna through tectonic and climatic upheavals, and the ocean just… stays the ocean. Big things are happening below the surface, but the biggest part of the planet just continues to be this deep blue, undisturbed marble.

This is every TED Talk

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

From CBC’s This Is That, a satirical presentation that is

I’m now going to come back to the center of the stage and give you some unremarkable context about how I became a thought leader. If it’s ok with you, I’d like to pace while telling you this story.

I chuckled throughout this, but deep down I’d love to have the stage presence to give a talk like this. Whenever I’ve done talks in the past, my brain always convinces me that I’m about to be eaten by a lion — “flee flee flee!” — and I end up doing my best impression of the squeaky-voiced teen from The Simpsons.

Update: In 2014, Will Stephen did a talk at TedxNewYork that’s very similar to the one above, perhaps even a bit better.

White men speaking confidently gets you 85% of the way to a compelling talk, irrespective of content. (via @h4emtfr)

Where do common sports idioms like “out of left field” come from?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

Victor Mather wrote about the origin of sports idioms like “wild-goose chase”, “hands down”, and “sticky wicket” for the NY Times. Some of these I didn’t even know were sports terms. “Back to square one” is an interesting entry:

As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.

First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.

The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.

That soccer explanation is more compelling, even if untrue. It’s fun to hear how practitioners of early media tried to represent sports to people who couldn’t view the game. For a time, baseball games were broadcast to viewers using various machines and even actors who “played” the game as reports came in via telegraph.

“A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report,” read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn’t enough to entice you, the paper also noted that “A great many ladies were present.”) Although this live-action reenactment attempted at the opera house in Atlanta may have been the closest approximation of a real baseball game, it does not seem to have ever spread beyond Georgia.

Recently digitized and declassified videos of nuclear tests

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

For the past six years, physicist Greg Spriggs and a team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have been tracking down films of nuclear tests conducted by the United States in order to digitize and declassify them.

“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” Spriggs said. “We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless. The data that we’re collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose. They’re made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data.”

You can find over 400 of the films they’ve restored so far on LLNL’s YouTube account.

From Errol Morris, a list of 10 things you should know about truth & photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

In 2011, writer and filmmaker Errol Morris summarized the main points in Believing Is Seeing, his book on the nature of truth, belief, and reality in photography with a series of tweets.

1. All photographs are posed.

2. The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)

3. Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)

4. False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.

5. There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)

6. Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.

7. Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they believe about a photograph.

8. The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.

9. All photographs are posed but never in the same way.

10. Photographs provide evidence. (The question is of what?)

Morris expanded on the third item in his list in a 2007 NY Times piece.

In discussing truth and photography, we are asking whether a caption or a belief — whether a statement about a photograph — is true or false about (the things depicted in) the photograph. A caption is like a statement. It trumpets the claim, “This is the Lusitania.” And when we wonder “Is this a photograph of the Lusitania?” we are wondering whether the claim is true or false. The issue of the truth or falsity of a photograph is only meaningful with respect to statements about the photograph. Truth or falsity “adheres” not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph. Depending on the statements, our answers change. All alone — shorn of context, without captions — a photograph is neither true nor false.

(via austin kleon)

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

The winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards

Culled from thousands of entrants from more than 140 countries around the world, here are the winners of the 2018 iPhone Photography Awards. What’s really interesting is that many of the winners were not shot on iPhone 8 or iPhone X but with iPhone 7s and 6s and even 5s. That’s a good reminder of Clayton Cubitt’s three step guide to photography: “01: be interesting. 02: find interesting people. 03: find interesting places. Nothing about cameras.”

That said, the increase in photo quality from the first contest in 2008, just a year after the iPhone launched, is welcome. The initial iPhone had just a 2 megapixel camera with a mediocre lens while the iPhone X packs a 12 megapixel resolution and an incredible lens.

Photos above by Huapeng Zhao and Alexandre Weber.

Today’s moment of zen: 30 hummingbirds splashing around in a birdbath

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

I’m not saying that your day will be 100% better if you watch this short video of 30 normally super-aggro hummingbirds splashing around together in a birdbath, but I’m not not saying that either. At any rate, this video is quite charming. (via colossal)

Behind-the-scenes footage shows how the Mission Impossible: Fallout stunts were done

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2018

Tom Cruise is not scared of heights. And he can fly helicopters? (Not only can he fly them, he does it well enough to perform stunts.) In this rough 30-minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of Mission Impossible: Fallout, you get to see how many of the movie’s best stunts are done. Note: you’ll need to skip around a bit…there’s a lot of less exciting bits in there too. But don’t miss the car/bike stuff at the beginning, Cruise flying/hanging from the chopper, and, holy shit, the skydive choreography at the end, where the actors and camera folks dance intricately in a military cargo plane with the back hatch open before just jumping out of it, Cruise acting all the way.

You can tell when watching the film that you’re seeing practical effects. Visual effects are getting really really good, but movies like this with real people driving real vehicles…they just feel different. Visual effects sometimes break the fourth wall (and not in a good way); if it looks fake, your brain says “that’s fake”, and then you’re just a little less invested in what’s going on in the story.

“Rodney Mullen on Bath Salts”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

I don’t know what is going on in this video — boards coming apart and then back together again, trucks on hinges, ice “skating”, and other inventive nonsense on a skateboard — but it seems like a lot of it defies reality in a Newtonian sense. Sir Isaac’s all like, feck thee, thou’st foote wagon is not poss’ble. (Yeah, I don’t know either. Matt Tomasello is good at skateboarding and seems to have fun doing it. Watch the video.) (via @bmovement)

The book of wood

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

Wood Book

Wood Book

Between 1888 and 1913, Romeyn Beck Hough worked on a multi-volume book called The American Woods that contained 1000+ paper-thin wood slices from more than 350 different varieties of North American trees.

Each specimen page of the work is dedicated to a single tree and consists of a cardboard plate into which three translucent slices have been placed, three variations of cross-section — transverse, radial, and tangential. The wafer-thin slivers — which would glow like a slide when held up to the light — were prepared using a slicing machine of Hough’s own design and which he patented in 1886. In addition to the specimens Hough also provides information about the characteristics, growth habits, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities of the tree. With some of the trees in the book now very rare the series now has an added value and, as Rebecca Onion from Slate’s The Vault comments, “stands as a memorial to the shape and extent of American forests at the end of the 19th century”.

What a fantastically odd book. You can view the whole thing at Internet Archive.