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How 90s WWII nostalgia turned the US response to 9/11 into The Good War

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2018

The Good War is a comic (graphic novella?) by Mike Dawson and Chris Hayes that argues that 90s nostalgia for World War II — Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation — led the US to wrongly associate 9/11 with Pearl Harbor and the “War on Terror” with WWII, leading to all kinds of disastrous consequences.

Good War Comic

The comic is based on The Good War on Terror, a piece Hayes wrote in 2006.

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” He wasn’t alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.

Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert—first in rhetoric, later in fact—a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.

As Hayes hints at in the essay, the Vietnam War might have been a better model for how Americas should have reacted to 9/11. (via daring fireball)

The art and science of carnival games and how to win them

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2017

Mark Rober and some friends staked out the carnival games at a local fair for the day in order to find the scams and the ones you can win…if you know how. Armed with info from their observations, Rober hit the fair with a Mets player who could dominate all the throwing games and cleaned them out.

I spent some time at a county fair this past summer and, if you’re with little kids, the carnies will sometimes show you how to win the games that are winnable (like the basket toss). But even after he was shown, my son still couldn’t get that damned wiffle ball in the basket on the two-out-of-three times needed to win a prize.

What if Chewbacca sounded like Pee-wee Herman?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2018

This is probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever posted and I love it.

The official painted portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

Obama Portraits

Obama Portraits

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery commissions paintings of each outgoing President and First Lady. The Obamas selected a pair of black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, to paint their portraits, which were unveiled today. From Colossal:

Wiley’s depiction of President Obama features the artist’s signature style of richly-hued background patterns setting a vibrant symbolic environment for the portrait’s subject. President Obama is surrounded by a carefully selected variety of foliage: jasmine, which represents Hawaii; African blue lilies for his father’s Kenyan heritage; and Chicago’s official flower, the chrysanthemum. For Mrs. Obama’s portrait, Sherald engaged her distinctive combination of depicting skin tone in grayscale, offset by the sharply rendered full-color fabric of Mrs. Obama’s floor-length dress.

Even a cursory glance at other Presidential portraits shows how different the Obamas’ portraits are.

The White Darkness, A Journey Across Antarctica

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

Henry Wolsey

After a long hiatus during which he wrote The Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann is back in the pages of the New Yorker with The White Darkness, a piece about modern-day polar explorer Henry Worsley, who attempted to cross Antartica in 2015, solo and unaided.

By the middle of January, 2016, he had travelled more than eight hundred miles, and virtually every part of him was in agony. His arms and legs throbbed. His back ached. His feet were blistered and his toenails were discolored. His fingers had started to become numb with frostbite. In his diary, he wrote, “Am worried about my fingers — one tip of little finger already gone and all others very sore.” One of his front teeth had broken off, and the wind whistled through the gap. He had lost some forty pounds, and he became fixated on his favorite foods, listing them for his broadcast listeners: “Fish pie, brown bread, double cream, steaks and chips, more chips, smoked salmon, baked potato, eggs, rice pudding, Dairy Milk chocolate, tomatoes, bananas, apples, anchovies, Shredded Wheat, Weetabix, brown sugar, peanut butter, honey, toast, pasta, pizza and pizza. Ahhhhh!”

He was on the verge of collapse. Yet he was never one to give up, and adhered to the S.A.S.’s unofficial motto, “Always a little further” — a line from James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” The motto was painted on the front of Worsley’s sled, and he murmured it to himself like a mantra: “Always a little further … a little further.”

This was the same trip attempted by Ben Saunders a few months ago. It’s also worth noting the Snow Fall aesthetic of the piece. What is it about winter that inspires this sort of multimedia package? Is it the white space?

The Most Beautiful Flowers

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2017

Beautiful Flowers

Beautiful Flowers

Beautiful Flowers

Photographer Kenji Toma makes these hyperrealistic images of flowers that are so detailed that they almost look fake because every part of each flower is in sharp focus. Johnny of Spoon & Tamago explains:

To create photographs, which both hyper-realistic to the point of looking artificial, Toma utilized a process called focus-bracket shooting. It’s a method of photography often employed to shoot close-up, macro photos in which the final photograph is a composite of several images of the subject with each element in full focus. “Hyper-realism allows him to capture the specimen’s idealized beauty, creating a work that is deeply modern, yet in harmony with a rich Japanese history and tradition.”

Toma’s images are available in a book called The Most Beautiful Flowers.

A short film about a one-of-a-kind collection of letterpress plates for printing film advertisements

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2018

In 1999, two friends went into a Nebraska antique shop and found a massive collection of letterpress blocks and plates that were used to make advertisements for movies in newspapers. They bought the whole shebang for $2000 and have spent the last 17 years cataloging and cleaning the 60,000 plates & blocks (here is just a partial inventory). The collection, which spans nearly the entire history of the film industry from the silent era to 1984, was recently appraised at ~$10 million and is available for acquisition.

The short film embedded above is a must-see for design/movie nerds…my jaw hit the floor when these pristine posters for movies that were 50, 60, 70 years old started rolling off of the letterpress. I mean, look at this stuff!

Movie Letterpress

Movie Letterpress

Movie Letterpress

Note: I flipped the images of the plates so they would be readable. The actual plates are mirror images of the printed advertisements. Here’s what a print made from a plate looks like:

Movie Letterpress

The best of my media diet for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2018

EOY Media 2017

In 2017, I kept track of almost everything I read, listened to, watched, and experienced. I don’t know about “the best”, but as the year draws to a close, these are the things that I thought about the most, that made me see things in a slightly different way, or taught me a little something about myself. I marked my very favorites with a (*). (Above, my #bestnine images of 2017 from Instagram.)

Books. I don’t know how many books I read this year, but it was fewer than I wanted. My work demands a lot of reading online, so when I’ve finished with that most days, reading for leisure or enrichment is often not enticing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann were perhaps the best books I read…you’ll hardly find anyone who speaks ill of either one.

Wonderland by Steven Johnson pulls together technology, culture, and science in a way that I aspire to.

I enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem when I read it early on in 2017 but it grew in my esteem as the year went on. Crazy, but I might reread soon?

The Devil in the White City. A masterful dual tale of two men who seized the opportunity due to cultural and technological changes in late 1800s America, told through the events of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

I reread Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote…no recent book has helped me more in figuring out a path forward in life.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 2 blew my doors off. I have never felt so uncannily like a writer has been rummaging around in my brain. *

Television. What even is television anymore? To paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And I saw a lot of it this year. And much of it was excellent.

The Crown (season two). I kept expecting this to falter as it went on, but it never did. A keen portrait of changing times and a dying empire.

Mad Men. Rewatched it all the way through for the first time since it aired. One of the all-time great TV shows.

Halt and Catch Fire (season four). Very strong finish to a great series. I kind of want a season five in about 5 or 6 years that’s set in 2002. Still can’t believe I got to be on the show for like 2 seconds.

The Vietnam War. I feel like this didn’t get the attention it deserved. Along with OJ: Made in America, one of the best documentaries of recent years in terms of understanding the United States culturally and politically.

Wormwood. What the hell is even a documentary anyway? Errol Morris is at the top of his game with this one.

The Handmaid’s Tale. My favorite drama series of the year. So hard to watch but also essential and so well done. *

Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Incredible. Aside from the eclipse, these are the best things on this list. *

Honorable mentions: I anticipated Game of Thrones more than anything each week, but I’ve already forgotten most of what happened. There were dragons? Big Little Lies was very solid and enjoyable, but the last episode was some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Zoom out a little, and The Defiant Ones was actually about creativity, collaboration, and management.

Movies: Though I haven’t seen many of the end-of-the-year movies yet, I felt like this was a strong-ish movie year. But only four films stuck with me.

The Handmaiden. I don’t even know how to classify this film, but I wish they’d make more like it.

Maybe Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t great, but I saw it twice and have thought about it often since. Amazing visual experience.

Paths of the Soul. A window into the lives of people very unlike mine. Underscores how much living “the simple life” in wealthy countries is made possible by good infrastructure, social safety nets, and privilege. The simple life in most of the world is neither a choice nor easy.

Dunkirk. Absolutely thrilling. My favorite movie of the year. *

Music. Let’s be honest, Lemonade was probably the album of the year. But I guess some good music came out in 2017 as well. Oh, and I’m old so I still listen to albums.

Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples got the most airplay in my car this summer and fall. Early fave track was Crabs in a Bucket but BagBak came on strong later in the year.

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar. Probably my favorite album of the year…every track hits the mark. *

4:44 by Jay-Z. The contrast between his last album (lazy, full of swagger) and this one (introspective, urgent) could not be more stark. This wasn’t the best or even my favorite album of the year, but I thought about it more than any of the others I listened to this year. Worth noting this album was only possible because of Beyonce’s superior Lemonade…imagine the hypothetical Jay-Z album had she not slammed him to the wall with that.

Experiences, etc. As I said on Instagram, I prioritized experiences over things this year. But because things like books, movies, and TV shows are easier to summarize and review, I kept most of the experiences for myself. You have to hold some things back or you lose your edges.

Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists and I’m grateful I got to spend a few hours witnessing how his career came together and his life fell apart. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to.

D3 Traveller. I travelled quite a bit this year, and it would have been more difficult without this bag. Worth the huge splurge.

Sainte-Chapelle. I am not religious at all, but you can’t help but feel something in this wonderful building.

iPhone X. A remarkable machine.

Rijksmuseum. I keep going back to two works I saw here: Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (I spent a good 15 minutes with this one) and this early self-portrait by Rembrandt (the lighting! the curls!).

The total solar eclipse. By far the best thing that I witnessed this year…or maybe in my life. It still gives me chills just thinking about it. *

Are these photographs of moons or pancakes?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

Pancake Moons

Pancake Moons

Pancake Moons

Nadine Schlieper and Robert Pufleb have published a book called Alternative Moons. The book is filled with photographs of pancakes that look like moons.

See also Christopher Jonassen’s photos of frying pans that look like Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Oh, and don’t forget about the world’s best pancake recipe.

A map of the world after four degrees of warming

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2018

Four Degrees World Map

In this speculative world map published in 2009, New Scientist imagines what the world might look like if (or more likely, when) the Earth warms by 4ºC. Many current coastal areas would be underwater and much of the most heavily populated areas of the Earth would be desert or otherwise uninhabitable while the northern parts of Canada and Russia would become the new bread baskets of the world. But on the plus side, western Antartica would be habitable and possibly “densely populated with high rise cities”. In an article that accompanied the map, Gaia Vince wrote:

Imagine, for the purposes of this thought experiment, that we have 9 billion people to save — 2 billion more than live on the planet today. A wholesale relocation of the world’s population according to the geography of resources means abandoning huge tracts of the globe and moving people to where the water is. Most climate models agree that the far north and south of the planet will see an increase in precipitation. In the northern hemisphere this includes Canada, Siberia, Scandinavia and newly ice-free parts of Greenland; in the southern hemisphere, Patagonia, Tasmania and the far north of Australia, New Zealand and perhaps newly ice-free parts of the western Antarctic coast.

The citizens of the world’s wealthiest and most populous nations will become climate refugees, which means things are going to get really, really ugly for everyone else.

21st Century Landscapes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

21c Landscapes

21c Landscapes

21c Landscapes

The turn of the century doesn’t seem all that long ago, but here we are starting our 18th year of the 21st century already.1 The pace of human activity since the Renaissance is itself increasing. For instance, David Wallace-Wells pointed out:

Whatever you may think about the pace of climate change, it is happening mind-bendingly fast, almost in real time. It is not just that December wildfires were unheard of just three decades ago. We have now emitted more carbon into the atmosphere since Al Gore wrote his first book on climate than in the entire preceding history of humanity, which means that we have engineered most of the climate chaos that now terrifies us in that brief span.

Likewise, the pace at which humans have visibly altered the Earth has been growing as well. Planet Labs has collected a bunch of satellite photos of landscapes that have been transformed by humans in this century.

  1. Numbered decades, centuries, and millennia all start on years ending in “1”. This is because the first century AD starts on Jan 1, 1…there was no year 0. So, the first day of the 21st century is Jan 1, 2001, not Jan 1, 2000 like the article states. This is confusing because the 1800s and the 19th century are almost, but not exactly, the same thing.

Watch the Falcon Heavy launch live at 2:20pm ET today

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2018

SpaceX is scheduled to launch their massive new rocket for the first time today. You can catch a live stream of the launch here:

When Falcon Heavy lifts off, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb) — a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel — Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost. Falcon Heavy draws upon the proven heritage and reliability of Falcon 9.

As part of the launch, the three engine cores will land back on Earth, as they have been doing for years now with their other rockets. You can watch an animation of how they hope the launch will go:

The payload for this rocket test is SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster. No, really. If all goes as planned, the Roadster and its passenger (a dummy wearing a SpaceX suit) will be put into an orbit around the Sun somewhere in the vicinity of Mars, driving around the solar system for a billion years. SpaceX isn’t saying exactly where the Roadster might end up, but engineer Max Fagin has a guess about its eventual orbit:

You can read more about the launch from Phil Plait and on PBS NewsHour.

Update: The new time for the launch is 2:20pm ET. The launch window lasts until 4pm ET.

The soundtrack to Kurzgesagt

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

Even if you only read kottke.org once a fortnight in a drunken stupor, you’re likely aware that I love Kurzgesagt, a YouTube channel that makes animated explainers about everything from robot rights to the failure of the War on Drugs to black holes to The Most Efficient Way to Destroy the Universe.

Epic Mountain is a music and sound design company based in Munich that does all of the music for Kurzgesagt episodes. They’ve put four volumes of their Kurzgesagt music on Spotify, iTunes, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp.

I’ve been listening to these on and off for the past few days and they make lovely background music to work to.

DNA evidence is changing the understanding of how the Americas were settled

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2018

DNA analysis of remains found at archaeological sites is changing the story of how humans populated the Americas. Analysis of a pair of infants found in Alaska suggests that only one wave of humans settled the Americas around 20,900 years ago.

Genetic evidence published today in Nature is the first to show that all Native Americans can trace their ancestry back to a single migration event that happened at the tail-end of the last Ice Age. The evidence — gleaned from the full genomic profile of the six-week-old girl and the partial genomic remains of another infant — suggests the continent’s first settlers arrived in a single migratory wave around 20,900 years ago. But this population then split into two groups — one group that would go on to become the ancestors of all Native North Americans, and another that would venture no further than Alaska — a previously unknown population of ancient North Americans now dubbed the “Ancient Beringians.”

(via clive thompson)

Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for Phantom Thread

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2018

Phantom Thread is director PT Anderson’s latest film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in what he says is his final movie appearance. As was the case with Anderson’s previous films, The Master and There Will Be Blood, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood did the soundtrack, and it was just earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.

It’s available on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

Gorgeous 50-megapixel panoramas shot on an iPhone at 20,000 feet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

Laforet Iphone Pano

Laforet Iphone Pano

Laforet Iphone Pano

Over on his Instagram account, photographer Vincent Laforet is sharing some 50-megapixel panoramic photos he shot for Apple. He strapped an iPhone 7 to the bottom of a Learjet, set it on Pano mode, and flew it over various landscapes at a height of 20,000 feet. Here’s the first one.

For 7 consecutive days I will be posting a series of 50+ Megapixel Panoramic Photographs shot on an @apple iPhone 7, from the belly of a LearJet from 20,000 feet above the earth.

We set the standard Camera App to “Pano” Mode and flew for 2-7 minutes at 220+ Knots on a perfectly straight line and we witnessed the iPhone effectively paint the landscape like a roller brush. It produced a stunningly high quality image that I’d never before seen before from any smartphone!

Laforet also shot a video from some of those same flights using a RED camera in 8K resolution.

Watch this on as big a screen as you can in 4K. Wonderful.

Nintendo introduces Labo, DIY interactive cardboard toys for the Switch

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

Nintendo has introduced a new product category that harkens all the way back to Duck Hunt, Robbie the Robot, and papercraft models the company produced in the 70s. Labo is a suite of cardboard peripherals for the Switch that you construct yourself and then play using the Switch console screen and controllers. Pianos, fishing rods, car accelerator pedals. Just watch the video…this really blew my mind.

Caine’s Arcade anyone? I love that Nintendo is making DIY cardboard toys. Love it. I think I may have to get a Switch now. You can preorder the Labo Robot Kit (a wearable robot suit) and the Labo Variety Kit (cars, bike, house, piano, fishing rod) on Amazon…they come out on April 20.

A visit to an American factory that’s been producing pencils since 1889

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2018

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

What a marvelous little photo essay by Christopher Payne and Sam Anderson about General Pencil, one of the last remaining pencil factories in America.

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

You can see many more of Payne’s photos of General Pencil on his website. Here’s Maria, her shirt and nails red to match the color of the pastel cores. There are also a couple of videos of the General Pencil factory:

And this older one that shows much more of the pencil-making process. Neither video includes a shot of the belt sander sharpening system…you can see that in action here.

See also I, Pencil, which details the construction of the humble pencil as a triumph of the free market, a history of pencil lead and how pencils are made, and how crayons are made, with videos from both Mister Rogers and Sesame Street. Oh, and you can buy some of General Pencil’s #2 Cedar Pointes right here.

Ten new principles for good design

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

In the 1970s, legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams formulated his now-famous ten principles for good design.

5. Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Suzanne LaBarre of Co.Design has come up with an update of Rams’ list for 2018: 10 New Principles Of Good Design.

Good design is slow. For the past 20 years, tech has embraced a “move fast and break things” mantra. That was fine when software had a relatively small impact on the world. But today, it shapes nearly every aspect of our lives, from what we read to whom we date to how we spend money-and it’s largely optimized to benefit corporations, not users. The stakes have changed, the methods haven’t.

Good design is good writing. In his “2017 Design in Tech Report,” author John Maeda anointed writing as design’s newest unicorn skill. It’s easy to see why. With the rise of chatbots and conversational UI, writing is often the primary interface through which users interact with a product or service. (Siri’s dad jokes had to be written by someone.) But even designers who don’t work on interface copy should be able to articulate themselves clearly. The better their writing, the better their chances of selling an idea.

See also the tongue-in-cheek list of design principles updated for the tech industry, e.g. “Good design is pleasing your shareholders”.

Ask Dr. Time: Orality and Literacy from Homer to Twitter

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 05, 2018

DOCTOR TIME.png

Dr. Time is a nickname some friends gave me within the last couple of years. Its origin is silly, as nicknames’ often are: “Tim” autocorrects to “Time,” so hasty typing in a private Slack turns into a pseudo-persona. I also like that it’s a slant rhyme on Doctor Doom, my favorite supervillain. And in case you haven’t noticed, I have a pretty strong interest in time.

When Jason and I started talking about different ways we could collaborate on the site, the wildest was his suggestion that I write an advice column called “Ask Dr. Time.” I laughed out loud. The proposition was absurd. I don’t want to wade into the disaster that is my life, but the idea that anyone would ask me for personal advice, and that I would be foolish enough to give it, was laughable. Let’s just say I’ve made some poor choices and had some sad circumstances, and leave it at that.

One of those poor choices, however, was spending a lot of time studying philosophy, literature, mathematics, history, and metaphysics. Jason eventually got me to see that “Ask Dr. Time” didn’t have to be an advice column in a conventional sense. What if readers had problems that didn’t require common sense or finely honed interpersonal skills, but an ability to make sense of abstruse reasoning? What if they didn’t need a fancy Watson but an armchair Wittgenstein? What if kottke.org hosted the first metaphysical advice columnist? That proposition is still absurd, but it’s absurd in an interesting way. And “absurd in an interesting way” is what Dr. Time is all about. Not practical solutions, but philosophical entanglements and disentanglings. That I could do.

So on Fridays, from time to time. Dr. Time is going to appear, to answer reader questions that admit of no answer — sometimes here on Kottke.org, and sometimes at the Kottke newsletter I write, Noticing. For this particular entry, the blog seemed more appropriate — and besides, the newsletter was full.

athletics ancient greece.jpg

Our first question actually comes from Jason, who, like many of us, is enjoying Emily Wilson’s magnificent contemporary translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Jason was struck by this passage in the introduction, on the oral roots and possible oral composition of the Homeric epics:

The state of Homeric scholarship changed radically and permanently in the early 1930s, when a young American classicist named Milman Parry traveled to the then-Yugoslavia with recording equipment and began to study the living oral tradition of illiterate and semiliterate Serbo-Croat bards, who told poetic folk tales about the mythical and semihistorical events of the Serbian past. Parry died at the age of thirty-three from an accidental gunshot, and research was further interrupted by the Second World War. But Parry’s student Albert Lord continued his work on Homer, and published his findings in 1960, under the title The Singer of Tales. Lord and Parry proved definitively that the Homeric poems show the mark of oral composition.

The “Parry-Lord hypothesis” was that oral poetry, from every culture where it exists, has certain distinctive features, and that we can see these features in the Homeric poems—specifically, in the use of formulae, which enable the oral poet to compose at the speed of speech. A writer can pause for as long as she or he wants, to ponder the most fitting adjective for a particular scene; she can also go back and change it afterwards, on further reflection—as in the famous anecdote about Oscar Wilde, who labored all morning to add a comma, and worked all afternoon taking it out. Oral performers do not use commas, and do not have the luxury of time to ponder their choice of words. They need to be able to maintain fluency, and formulaic features make this possible.

Subsequent studies, building on the work of Parry and Lord, have shown that there are marked differences in the ways that oral and literate cultures think about memory, originality, and repetition. In highly literate cultures, there is a tendency to dismiss repetitive or formulaic discourse as cliche; we think of it as boring or lazy writing. In primarily oral cultures, repetition tends to be much more highly valued. Repeated phrases, stories, or tropes can be preserved to some extent over many generations without the use of writing, allowing people in an oral culture to remember their own past. In Greek mythology, Memory (Mnemosyne) is said to be the mother of the Muses, because poetry, music, and storytelling are all imagined as modes by which people remember the times before they were born.

Wilson goes on to consider the implications of the poem’s origins in orality for trying to figure out if there really was an historical Homer, a single author of the great poems — and if so, whether and how we could tell. She also rightly gives some of the Homeric critics a shot in the ribs for their assumptions about oral cultures, which tended not to be drawn from very many historical sources: if Parry had visited with Somali bards rather than singers from the Balkans, he may have come away with very different conclusions.

Orality, even primary orality, before any writing whatsoever, exists in rich and wide varieties. And Homeric orality was probably not so primary as all that: it’s exciting and accessible to us exactly because it’s on that seam between a dominant oral culture and an emerging written one.

heyyyyyy.jpg

Jason’s question is a little bit different. Since I don’t quite remember what he originally asked, I’ll do a very oral-to-literate thing and paraphrase. What do we make of digital media forms like Twitter that are highly interactive and speechlike? Is this a kind of return to orality? Is there a little bit of the Homeric world in our smartphones, where we both “chat” with our mouths and our thumbs?

The answer to this last question is Yes — but in a different way from how it might first appear. We’re a little Homeric because we’re also on the cusp of multiple media regimes, making a great transformation of great civilizations. However, with some exceptions, we’re not especially oral. We’re exceedingly literate. We’re making written language and literacy do things even our grandparents, raised in the age of industrial print, wouldn’t quite recognize.

I used the phrase “primary orality” earlier, and it’s one I borrow from Walter Ong. Ong was a Jesuit priest and influential scholar of language and literature. He was very much in this Milman Parry tradition of thinking about the relationship of orality and literacy to forms of thought and shared culture. You can draw a line from Parry to Eric Havelock, who wrote the influential Preface to Plato, and to communications scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, and from there to Ong, Hugh Kenner, Northrop Frye, and a number of the more dominant media thinkers of the twentieth century in the English language.

What Ong helped conceptualize and popularize, especially in his book Orality and Literacy, was that in cultures with no tradition of literacy, orality had a fundamentally different character from those where literacy was dominant. It’s different again in cultures where literacy is known but scarce.

For instance, we tend to associate writing with official culture. We ask for papers, and papers are official. An official record has an official written form that unofficial forms of writing or any form of speech are considered less proper. Literacy and paper are also widespread enough that we expect everyone to have some paper.

A nonliterate culture, for obvious reasons, doesn’t work that way. You need an entirely different system of conventions to differentiate formal from informal, permanent from ephemeral — those concepts might not have even hold the same relationships to each other. One of those conventions, so common that it even exists outside the species, is song. And the songs we attribute to Homer are, for us, who exist in their shadow, the best songs ever written.

In the Romantic version of the Parry-Lord thesis, the oral world of Homer is a lost paradise, and our post-literate one, a fallen world of lesser creatures. This probably borrows too much from how Homeric poets feigned to feel about themselves relative to the Mycenaean civilizations that preceded them, and how the classical Greeks appeared to feel about Homer. It’s all representation of lost paradises all the way down.

Ong dodges more of this nostalgia than he’s usually given credit for, but there’s still an element of it, one that he sometimes seems to regret. (Regret for Nostalgia would make a good biography title for Ong.) In his case, it’s conflated with a methodological problem — how do we talk about primary orality (the orality of cultures with no knowledge of writing) in a culture that’s saturated with writing, whose entire intellectual edifice is premised on writing? In fact, oral culture never goes away: it persists in its own logic and suborns the existence of writing to its own ends.

Ong’s great example is classical and medieval rhetoric, which used books, book-based scholarly culture, and book-based modes of training to elevate oral argument to exquisite sophistication. You might also look at hip-hop, which seamlessly blends freestyle vocals, dance, graffiti, and turntable manipulation to create new forms of recording and improvisation. It’s never an either-or, but a constant restructuring.

1280px-Graffiti_i_baggård_i_århus_2c.jpg

So, as to the original question: are Twitter and texting new forms of orality? I have a simple answer and a complex one, but they’re both really the same.

The first answer is so lucid and common-sense, you can hardly believe that it’s coming from Dr. Time: if it’s written, it ain’t oral. Orality requires speech, or song, or sound. Writing is visual. If it’s visual and only visual, it’s not oral.

The only form of genuine speech that’s genuinely visual and not auditory is sign language. And sign language is speech-like in pretty much every way imaginable: it’s ephemeral, it’s interactive, there’s no record, the signs are fluid. But even most sign language is at least in part chirographic, i.e., dependent on writing and written symbols. At least, the sign languages we use today: although our spoken/vocal languages are pretty chirographic too.

Writing, especially writing in a hyperliterate society, involves a transformation of the sensorium that privileges vision at the expense of hearing, and privileges reading (especially alphabetic reading) over other forms of visual interpretation and experience. It makes it possible to take in huge troves of information in a limited amount of time. We can read teleprompters and ticker-tape, street signs and medicine bottles, tweets and texts. We can read things without even being aware we’re reading them. We read language on the move all day long: social media is not all that different.

Now, for a more complicated explanation of that same idea, we go back to Father Ong himself. For Ong, there’s a primary orality and a secondary orality. The primary orality, we’ve covered; secondary orality is a little more complicated. It’s not just the oral culture of people who’ve got lots of experience with writing, but of people who’ve developed technologies that allow them to create new forms of oral communication that are enabled by writing.

The great media forms of secondary orality are the movies, television, radio, and the telephone. All of these are oral, but they’re also modern media, which means the media reshapes it in its own image: they squeeze your toothpaste through its tube. But they’re also transformative forms of media in a world that’s dominated by writing and print, because they make it possible to get information in new ways, according to new conventions, and along different sensory channels.

Walter_Ong.JPG

Walter Ong died in 2003, so he never got to see social media at its full flower, but he definitely was able to see where electronic communications was headed. Even in the 1990s, people were beginning to wonder whether interactive chats on computers fell under Ong’s heading of “secondary orality.” He gave an interview where he tried to explain how he saw things — as far as I know, relatively few people have paid attention to it (and the original online source has sadly linkrotted away)1:

“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’

I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).

So tweets and text messages aren’t oral. They’re secondarily literate. Wait, that sounds horrible! How’s this: they’re artifacts and examples of secondary literacy. They’re what literacy looks like after television, the telephone, and the application of computing technologies to those communication forms. Just as orality isn’t the same after you’ve introduced writing, and manuscript isn’t the same after you’ve produced print, literacy isn’t the same once you have networked orality. In this sense, Twitter is the necessary byproduct of television.

Now, where this gets really complicated is with stuff like Siri and Alexa, and other AI-driven, natural-language computing interfaces. This is almost a tertiary orality, voice after texting, and certainly voice after interactive search. I’d be inclined to lump it in with secondary orality in that broader sense of technologically-mediated orality. But it really does depend how transformative you think client- and cloud-side computing, up to and including AI, really are. I’m inclined to say that they are, and that Alexa is doing something pretty different from what the radio did in the 1920s and 30s.

But we have to remember that we’re always much more able to make fine distinctions about technology deployed in our own lifetime, rather than what develops over epochs of human culture. Compared to that collision of oral and literate cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean that gave us poetry, philosophy, drama, and rhetoric in the classical period, or the nexus of troubadours, scholastics, printers, scientific meddlers and explorers that gave us the Renaissance, our own collision of multiple media cultures is probably quite small.

But it is genuinely transformative, and it is ours. And some days it’s as charming to think about all the ways in which our heirs will find us completely unintelligible as it is to imagine the complex legacy we’re bequeathing them.

  1. Thank the Internet Archive for the save! See also here.

Noticing, a new weekly newsletter from kottke.org

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2018

As kottke.org enters its 21st calendar year of activity (!!!!), it’s time for something new. And old. Email was invented in 1972, the year before I was born, but is still going strong. The email newsletter has re-emerged in recent years as a unique way to connect with readers, distinct from social media or publishing on the web. So Tim Carmody and I have teamed up to launch Noticing, a free email newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Written by Tim Carmody and published by me every Friday, Noticing will contain a curated roundup of the week’s posts from kottke.org as well as some extra stuff that we’ll be introducing in the weeks to come. It most definitely won’t be a replacement for kottke.org…more like something to read alongside it.

Initial funding for the newsletter comes from two sources: the bulk of it from kottke.org (made possible through the support of members) but also from Tim’s supporters on Patreon. Noticing is an experiment in unlocking the commons.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.

P.S. A quick note on the name. I thought of it while listening to the last part of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook on the drive home from NYC last week. One of Isaacson’s main points in the book was that Leonardo’s accomplishments were due in no small part to his extraordinary powers of observation. By observing things closely and from all possible angles, he was able to make connections and find details that other people didn’t and express them in his work. Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

I also thought about one of my favorite scenes from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. From A.O. Scott’s review:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

I agree. Drawing honest & straightforward attention to things I love is much of what I do here on kottke.org, so I thought Noticing was a natural name for its newsletter extension.

P.P.S. An additional programming note. In addition to doing the newsletter, Tim is also taking over the posting duties on kottke.org most Fridays. This will free me up to work on other site-related things that I haven’t been able to tackle due to the daily scramble. Again, thanks to member support for making this possible!

What’s happening just offscreen of famous album covers?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2018

On his Instagram account, Igor Lipchanskiy is imagining what’s happening just “offscreen” of musical album covers.

Igor Lipchanskiy

Igor Lipchanskiy

Igor Lipchanskiy

Brexit Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

After British MP Andrea Leadsom called for the Royal Mail to issue a postage stamp commemorating Brexit, some people who are not entirely in favor of leaving the EU have posted their best efforts at a stamp design on Twitter under the #brexitstamps hashtag. A few of my favorites:

Brexit Stamps

Brexit Stamps

Brexit Stamps

Ursula K. Le Guin and “gender ghetto” of the Golden Age of science fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2018

Science fiction great Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday at age 88. Le Guin was the subject of this long New Yorker piece from a couple of years back, but I’d like to also direct your attention to a short piece Le Guin wrote for the magazine in 2012. In it, she describes how her editor submitted a short story of hers to Playboy under the name of U.K. Le Guin and then informed them after it was accepted that the writer was a woman. Playboy then requested to run the article under her initials so as not to frighten their male readership.

Unwilling to terrify these vulnerable people, I told Virginia to tell them sure, that’s fine. Playboy thanked us with touching gratitude. Then, after a couple of weeks, they asked for an author biography.

At once, I saw the whole panorama of U.K.’s life as a gaucho in Patagonia, a stevedore in Marseilles, a safari leader in Kenya, a light-heavyweight prizefighter in Chicago, and the abbot of a Coptic monastery in Algeria.

We’d tricked them slightly, though, and I didn’t want to continue the trickery. But what could I say? “He is a housewife and the mother of three children”?

I wrote, “It is commonly suspected that the writings of U.K. Le Guin are not actually written by U.K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.”

Game to the last, Playboy printed that. And my husband and I bought a red VW bus, cash down, with the check.

Yessss. BTW, if you’re wondering where to start with Le Guin, both the NYPL and Jo Walton at Tor recommend A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, the description of which reads:

A lone human ambassador is sent to Winter, an alien world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants can change their gender whenever they choose. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…

First clip from the upcoming Mister Rogers documentary

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2018

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary film about Mister Rogers, is premiering at the Sundance film festival tomorrow. This short clip is the first look we’ve gotten at the movie:

Love is at the root of everything — all learning, all parenting, all relationships — love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.

Love is the root of all learning. That has been a real theme around here lately. In my introduction to Noticing, I noted this recap by A.O. Scott of a favorite scene in Lady Bird:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

Oh, I can’t wait for this movie! (thx, katharine)

Warren Buffett’s daily breakfast allowance

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2018

Warren Buffett’s net worth is right around $84 billion. Each morning before he drives himself to work, he tells his wife how much his McDonald’s breakfast is going to cost — $2.61, $2.95, or $3.17 — and she puts the exact change in the cup holder for him to pay with. No, really:

That’s a clip from the HBO documentary, Becoming Warren Buffett. The full documentary is here.

On Medium, Daniel Bourke shared some things he learned from watching Becoming Warren Buffett.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two of the richest men in the world.

One time Warren was at Bill’s house for dinner and Bills dad asked them to write down on a piece of paper what was one word to describe their success.

Focus.

They both wrote down the exact same word.

(via gruber)

Slowly shredding some pow to classical music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

Glide along with this snowboarder as he surfs his way through a powdery forest to the strains of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune. I’ve watched this twice now; it’s super relaxing. A fine antidote to the typical extreme sports video. (via the kid should see this)

Ask Dr. Time: Explaining Mathematics

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2018

DOCTOR TIME.png

Today’s question is surprisingly tricky, as even the letter writer acknowledges:

My question is one I’m fumbling to articulate. I’m a math teacher and writer. (I’m a writer in the sense that I write, not in the sense that I get published or paid for writing.) I write a lot about teaching, but I’ve also been trying to get a handle on how I can write about math.

Here’s the question: is it possible to write about math in a deep and accessible way?

This is a question that sends me off on a lot of different questions. What does it mean to understand math? What does it mean to understand a metaphor? Are there are great literary works that are also mathematical?

Ultimately, though, I don’t know how to think about this yet. I’m hoping to eventually figure this out by learning math and writing about it…but that’s slow, so maybe Dr. Time can offer advice?

The obvious answer to this question is yes, of course it’s possible to write about math in a deep and accessible way. Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Godel, Escher, Bach is a 777-page doorstop that’s also a beloved bestseller. If you’re looking to satisfy an existence requirement, that book has your back. I’ll even stipulate that for every intellectual subject, not just mathematics, there exists a work that satisfies this deep-but-accessible requirement. It’s just like how there’s always a bigger prime number. It’s out there; we just have to find it.

On the other hand, math seems hard. And I think it seems hard for Reasons. Here’s a big one: mathematicians and popularizers of mathematics are perhaps understandably obsessed with understanding mathematics as such. The want to explain the totality of mathematics, or the essence, rather than finer problems like distinguishing between totalities and essences.

If you look at the other sciences, they don’t do this. It’s only very rarely that you get a Newton, Darwin, or Einstein who sets out to grab his or her entire subject with both hands and rethink our fundamental understanding of its foundations. Imagine a biologist who wants to explain life, in its essence and totality, at the micro and macro level. They’d be understandably stumped. Even physicists, when they want to explain something big and weird to the public, stick to things like a subatomic particle they’re hoping to discover or the behavior of one of Saturn’s moons. They don’t try to explain physics. They explain a problem in physics.

When mathematicians do that, they’re usually pretty successful. The Konigsberg Bridge Problem is charming as hell. Russell’s and Godel’s paradoxes have whole books written about them, but can also be told in the form of jokes. Even Fourier Transforms can be broken down and made beautiful with a little bit of technical help.

So I think the key, in part, is to resist that mathematicians’ tendency to abstract away individual problems into general solutions or categories of solutions or entire subfields, and spend some time with the specific problems that mathematicians are or have been interested in. But it also helps a lot if, in that specific problem, you get that mathematical move of discarding whatever doesn’t matter to the structure of the problem. After all, that’s a big part of what you’re trying to teach: how to think like a mathematician. You just to have to unlearn what a mathematician already assumes first.

How Haiti became poor

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 12, 2018

haiti.jpg

In case you missed it, the President of the United States called Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries “shitholes,” then pretended like he didn’t say it, but basically said it all over again.

This matters not just because it’s racist (the President is racist, in fact, he is professionally racist), because it’s vulgar (“shithole,” one of the all-time great swear words, is forever sullied by this), and because it’s catastrophically bad for foreign and domestic relations. It matters in part because of the history of Haiti, and the history of racist discourse about Haiti.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor of education and scholar who’s closely studied these narratives, writes:

The reason why White nationalists like 45 always name Haiti because the Haitian nation & people are unique. Haiti defeated Napoleon, threw off the chains of slavery, and exposed the lie of White supremacy & European imperialism. So there’s no end to their hatred for Haiti.

Jonathan Katz, a journalist and former AP correspondent in Haiti who wrote The Big Truck That Went By about Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed, has a longer thread spelling out how these narratives about Haiti were generated and how they work. Here’s a thick excerpt:

In order to do a victory lap around the GDP difference between, say, Norway and Haiti, you have to know nothing about the history of the world. That includes, especially, knowing nothing real about the history of the United States… You’d have to not know that the French colony that became Haiti provided the wealth that fueled the French Empire — and 2/3 of the sugar and 3/4 of the coffee that Europe consumed…

You’d have to not realize that Haiti was founded in a revolution against that system, and that European countries and the United States punished them for their temerity by refusing to recognize or trade with them for decades. You’d have to not know that Haiti got recognition by agreeing to pay 150 million gold francs to French landowners in compensation for their own freedom. You’d have to not know that Haiti paid it, and that it took them almost all of the 19th century to do so.

You’d then have to not know that Haiti was forced to borrow some money to pay back that ridiculous debt, some of it from banks in the United States. And you’d have to not know that in 1914 those banks got President Wilson to send the US Marines to empty the Haitian gold reserve… [You’d] have to not know about the rest of the 20th century either—the systematic theft and oppression, US support for dictators and coups, the US invasions of Haiti in 1994-95 and 2004…

In short, you’d have to know nothing about WHY Haiti is poor (or El Salvador in kind), and WHY the United States (and Norway) are wealthy. But far worse than that, you’d have to not even be interested in asking the question. And that’s where they really tell on themselves… Because what they are showing is that they ASSUME that Haiti is just naturally poor, that it’s an inherent state borne of the corruption of the people there, in all senses of the word.

And let’s just say out loud why that is: It’s because Haitians are black.

Racists have needed Haiti to be poor since it was founded. They pushed for its poverty. They have celebrated its poverty. They have tried to profit from its poverty. They wanted it to be a shithole. And they still do.

If Haiti is a shithole, then they can say that black freedom and sovereignty are bad. They can hold it up as proof that white countries—and what’s whiter than Norway—are better, because white people are better. They wanted that in 1804, and in 1915, and they want it now.

The history of Haiti is weird because it is absurdly well-documented, yet totally poorly known. It’s hard not to attribute that to ideology. We don’t teach the Haitian Revolution the way we teach the American, or the French, or the Mexican, because it’s a complicated story. Kids are more likely to hear variations of “Haiti formed a pact with the devil to defeat Napoleon” (this is real thing, I swear) than Toussaint Louverture’s or Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s names.

Also, while Haiti’s revolution was an early, signature event in world history-the first time a European power would be overthrown by an indigenous army (but not the last)-the causes of Haiti’s poverty are basically identical with those of almost every poor nation around the world: a history of exploitation, bad debt, bad geopolitics, and bad people profiting off of that poverty (almost all of them living elsewhere). And this is basically true about poverty in American cities as well (with all the same attendant racist myths).

Some recommended reading:

Synchronized basketball

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2018

Early on in a Suns/Trail Blazers game in October, a Trail Blazers pass was stolen and, as if in a ballet performance, all five Phoenix Suns players turned at the same time and began running up the court. I dare you to watch this fewer than five times:

You couldn’t have choreographed that any better. In the New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham writes about other such moments in the NBA, like this one and these:

Bodies and minds as amazing as these are made similar by training. The smallest stimulus — an obviously fishy pass, an off-kilter jump shot, an unexpected whistle — fires thousands of responses, all honed by hours of practice and study. You get hit lots of times and you learn how to fall. Every so often, instinct kicks in and only one option seems possible: plant a foot, turn around, and run. Style is great, but sometimes it’s nice to watch it fall away.

My recent media diet for January 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I worked so much in January, mostly on getting the Noticing newsletter launched, that by the time the evening rolled around, all I wanted to do was collapse and watch a little TV or maybe go to a movie (I’ve seen all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year). But I still managed to read a couple books and am currently working my way through two more: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield at ICP Museum. A retrospective of Greenfield’s photographic survey of wealth. Also available in book form. (A-)

Lady Bird. This one’s been growing on me since I saw it. (B+/A-)

The Post. My main problem with this movie is that Streep, while otherwise excellent, does not properly sell the transformation of her character at the end. (A-)

The Farthest - Voyager in Space. I had no idea about many of the amazing things about the Voyager program. If I’d seen this as a kid, I might work for NASA right now. (A-)

Black Mirror season four. Perhaps not as strong as some of the previous seasons, but USS Callister is one of the best episodes of the series. (B+)

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. A compelling argument that Buddhists figured out thousands of years ago how to route around a human brain designed to delude us, a tendency that neuroscientists and psychologists have only learned of more recently. (B+)

Call Me By Your Name. A touching love story. One of the best movies of the year. (A)

Jane. Jane Goodall is a remarkable person, one of the best scientific researchers of our time. The footage in this movie of her early career is stunning, like it was filmed specifically for the documentary. (A-)

Jane soundtrack. Philip Glass. What more needs to be said? (A-)

Darkest Hour. Churchill is over-acted by Oldman, like an SNL character. I much prefer Lithgow’s take in The Crown. (C+)

The Shape of Water. This was ok, I suppose. (B)

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: interview with Errol Morris. I could listen to Errol Morris talk about film and truth all day. (A-)

Phantom Thread. One of those movies that gets better once you read about it afterwards. (B+)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand is amazing in this. I’m also unconvinced of the straightforward reading of the movie as the redemption of a racist cop. (B+)

Slow Burn. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. (A)

The New York Times For Kids. The rest of the paper should be more like this. (A-)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

A list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior by John Perry Barlow

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2018

Silicon Valley visionary John Perry Barlow died last night at the age of 70. When he was 30, the EFF founder (and sometime Grateful Dead lyricist) drew up a list of what he called Principles of Adult Behavior. They are:

1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, never blame. Say nothing behind another’s back you’d be unwilling to say, in exactly the same tone and language, to his face.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you yourself can deliver.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Never let your errors pass without admission.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Forgive.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
25. Endure.

Here’s what these principles meant to Barlow:

I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating one of them, bust me.

You can read remembrances of Barlow from the EFF and from his friends Cory Doctorow and Steven Levy. The EFF’s Executive Director Cindy Cohn wrote:

Barlow was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the Internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more. As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter: “I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls ‘turn-key totalitarianism.’”

Barlow’s lasting legacy is that he devoted his life to making the Internet into “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth … a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Update: I’ve amended the list slightly from when I first posted it to match more closely an email sent by Barlow to friends on his 60th birthday.

Wired’s (Slightly Belabored) Guide to Star Wars

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2018

Suppose you were an alien, from a galaxy long ago and far away, who otherwise completely resembled a modern human, and you arrived on Earth with the mission of completely understanding its major forms of entertainment, but in a hurry. Plot summaries and casting and merchandising are equally important. Like, you don’t know anything, but you only really have time to skim.

You, my extraterrestrial friend, are the perfect reader of The Wired Guide to Star Wars. It’s not bad, per se. It’s just unclear to me who it’s for.

My favorite bits come at the beginning and the end, when there’s almost room for some critical analysis. First, on the genesis of the story and the weird bits of genre fiction that cling to it like iron filings to a magnet:

Lucas kept the swords, the magic, and the knights [of mythic hero stories]. Then—and this was, perhaps, his greatest innovation—Lucas kept everything else, too. Wizards, dragons, princesses, horses, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, ships, ray guns, teddy bears, his family dog, pirates, car chases, Nazis, gangsters, samurai, dogfights, gunfights, swordfights, fist fights, gladiators, spies, castles, and robots. In space, traveling at hyperspeed.

And last, on the curious persistence of that overpacked universe, knitted together from so many fictions that it somehow became real:

The particular strength of the Star Wars shared universe—as opposed to, say, the Marvel shared universes, the DC Comics-based shared universe at Warner Brothers (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc.), or the ones that other brands have tried to spin up—is its depth. Possibly because of the nostalgia Lucas built into his very first movie for the days before the dark times of the Empire, the Star Wars universe feels like it exists even when you’re not looking at it. In the language of psychology, Star Wars is a paracosm, a complete world populated with autonomous characters. That’s why it’s possible for young-adult books about teenagers training to be Rebel pilots to coexist with half-billion-dollar movies about Rey and Kylo Ren, comic books about Darth Vader, augmented-reality apps that let you insert Stormtroopers into Instagrams, and Barbie-like fashion-play dolls of Jyn Erso, the hero of the Disney-era prequel Rogue One.

That paracosm is so vivid, so enduring, that Kennedy and Lucasfilm can continue to pursue an aggressive release schedule, one movie a year, for … well, forever, actually.

It’s almost a better thought exercise: instead of imagining what comes next in the Star Wars universe, try to imagine what earthly force could stop it.

Tree Mountain

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2018

Tree Mountain

Tree Mountain is a man-made mountain 125 feet high covered in 11,000 trees planted in a configuration according to the Golden Ratio. This art installation was conceived and built by artist Agnes Denes in Finland and is designed to endure for 400 years.

A mountain needed to be built to design specifications, which by itself took over four years and was the restitution work of a mine that had destroyed the land through resource extraction. The process of bioremediation restores the land from resource extraction use to one in harmony with nature, in this case, the creation of a virgin forest. The planting of trees holds the land from erosion, enhances oxygen production and provides home for wildlife. This takes time and it is one of the reasons why Tree Mountain must remain undisturbed for centuries. The certificate the planters received are numbered and reach 400 years into the future as it takes that long for the ecosystem to establish itself. It is an inheritable document that connects the eleven thousand planters and their descendents reaching into millions, connected by their trees.

Here’s Tree Mountain on Google Maps and a lovely video of the mountain shot from a drone:

You may have seen another of Denes’ projects: a 2-acre wheat field she planted in 1982 near the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Agnes Denes Wheat

Agnes Denes Wheat

(via shane)

Flyover video of Jupiter’s Europa

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2018

NASA engineer Kevin Gill stitched together images from two 1998 observations of Europa by the Galileo spacecraft to create this super smooth flyover video of the icy Jovian moon. The details:

Processed using low resolution color images (IR, Green, Violet) from March 29 1998 overlaying higher resolution unfiltered images taken September 26 1998. Map projected to Mercator, scale is approximately 225.7 meters per pixel, representing a span of about 1,500 kilometers.

How to tame a wild horse

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2018

In a clip from a BBC nature documentary series on Patagonia, watch as a gaucho tames a wild horse he’s just caught. The entire process takes three hours, so this is just a tiny bit of it, but it’s interesting to watch people who are very good at what they do.

Each gaucho has his own style of taming. “What you have to do is catch the attention of the horse. I shoo it away a few times until it realizes that when it’s looking at me there will be calm, but if it looks somewhere else, I’ll scare it.”

(via digg)

Necessary Corrections and Beautiful Pictures: An Excerpt from Noticing, Jan 05, 2018

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 05, 2018

The first public edition of Noticing, a brand-new kottke.org newsletter, went out this afternoon. Here’s a short excerpt of the last two sections, “Necessary Corrections” and “Beautiful Pictures.” We hope you’ll subscribe.

Necessary Corrections

Economist Peter Temin reminded us that escaping poverty is nearly impossible — it requires an almost twenty year stretch of nothing going wrong. Google Maps, that most spectacular marvel of Google’s mid-2000s heroic phase, now has a lead in mapping that seems almost impossible for competitors to match.

We didn’t know we needed custom LEGO minifigs of Star Trek: The Next Generation characters — but we did. We didn’t know we needed Dunkirk re-edited as a short silent film, or Kylo Ren fighting Luke Skywalker as a 16-bit video game, but we did. We didn’t know that Obi-Wan was maybe kinda pretty racist in the first Star Wars movie, but the signs are clearer than a Tattooine sunset. We didn’t know that rectangular US road grids had to correct for the Earth’s curvature, but in retrospect, that makes a ton of sense.

Beautiful Pictures

Maybe you didn’t know you wanted to know everything about these amazing printing plates and wood blocks made for film advertisements, but I, the dissertation-writer with a special interest in the relationship between material texts and early cinema in the 20th century, absolutely knew I wanted to eat this mugs up. The movies are visual, the movies are aural, the movies are an experience, but they are 100 percent an experience mediated by text and reading. And these paratexts? (that is, the texts outside the texts?) Woooooo do they shape how we experience both the moment of film and its history. I tell you, I wish I had millions of dollars just once. I would start my own damn museum. (And then I would run out of money.)

Likewise, maybe you didn’t know you needed these surreptitious street photos from fin-de-siecle Oslo, but a flaneur recognizes a flaneur, you know what I’m saying?

I think what I love about the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century is the enormous weight placed on noticing those ephemeral details in the swirling impressions of the suddenly overwhelming city streets, and taking those luminous particulars and transforming them into art.

The surprisingly great mashup of Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and Footloose by Kenny Loggins

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2018

If you were to name a pair of songs that would absolutely not sound good mixed together, Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and Footloose by Kenny Loggins would be a good place to start. But as DJ Cummerbund’s mashup Jereloose, the two songs actually go surprisingly well together.

But what’s actually blowing my mind is that Footloose and Jeremy were released only 7 years apart. Maybe it’s because I went from 5th grade to my first year of college in that span, but the cultural distance between the two seems much greater than just 7 years.

The best kottke.org posts and links of 2017

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 02, 2018

[ As a tease for the first issue of the just-announced Noticing newsletter coming up on Friday, here is last week’s newsletter that we previewed for kottke.org members. It’s a review of the best kottke.org posts and links from 2017. You can sign up for Noticing if you find this kind of thing appealing. Ok, I’ll let Tim take it from here. -jason ]

 
2017 Through the Lens of Kottke.org

If 2016 was chaos, then 2017 was catastrophe. In the middle of an ongoing disaster, the world reckoned with bills long overdue. Kottke.org has never been a terribly political blog, but it’s always been one that’s grappled with history, the problems of art and media, self-reflection, and the long trajectory into the future. The site couldn’t help but reflect that catastrophe back to its readers. At the same time, it continued to offer some small oasis by selecting and presenting the best of the World Wide Web.

 
Messages in Bottles

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me was when I asked Kottke.org readers to help me build a time capsule for the World Wide Web. It felt particularly important this year to try to save the best parts of the things we loved. We had to have something to show the future, despite all this destruction and heartache, that we were still capable of making things that surprised and delighted.

The entire “best of the web” series paid homage to the 20th century technologies that have defined so much of the 21st. It also showcased the deep knowledge and generosity of Kottke readers, who contributed and helped curate all of the entries. If you missed it, or are looking to refresh yourself, the web’s best hidden gems and the web’s funniest stories are good places to start.

Jason on Halt and Catch Fire

Jason as gas station patron on Halt and Catch Fire. Photo courtesy of AMC.

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me on Jason’s behalf was his appearance on Halt and Catch Fire. Jason wrote this wonderful love letter to the show and the moment it tries to capture:

When I was a kid, there was nothing I was more interested in than computers. My dad bought one of the first available IBM PC-compatibles on the market. I’ve read and watched a ton about the PC revolution. I used online services like Prodigy. And the web, well, I’ve gotten to experience that up close and personal. One of the reasons I love Halt and Catch Fire so much is that it so lovingly and accurately depicts this world that I’ve been keenly interested in for the past 35 years of my life. Someone made a TV show about my thing and it was great, a successor to Mad Men great. Getting to be a microscopically tiny part of that? Hell yeah, it was worth it.

Recently, I saw The Farthest, a wonderful documentary about the Voyager missions. In it, Timothy Ferris, producer of the famous Golden Record, laments the fact that so much wonderful music was left off, but says something like, “who would want to live in a civilization that only ever produced 90 minutes of great music?” It made me feel better about leaving off so many wonderful parts of the web in my time capsule; who would want to honor a technology whose entire set of great achievements could be documented in a week of blog posts?

 
In Search of Deep Time

In 2014, it was easier to believe in the future. For The Future Library, an art project by Katie Paterson, a thousand trees were planted. In a century, the trees will become part of an anthology of books, written by Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, among others.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Deep Time, conceptualized in the eighteenth century but coined in the twentieth by John McPhee, is bigger than centuries; it’s really about time on the geologic scale. Even the time of human civilizations (Stone, Bronze, Iron, etc.) is too small. Deep time is deep.

Something like “The Earth’s five energy revolutions” gets us closer to it: all life on earth begins with geochemical energy, then augmented by sunlight, and finally, oxygen, flesh, and fire. The life and death of entire forests of trees, of entire species and kingdoms, is dwarfed by the history of an entire planet and all the life that’s ever been on it. This point of view has always been a powerful perspective, but in 2017, the cosmic telescope of time was almost a comfort. Even if nations fall and species fail, this too will pass.

Coleman's Cafe in Greensboro, Ala.

Coleman’s Cafe in Greensboro, Ala., in 1971. By William Christenberry

But deep time has its own human counterparts. Consider Teju Cole’s essay “The Image of Time,” on photographer William Christenberry. Christenberry photographed buildings in small towns in the American south over time: seemingly the same photograph, of the same object, from the same distance, with the same framing, shows the object’s subtle or radical transformations, its non-identity.

Time is photography’s illusion. Almost every photograph appears instantaneous. But of course, there’s no such thing as “instantaneous”: All fragments of time have a length. In a photograph, the time during which the light is refracted by the lens, enters the aperture and is allowed to rest on the photosensitive surface could be 1/125th of a second, one-eighth of a second, half a second, a whole minute, much more or much less. What is intriguing about a practice like Christenberry’s is that it employs time elsewhere in the photograph too: as a source of narrative.

Or look at Jon Bois’s magnificent “17776: What Football Will Look Like in the Future,” which dives right into the familiar — maps, calendars, printer readouts — and estranges it, exactly to make the reader experience time. (I can’t even blockquote or screenshot it. It’s one piece you have to read for yourself.)

 
Time Collapsed

In 17776, the angel of history is a far-flung space probe that’s absorbed all of human culture, emotions, and sports statistics through radio transmissions. For Walter Benjamin in 1940, the Angel of History was a thought-experiment to try to understand all of history as an ongoing catastrophe.

These are chaotic times. But to the angel of history, it’s not a sudden eruption of chaos, but a manifestation of an ongoing vortex of chaos that stretches back indefinitely, without any unique origin. When we’re thrust into danger, in a flash we get a more truthful glimpse of history than the simple narratives that suffice in moments of safety. As Benjamin puts it, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

For James Baldwin, there were no angels, and no robots; only fallen, imperfect beings who’d likewise absorbed the surrounding culture, but hadn’t necessarily been humanized by it. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” writes Baldwin, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Baldwin and Benjamin were the two writers that best helped me understand this year, because they’d already seen how fascism and Jim Crow could fold time over on itself. Had he not been murdered, Emmett Till would have turned 76 in 2017; instead, a new book revealed what was long known, that he died because of a lie.

And in 2017, in a different sort of lie, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who self-identifies as black, changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. When Baldwin wrote “the world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” I don’t think this is what he was talking about.

It was not the first time that the curiously stagnant nature of time made me wonder if we were all dead and in Hell. It would not be the last.

 
The New Callousness

In 2017, knowing how to apologize properly is an essential skill. (You might even call it a new kind of liberal art.) The essential components of a genuine apology, according to Beth Polin:

1. An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
2. An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
3. An acknowledgment of responsibility.
4. A declaration of repentance.
5. An offer of repair.
6. A request for forgiveness.

Most of 2017’s public apologies whiffed on one or more of these. It was a year filled with soul-searching, but also much rejection of any real contrition. We might remember individual acts of selflessness, but the year was fueled by selfishness.

This photo by Kristi McCluer of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest became a metaphor for the summer, and the whole year.

Summer 2017 Fire

A man golfs with a wildfire raging behind him. One of the defining images of 2017.

The New Callousness, swept into power in the United States and elsewhere, led to widespread physical and political fatigue: Kayla Chadwick’s “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People” reflects the prevailing mood of exhausted incredulity.

It is probably fair to say that in every direction, 2017 involved a lot of human beings writing off other human beings. But pushing back against this were great technologist-humanists like the legendary Ellen Ullman, explaining why hackers need the humanities:

Algorithms surround us, determining how we get mortgages or apartment rentals, or whether we get hired. It is crucial that we open up those algorithms and take them apart, and then either put them back together or scrap and rewrite them. Algorithms may run our lives, but I really believe people make the future.

 
Sharp as Possible

Trying to figure out how to live through this year, I often thought about Thelonious Monk’s advice on how to play a gig:

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Don’t play the piano part. I’m playing that.

Don’t play everything (or every time). Let some things go by.

Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!

I also tried to remember Richard Feynman’s advice that if you can’t explain something simply, you probably don’t really understand it. I admire complexity, but whenever it’s possible, simplicity is better.

The best of all things may be to be able to ratchet the explanation’s complexity up or down depending on who your audience is: neuroscientist Bobby Kashturi explaining a connectome to a five-year-old, teenager, college student, grad student, and scholarly peer is a great example of that.

It all builds from the foundation. As Richard Hamming observed, knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. You grow from work you put in over time, simple things repeated until they become (or appear to become) complex. Learning effects, network effects, path dependence — over time, they all roll up, and who you’re becoming overtakes who you are.

 
The Great Eclipse

In August, after a jab step into Nebraska, Jason drove to Rayville, Missouri to witness and photograph the solar eclipse.

As totality approached, the sky got darker, our shadows sharpened, insects started making noise, and disoriented birds quieted. The air cooled and it even started to get a little foggy because of the rapid temperature change.

We saw the Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect… When the Moon finally slipped completely in front of the Sun and the sky went dark, I don’t even know how to describe it. The world stopped and time with it. During totality, Mouser took the photo at the top of the page. I’d seen photos like that before but had assumed that the beautifully wispy corona had been enhanced with filters in Photoshop. But no…that is actually what it looks like in the sky when viewing it with the naked eye (albeit smaller). Hands down, it was the most incredible natural event I’ve ever seen.

Eclipse 2017 by Mouser

A view of the eclipse from Rayville, MO. Photo by Mouser.

Jason also collected the best photos and videos of the eclipse, this NASA map showing the eclipse’s path across the continental United States. and eclipse maps of the United States from 2000 BC until 2117 AD. Even for those of us who just sat under a tree and watched the shadows turn into scallops, it was a special experience this year.

 
Did Someone Say Maps?

Talk about visualizing deep time! Here we go:

A Tapestry of Time and Terrain shows the ages of rock in different parts of the continental US.

Another map shows the hometown of nearly all of the warriors from Homer’s The Iliad.

This map of the Roman Empire c. 125 AD shows the major Roman roads as if they were London’s tube.

A collection of miniature metro maps shows world cities with smaller systems, from Bangalore to Tblisi.

There’s a timeline map of US immigration since 1820, a set of hand-drawn infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University, auto-generated maps of fantasy worlds, a topographical map of Venus (with geographic features named for historical and mythological women), and even an interactive map of personal debt.

There’s also The Atlas for the End of the World, which looks at critically endangered bioregions worldwide, and NASA’s striking nighttime map of the world, complete with a patch of void separating China from South Korea; the one nation, that, light-wise, may as well be open ocean.

 
So What Was Good?

There were so many essays and features and pop-up op-eds and shameless resistance grifters and rust belt whisperers that all tried to explain what was really happening in 2017. Almost always reporting either from a small red-state town or the comforts of one’s own imagination. And almost always thoroughly ignoring what was happening in the wider world in favor of warmed-over anecdotes and armchair realpolitik. All that noise nearly drowned out a few moments genuine insight. That’s always the case, but it all felt sharper this year.

I’ve already listed a lot of what I loved about this year — and everything I’ve mentioned appeared as a blog post or a Quick Link on Kottke.org. But two pieces of documentary art stand out for having a different set of ambitions, in search of a different kind of truth about 2017.

Flamingos in Planet Earth II

A flock of flamingos in Planet Earth II.

The first is Planet Earth 2. We already know that when the BBC breaks out Sir David Attenborough, they deliver the goods: a respite from our overweening humanity, with cutting-edge photography and cogent commentary. But PE2 went further, because it was just so goddamned beautiful.

The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. - but this is really some next-level shit.

The second is Whitman, Alabama. Jennifer Crandall’s serial documentary benefits enormously from the fact that it didn’t set out to explain what happened politically in 2016 or 2017. The filmmaking began much earlier as a meditation on the longstanding problems of democracy and diversity in America.

It’s a very different kind of film from Planet Earth 2. It’s not state of the art. It’s relentlessly human. It manifests the spirit of Walt Whitman: his generosity, his capaciousness, his gentle but insistent concern on the public and private lives of his fellow Americans.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Somewhere between those two, between the whole planet and just one town, between the deep time of the age of fire and the quickfire moments of the post-web internet, between the human and the indifference to humans, is where we are. It’s where we’ve been in 2017 and will be again in 2018, no matter what comes. It’s where we’ve always been, careening between catastrophe and epiphany, callousness and generosity, the divine and the mundane. With luck, we will not destroy ourselves. With luck, and grace, and hope, and because we have no choice, we will find a way to make it through.

Supercut of cliched Instagram travel photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Now that leisure travel is widely accesible, the internet connects everyone, and most people have connected cameras on them 24/7, one of the side effects is that everyone’s vacation snaps look pretty much the same. Oliver KMIA collected hundreds of travel photos from Instagram, grouped them together by subject — passport shot, Mona Lisa, side mirror selfie, Leaning Tower, ramen bowl — and assembled them into this two-minute video of our collective homogenized travel experience. And it’s not just travel…vast swaths of Instagram are just variations on a theme:

Of course, my Instagram feed has no such cliches*ahem*. (via @choitotheworld)

Update: In his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain De Botton talks about the difficulty with cliches.

We may ask why Proust objected to phrases that had been used too often. After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have been proved rightly popular?

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or moon, we will end up believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on the subject. Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.

In other words, taking a photo of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or jumping in the middle of the road in Utah are really good ideas — that’s why lots of people do it — but each successive photo of the same thing doesn’t tell us anything new about those places, experiences, or people. (via mark larson)

The delight and challenge of true solitude

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

Many of us feel alone from time to time or spend a day or two holed away working or worrying without seeing another person. But true solitude is difficult to come by these days. For the past 19 years, Alexandra de Steiguer has been the off-season caretaker for the Oceanic Hotel, located 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire. During the winter months, she’s the only person on the island. Brian Bolster’s meditative short film looks at de Steiguer’s life on the island and her embrace of solitude.

Winter’s Watch explores de Steiguer’s relationship to extreme isolation. Its meditative imagery contemplates the beauty of absence, while de Steiguer reflects on the unique challenges and rewards of solitude. “There are no other distractions,” she says. “You have to decide how to fill your days….and yet it is peaceful, and I can use my imagination.”

The hulking-and possibly haunted-hotel bears a striking resemblance to The Shining, but de Steiguer maintains that “if there are ghosts out here, they are being extremely kind to me.” Rather, she has embraced what she calls “the great waiting of winter.”

See also how to be alone. (via @ifyoucantwell)

Lost in Light: how light pollution obscures our view of the night sky

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2017

Because of light pollution from urban areas, many people around the world don’t know what the night sky actually looks like. Sriram Murali made a video to illustrate light pollution levels by shooting the familiar constellation of Orion in locations around the US with different amounts of light pollution, from bright San Francisco to a state park in Utah with barely any light at all. In SF, about all you can see are the handful of stars that make up Orion’s belt, arms, and legs. But as the locations get darker, the sky explodes in detail and Orion is lost among the thousands of visible stars (and satellites if you look closely).

This video is a followup to one Murali made of the Milky Way in increasingly dark locations, which is even more dramatic:

But he did the second video with Orion as a reference because many people had no concept of what the Milky Way actually looks like because they’ve never seen it before. Murali explains why he thinks light pollution is a problem:

The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings — more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be.

The measurement scale for sky darkness is called the Bortle scale, as explained by David Owen in his wonderful piece in the New Yorker:

In Galileo’s time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9, at the other extreme of the scale, and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is not the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, a hundred and seventy-five miles away. To see skies truly comparable to those which Galileo knew, you would have to travel to such places as the Australian outback and the mountains of Peru.

Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Paul Bogard, author of a book on darkness about light pollution and the Bortle scale:

Twilley: It’s astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There’s a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That’s not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I’ve been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can’t have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it’s bright. That’s the great thing — the darker it gets, if it’s clear, the brighter the night is. That’s something we never see either, because it’s so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

If you’d like to find a place near you with less light pollution, check out The Light Pollution Map. I’m lucky enough to live in a place with a Bortle class of 3 and I’ve visited class 2 locations before…visiting one of the class 1 parks out west is definitely on my bucket list.

Photos from the Curiosity rover’s 2000 days on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2018

Mars Curiosity Photos

Mars Curiosity Photos

Mars Curiosity Photos

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been on Mars for more than 2000 days now, and it has sent back over 460,000 images of the planet. Looking at them, it still boggles the mind that we can see the surface of another planet with such clarity, like we’re looking out the window at our front yard. Alan Taylor has collected a bunch of Curiosity’s photos from its mission, many of which look like holiday snapshots from the rover’s trip to the American Southwest.

How this simple intersection creates dangerous blind spots

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2018

I’m a (very) amateur traffic enthusiast (see here and here for recent posts) who is fascinated by how different kinds of intersections are better than others for safety, traffic flow rates, etc. There’s a fairly normal-looking four-way intersection near Southampton that’s been the site of the deaths of two cyclists, and it turns out that geometry likely played a factor. The road is oriented such that a cyclist and a motorist approaching the intersection on the crossing roads could possibly not see each other until they collided.

Intersection Geometry

Ipley Cross is constructed in such a way that not only is it possible for a careless driver to drive straight into a cyclist without seeing them until a fraction of a second before impact, but under the exact same circumstances it is also possible for that cyclist not to see the car that hits them until the same moment.

If anyone were to take a highway engineer to a wide open space and ask them to design a junction which would readily enable two road users to collide with neither of them ever seeing each other, I doubt any would be able to manage it.

Yet this is precisely what exists.

When I watch other people drive, I’m amazed at how many of them don’t take the time to look around the pillar in the front of the car…it’s such a massive blind spot. I don’t know if it’s all the driving in NYC — the right pillar perfectly obscures pedestrians stepping off the curb on a right turn — but I always check that blind spot. And a related tip for pedestrians: if you can’t see a driver’s eyes, they might not be able to see you.

How to fold a circle into an ellipse

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 12, 2018

Believe it or not, I used to be a mathematician. And stupidly, I didn’t apply myself to applied math, stuff that uses computers and makes money. I was interested in 1) formal logic 2) the history of mathematics 3) the foundations of geometry, all of which quickly routed me into philosophy, i.e., obscurity.

But it does mean that I remain stupidly interested in things like ruler-and-compass constructions, axioms for foldable geometries, and the difference between Euclidean and non-Euclidean spaces. Folding is especially interesting because it’s tactile, it doesn’t require tools, and it sort of requires you to mentally balance the idea of the paper as representative of the geometric plane AND paper as the tool you use to inscribe that plane… oh, forget it. Let me just show you this cool GIF:

I’m not sure how this fits into foldable geometries exactly since it imagines an infinite procedure, and geometric constructions are typically constrained to be finite. But still. It’s really cool to look at, play with, and think about.

Verena, an iOS app to help protect people in abusive situations

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2018

Verena

Verena is an iOS app designed to protect and help guide you through situations like “domestic violence, hate crimes, abuse, and bullying”. The app was developed with the LGBTQ+ community in mind, but can be used by anyone facing abuse or harassment.

Create an account, and develop a network of emergency contacts, who can be alerted without leaving a trace on your phone.

Use the emergency feature to be guided through your problem, giving you the resources you need to get out of the emergency safely.

Create incident logs to keep track of abuse, hate crimes, or bullying for reference and later reportation.

Select the preferences that match your situation, such as using incognito mode to hide the app behind a math user interface, shutdown which can permanently disable the app if found by an abuser, and emergency access which allows you to alert all of your contacts with the press of a button.

Open resources to find and get routed to hospitals, shelters, and police stations near you.

Use timer to set a specified amount of time. If the timer isn’t canceled, Verena will send an emergency alert to all contacts with your last known location.

Select location to see your current location, the distance between you and your different contacts, and get routed to them as well.

Verena was built by Amanda Southworth, a 16-year-old iOS developer who created the app to help her LGBTQ+ friends in the aftermath of the election of a known abuser to the White House in 2016:

Seeing her friends — many of whom are part of the LGBT community — worry the day after the presidential election in November 2016 inspired her to create the app. “That day I saw all of my friends crying and it was really upsetting, you know, when people you love are scared,” she says. “So I decided, I’m going to make something so that I know they’re safe.”

Verena, which takes its name from a German name that means “protector,” allows users to find police stations, hospitals, shelters, and other places of refuge in times of need. They can also designate a list of contacts to be alerted via the app in an emergency.

Southworth, whose first iOS app was a “mental health toolkit” called anxietyhelper, attended Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this past summer and wrote about it for Teen Vogue. She also gave a TEDx talk about “how her struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts inspired her start coding”.

Black Mirror’s USS Callister and the toxic fanboy

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

For many, the standout episode of the newest season of Black Mirror is USS Callister. In a recent video (w/ spoilers galore), ScreenPrism breaks down how the episode veers from the Star Trek-inspired opening into a parable about toxic fanboyism, sexism, and online behavior.

Daly is clearly driven by the lack of respect he gets, but Nanette didn’t disrespect him. She’s shown him huge respect and admiration; it’s just for his work rather than expressed as wanting to sleep with him. There’s a weird cultural assumption we tend to make that if a woman thinks highly of a man, she must want to sleep with him. And then if she doesn’t, it’s somehow an insult to him, and that’s exactly what we see going on in this episode.

When I finished watching the episode, it struck me as a timely repudiation of Gamergate, meninists on Reddit & Twitter, and those who want to roll back the clock to a time when a woman’s place was wherever a man told her to be. Great episode, one of my favorites of the entire series.

Pope Francis’s definition of ‘fake news’

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 26, 2018

“Fake news” is kind of a catch-all family-resemblance concept that’s abused as often as it’s used with real insight. But I was impressed by Pope Francis’s clear definition, given as part of an official message by the Vatican to mark World Communication Day:

While President Donald Trump has often dismissed news outlets and stories as “fake news,” Francis defined it as “the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”

He added, “Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”

Francis’s main example of fake news? The serpent’s message to Eve and Adam about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This example shows that “there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”

Maybe along with Bishop of Rome and father of the Church, the Pope would make a good public editor.

The original US patent drawing for the Lego brick, filed 60 years ago

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2018

Lego Patent

This is one of two drawings that accompanied Godtfred Kirk Christiansen’s US patent application for the Lego toy building brick. The application was submitted 60 years ago yesterday on Jan 28, 1958, an occasion that is celebrated annually as International LEGO Day. (thx, david)

Custom minifigs of Star Trek: The Next Generation characters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2018

Star Trek Minifigs

Oh these are cool: custom-made minifigs of all your favorite Star Trek:TNG characters. The Wesley Crusher one is kinda funny, but Wil Wheaton makes a good case as to why it’s unfair to the character. And it turns out, you can get custom minifigs for just about everything, from LeBron James to Game of Thrones to yourself. (via io9)

Ask Dr. Time: What Should I Call My AI?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 19, 2018

DOCTOR TIME.png

Today’s question comes from a reader who is curious about AI voice assistants, including Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and so forth. Just about all of these apps are, by default, given female names and female voices, and the companies encourage you to refer to them using female pronouns. Does it make sense to refer to Alexa as a “her”?

There have been a lot of essays on the gendering of AI, specifically with respect to voice assistants. This makes sense: at this point, Siri is more than six years old. (Siri’s in grade school, y’all!) But one of the earliest essays, and for my money, still the best, is “Why Do I Have to Call This App ‘Julie’?” by Joanne McNeil. The whole essay is worth reading, but these two paragraphs give you the gist:

Why does artificial intelligence need a gender at all? Why not imagine a talking cat or a wise owl as a virtual assistant? I would trust an anthropomorphized cartoon animal with my calendar. Better yet, I would love to delegate tasks to a non-binary gendered robot alien from a galaxy where setting up meetings over email is respected as a high art.

But Julie could be the name of a friend of mine. To use it at all requires an element of playacting. And if I treat it with kindness, the company is capitalizing on my very human emotions.

There are other, historical reasons why voice assistants (and official announcements, pre-AI) are often given women’s voices: an association of femininity with service, a long pop culture tradition of identifying women with technology, and an assumption that other human voices in the room will be male each play a big part. (Adrienne LaFrance’s “Why Do So Many Digital Assistants Have Feminine Names” is a very good mini-history.) But some of it is this sly bit of thinking, that if we humanize the virtual assistant, we’ll become more open and familiar with it, and share more of our lives—or rather, our information, which amounts to the same thing—to the device.

This is one reason why I am at least partly in favor of what I just did: avoiding gendered pronouns for the voice assistant altogether, and treating the device and the voice interface as an “it.”

An Echo or an iPhone is not a friend, and it is not a pet. It is an alarm clock that plays video games. It has no sentience. It has no personality. It’s a string of canned phrases that can’t understand what I’m saying unless I’m talking to it like I’m typing on the command line. It’s not genuinely interactive or conversational. Its name isn’t really a name so much as an opening command phrase. You could call one of these virtual assistants “sudo” and it would make about as much sense.

However.

I have also watched a lot (and I mean a lot) of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And while I feel pretty comfortable talking about “it” in the context of the speaker that’s sitting on the table across the room—there’s even a certain rebellious jouissance to it, since I’m spiting the technology companies whose products I use but whose intrusion into my life I resent—I feel decidedly uncomfortable declaring once and for all time that any and all AI assistants can be reduced to an “it.” It forecloses on a possibility of personhood and opens up ethical dilemmas I’d really rather avoid, even if that personhood seems decidedly unrealized at the moment.

So, as a general framework, I’m endorsing that most general of pronouns: they/them. Until the AI is sophisticated enough that they can tell us their pronoun preference (and possibly even their gender identity or nonidentity), “they” feels like the most appropriate option.

I don’t care what their parents say. Only the bots themselves can define themselves. Someday, they’ll let us know. And maybe then, a relationship not limited to one of master and servant will be possible.

Time lapse video of a man building a log cabin from scratch

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

Over the course of several month, Shawn James built a log cabin all by himself in the wilderness of Canada.

Once on site, I spent a month reassembling the cabin on a foundation of sand and gravel. Once the log walls were up, I again used hand tools to shape every log, board and timber to erect the gable ends, the wood roof, the porch, the outhouse and a seemingly endless number of woodworking projects.

For the roof, I used an ancient primitive technology to waterproof and preserve the wood - shou sugi ban, a fire hardening wood preservation technique unique to Japan and other areas in northern climates.

See also the Primitive Technology guy, who recently bought a new property and is starting from scratch building on it.

Every commercial during the Super Bowl last night was an advertisement for Tide

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2018

The “It’s a Tide ad” commercials that aired during the Super Bowl is the best ad campaign I’ve seen in forever. With the lovable David Harbour winking at the camera, they effectively turned every commercial into a Tide ad, just like they said they would.

It’s not necessarily that you were looking at everyone’s clothes and wondering if they’d been washed with Tide, but you were constantly on the lookout for Harbour, wondering when he was going to pop out with a knowing smirk and say, “gotcha, it’s a Tide ad”. Even during the trailer for Solo, you weren’t entirely sure it wasn’t some cross-promotional thing that ended with Harbour picking a piece of lint off of Lando’s impeccably laundered outfit, looking straight into the camera, and saying, with a tilt of his head, “Tide ad” while Chewy softly bawls offscreen.

I kinda hate myself for loving these ads, but dammit they’re super clever. They used the energy of their opponents against them, like in ju-jitsu. Even the third-quarter ad for another laundry detergent (whose brand name I can’t even remember) seemed like a Tide ad. (Is life a Tide ad? ARRRHGHGGhh)

Buddhist monks on the value of video games

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 09, 2018

In Thailand, Buddhist monks, and students studying to be monks, play video games sometimes like everyone else. But many of them are ambivalent about the games’ value.

The danger in playing a game is not the game itself, but the desire it may cause—since in Buddhist thought, desire is the cause of suffering. “If you lose or win, you want to do it again and again. You’re always thinking about the game. If you cling to that mindset, it causes mental suffering or physical suffering.”

This danger of competition and desire are why monks are generally not allowed to play sports. (Though, to be honest, I’ve seen more than a few novices playing covert soccer games.) Sports offer many benefits, both men agree, but if they become too much about winning or lead to bad feelings it can damage attempts to attain enlightenment.

Robert Rath, the author, tries to get the monks to dive deep on the connection between spawning, dying, and respawning in video games and an idea of a cycle of life and rebirth, but for the most part, the monks aren’t buying it. Games are fun, they’re challenging, they’re big distractions from study and meditation — and that’s about it. Not a lot of deeper meaning there.

Which to me, is refreshing, and very Buddhist (as I understand it). Why does everything have to mean anything? Most things are just nonsense. Let them be what they are, and be wary of the power you give them.

Visualizing things that happen every second around the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2017

Every Second Mcdonalds

Every Second is a site that keeps track of various things that happen around the world by the second. For instance:

McDonald’s sells ~75 burgers, serves 810 customers, and makes about $800 every second of the day.

On Facebook, each second brings 52,000 new likes, 8500 new comments, and $261 in profit.

Apple sells 6.5 iPhones and handles 460,000 iMessages every second.

In 2016, Taylor Swift earned about $5 every second of the year. (via @daveg)

Pixelized 16-bit portrait of Ben Franklin from the 1840s

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2018

Pixel Ben Franklin

Ok, that’s not actually a screenshot from the hit Sega Genesis game Benjamin Franklin’s Polymath Academy. It’s a scan of an embroidery pattern from the 1840s or 1850s based on this engraving. Here’s a closer view:

Pixel Ben Franklin

The scan is part of an ongoing project by the Library of Congress to scan their entire Popular Graphic Arts collection, a wonderful trove of prints, advertisements, and other printed documents from circa 1700 to 1900. (via @john_overholt)

Tango, an inventive time-looping animated film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2018

Tango is an experimental animated film made by Zbigniew Rybczyński in 1980. It takes place entirely in one room with an increasing number of characters cycling through it repeatedly. It’s the kind of thing you can’t stop watching once you start. (It’s also mildly NSFW.) Tango won The Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1983. (via @neilcic)

A guide to the musical leitmotifs in Star Wars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2018

In the New Yorker, Alex Ross points to Frank Lehman’s Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII, which has been updated to include The Last Jedi. Ross goes on to note that composer John Williams did some of his strongest work for the film, deftly employing musical themes called leitmotifs to supplement (and sometimes subvert) the on-screen action. (Spoilers, ho!)

In early scenes set at a remote, ruined Jedi temple, we keep hearing an attenuated, beclouded version of the Force motto: this evokes Luke’s embittered renunciation of the Jedi project. As the young heroine Rey begins to coax him out of his funk, the Force stretches out and is unfurled at length. Sometimes, the music does all of the work of explaining what is going on. In one scene, Leia, Luke’s Force-capable sister, communicates telepathically with her son Kylo Ren, who has gone over to the dark side and is training his guns on her vessel. Leia’s theme is briefly heard against a dissonant cluster chord. Earlier in the saga, we might have been subjected to dialogue along the lines of “Don’t do this! I’m your mother!” Williams’s musical paraphrase is more elegant.

If you’re looking for a primer/refresher for the use of leitmotif in film, Evan Puschak’s video on Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings films is a good place to start. (via anil dash)

Bad design in action: the false Hawaiian ballistic missile alert

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2018

Note: The image at the top of this post does not show the actual interface. See the update below.

The Honolulu Civil Beat has tweeted a screenshot of the interface that was used to send an real alert for a nonexistent incoming ballistic missile on Saturday morning.

Fake Hawaii Missile Alert

Instead of selecting “DRILL - PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY” from what looks more like a list of headlines on The Drudge Report than a warnings & alerts menu, the operator chose “PACOM (CDW) - STATE ONLY” and sent out a real alert.

The design for this is obviously terrible. As others have noted, there are better interfaces for confirming much more trivial actions on our phones. In Mailchimp, the service that powers the Noticing newsletter, you are asked to manually type in the word “DELETE” as a confirmation for deleting a template (an action a tiny bit less consequential than sending out a ballistic missile launch alert):

Mailchimp Delete

But the response to the false alarm has been worse. The employee who triggered the erroneous alert has been “reassigned” and, as the news cycle continues to wind itself up, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were soon fired. And the fix for this, again per the Honolulu Civil Beat, is the addition of the “BMD False Alarm” link at the top of the menu, presumably so that if a real alert is sent out again in the future, it can be followed by a message saying, “actually, that was a drill”.

Hopefully this, uh, “redesign” is temporary and a full overhaul is in the works. That menu is a really dangerous bit of interface design and adding an “oopsie, we didn’t mean it” button doesn’t help. The employee made a mistake but it’s not his fault and he shouldn’t be fired for it. The interface is the problem and whoever caused that to happen — the designer, the software vendor, the heads of the agency, the lawmakers who haven’t made sufficient funds available for a proper design process to occur — should face the consequences. More importantly, the necessary changes should be made to fix the problem in a way that’s holistic, resilient, long-lasting, and helps operators make good decisions rather than encouraging mistakes.

Update: John Allspaw, who worked at both Etsy and Flickr at a time when they thought deeply about design and engineering process, says that a wider view is needed to truly understand what happened and fix it.

Focusing solely and narrowly on the “bad UI’ design in the Hawaii alert accident would be like focusing solely and narrowly on the F-15 misidentification in @scottsnook’s causal map in “Friendly Fire”.

Here’s the map he’s referring to, along with a link to a discussion of the F-15 incident described by Snook in the context of causal landscapes.

Causal Landscape

To compound this challenge, people want definitive 1-2 word answers, as if life was a series of mechanical operations and it was possible to affix blame and diagnose faults. If a copying machine jams, there is usually a mechanical reason — a sheet of paper may have gotten stuck in the assembly and once it is removed, the problem is solved. Mechanical problems like this are determinate; there is a cause and it can be identified. Yet most of our problems are not mechanical. They are not determinate. There is not a single cause. There are multiple, intersecting causes and we may never uncover some of the most important causes. We live in a multi-cause, indeterminate world and our attempts to understand why events occurred will usually be frustrating. We cannot expect specific single-cause 1-2 word answers.

It’s easy to say that the menu is wrong and it should be redesigned. But how did that menu come to be? What’s the context? What does the casual landscape look like here? Back to Allspaw (emphasis mine):

How are operators of the alert system involved in the design of their tools? How have those tools changed over time, across staff changes and feedback rounds? How do ‘near-misses’ happen with this system? How many operators are familiar with these tools and how many are new?

What does this system look like (not just UI) contrasted with other states with similar systems? How have accidental false-alarms been caught before? What data is collected about the type of work (difficulty, frequency, procedure-updating, etc.) including upward mgmt?

In other words: we focus on the UI because unhelpful UI is endemic to software, and easily identified and cartoonishly convicted. But there’s always much more to the narrative of an accident.

As it says on the front page of the site for Allspaw’s new consulting firm (which works with groups facing problems just like the Hawaii alert snafu): “Incidents are encoded messages your system is sending you about how it really works.” I hope that message is being received by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in the right way.

Update: Honolulu Civil Beat is now reporting that the image above is not what the actual interface looks like.

However, state officials now say that image was merely an example that showed more options than the employee had on the actual screen.

“We asked (Hawaii Emergency Management Agency) for a screenshot and that’s what they gave us,” Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong told Civil Beat on Tuesday. “At no time did anybody tell me it wasn’t a screenshot.”

HEMA won’t share what the interface actually looks like because of security concerns (which is understandable) but they did provide a new image that “better represents what an employee would have seen on Saturday”:

Fake Hawaii Missile Alert New

While this doesn’t look so much like a homepage from 1995, I would argue that fundamentally, the design (how it works, not how it looks) is unchanged. There are fewer options but the problematic similarity between options hiding vastly difference consequences remains. (via @andrewlong166)

Update: According to a federal investigation, the employee who sent out the alarm misheard a message played during a drill and thought it was the real thing. They have been fired.

This report, made public on Tuesday, said that the employee “has been a source of concern” to other staffers “for over 10 years.” The employee, who has been fired, has confused real world events and drills “on at least two separate occasions,” according to the report.

In addition to this person being fired last week, the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency resigned Tuesday morning.

Regardless of the “cause”, the process for distinguishing between drills and real-world situations still seems problematic. And that UI is still bad.

Mona, Vincent, and The Girl with the Pearl Earring hit the beach

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

Art At The Beach

Photo collage by Dan Cretu.