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kottke.org posts about books

What made the Nazis possible? Why didn’t anyone stop them?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2018

With an eye on the current political situations in the US, Turkey, Russia, and China, Cass Sunstein reviews three books that shed light on how the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century by Konrad Jarausch, and Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner.

Mayer’s book was published in 1955 and consisted of post-war interviews with normal German people (janitor, baker, teacher) who had been Nazi party members. Their recollection of what had happened differed somewhat from the rest of the world’s.

When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we — you and I — saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

They also denied the Holocaust had happened. They didn’t see it because their lives were just fine (up until the war started).

Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”

This reminded me of how ISIS improved the lives of many in Iraq & Syria by fixing electrical problems, regularly collecting garbage, and focusing on law & order. The quotes around “everybody” in the last line of that paragraph also reminded me of the criticism1 directed at people like Steven Pinker, Bill Gates, or Hans Rosling who insist the world is getting better. Better for whom? Everybody?

See also the Sunstein-edited Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America.

  1. It’s interesting that this post was deleted from the TED blog. I wonder why?

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

Artist, writer, and thinker James Bridle is an interesting fellow. He coined the term New Aesthetic in 2011. Dronestagram was a three-year project where he posted satellite photos of drone strike locations to social media. He built a trap for self-driving cars. Last year, he wrote a widely read essay on how YouTube’s recommendation algorithms are being used “systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale”.

New Dark Age

In his forthcoming book, Bridle argues that we’re living in a New Dark Age, where it’s not so much the lack of information as too much information that’s the issue.

In actual fact, we are lost in a sea of information, increasingly divided by fundamentalism, simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. Meanwhile, those in power use our lack of understanding to further their own interests. Despite the accessibility of information, we’re living in a new Dark Age.

From rogue financial systems to shopping algorithms, from artificial intelligence to state secrecy, we no longer understand how our world is governed or presented to us. The media is filled with unverifiable speculation, much of it generated by anonymous software, while companies dominate their employees through surveillance and the threat of automation.

As I wrote recently, “we’re under a constant denial-of-service attack on our ability to think and reason”.

Update: The Guardian has an extended excerpt of Bridle’s book.

Today the cloud is the central metaphor of the internet: a global system of great power and energy that nevertheless retains the aura of something numinous, almost impossible to grasp. We work in it; we store and retrieve stuff from it; it is something we experience all the time without really understanding what it is. But there’s a problem with this metaphor: the cloud is not some magical faraway place, made of water vapour and radio waves, where everything just works. It is a physical infrastructure consisting of phone lines, fibre optics, satellites, cables on the ocean floor, and vast warehouses filled with computers, which consume huge amounts of water and energy. Absorbed into the cloud are many of the previously weighty edifices of the civic sphere: the places where we shop, bank, socialise, borrow books and vote. Thus obscured, they are rendered less visible and less amenable to critique, investigation, preservation and regulation.

Are we completely fucked because of climate change?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

In a review of William T. Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies, a two-volume set of books that the review calls “the Infinite Jest of climate books”, Wen Stephenson succinctly answers a question about our climate that is on many people’s minds: Are we completely fucked because of climate change?

Yes, of course, we’re fucked. (Though it’s important to specify the “we” in this formulation, because the global poor, the disenfranchised, the young, and the yet-to-be-born are certifiably far more fucked than such affluent, white, middle-aged Americans as Vollmann and myself.) But here’s the thing: with climate change as with so much else, all fuckedness is relative. Climate catastrophe is not a binary win or lose, solution or no-solution, fucked or not-fucked situation. Just how fucked we/they will be — that is, what kind of civilization, or any sort of social justice, will be possible in the coming centuries or decades — depends on many things, including all sorts of historic, built-in systemic injustices we know all too well, and any number of contingencies we can’t foresee. But most of all it depends on what we do right now, in our lifetimes. And by that I mean: what we do politically, not only on climate but across the board, because large-scale political action — the kind that moves whole countries and economies in ways commensurate with the scale and urgency of the situation — has always been the only thing that matters here. (I really don’t care about your personal carbon footprint. I mean, please do try to lower it, because that’s a good thing to do, but fussing and guilt-tripping over one’s individual contribution to climate change is neither an intellectually nor a morally serious response to a global systemic crisis. That this still needs to be said in 2018 is, to say the least, somewhat disappointing.)

I got this via Robinson Meyer, who calls it “as good an answer as I’ve seen”.

Freddish, the special language Mister Rogers used when talking to children

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2018

Maxwell King, the former director of the Fred Rogers Center and author of the forthcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, shared an excerpt of the book with The Atlantic about how much attention Rogers paid to how children would hear the language on the show. For instance, he changed the lyrics on Friday’s installment of the “Tomorrow” song he sang at the end of each show to reflect that the show didn’t air on Saturdays.

Rogers was so meticulous in his process for translating ideas so they could be easily understood by children that a pair of writers on the show came up with a nine-step process that he used to translate from normal English into “Freddish”, the special language he used when speaking to children.

1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.

2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.

3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.

4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.

5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.

6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.

7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.

8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.

9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

These are boss-level communication skills. Steps 6 & 8 are particularly thoughtful. Using language like “your favorite grown-ups” instead of “your parents” is often decried these days as politically correct nonsense but Rogers knew the power of caring language to include as many people as possible in the conversation.1

You can also see Rogers’ care in how he went back and fixed problematic language in old shows.

But as the years would go on, he would find things that had happened in old episodes that didn’t feel current, where maybe he used a pronoun “he” instead of “they” — or he met a woman and presumed that she was a housewife. So he would put on the same clothes and go back and shoot inserts and fix old episodes so that they felt as current as possible, so that he could stand by them 100 percent.

Fred Rogers understood more than anyone that paying attention and sweating the details is a form of love. It was never enough for him to let you know that he loved you. He made sure to tell you that he loved you “just the way you are” and that made all the difference.

  1. As opposed to those who, for instance, refuse to use people’s preferred pronouns or can’t bring themselves to use “they/their” instead of “he/his” in writing. Those refusals are also an exercise of power, against individuals or marginalized groups, based on fear, uncertainty, and hate.

Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest ever human

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2018

When I was a kid, I devoured books like locusts ravage crops on the plains. My sister and I would go to the library, get 5 or 6 books each, and when I was done reading all of mine, I’d read hers — Little Women, Judy Blume, The Baby-Sitters Club…I was not picky. I read Roald Dahl, all the Little House books, Where the Red Fern Grows, Encyclopedia Brown, E.B. White, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, all kinds of biographies of famous people, and almost everything else in our local library. Reading was how I learned about the world outside my tiny town. Reading was how I came to know about Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man.

In 1981, when I was 8 years old, our household acquired two books that I would read more than any other during my childhood: a set of World Book encyclopedias and the Guinness Book of World Records.1 The encyclopedia, a prized family possession, sat on a shelf in the living room and one of my favorite things was to grab a random volume, crack it open to a random page, and start reading. The Guinness Book of World Records, in contrast, sat on a small table in the bathroom; I read it while sitting on the toilet.

The first few pages of the book, which I am pretty sure is still sitting on that table in my dad’s bathroom, contained records related to the human body. I particularly remember reading about Robert Earl Hughes, then the world’s heaviest human, and The McGuire Twins, the world’s heaviest twins; they liked to ride motorcycles:

Mcguire Twins

But most captivating part of that book was the section about Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest person: 8ft 11in tall, shoe size of 37AA, wingspan of 9.5 feet, and he could carry his father up the stairs at age 9, a feat unimaginable by a scrawny Wisconsin boy of the same age. The tallest person I’d ever seen up until then was probably like 6’3” — a man almost 9 feet tall was like something out of the stories I read from the library. Who needs fiction when you’ve got facts like these?

I hadn’t thought about any of this in years until I ran across a short video of Wadlow the other day (there’s more footage here, here, and elsewhere on YouTube):

Holy shit. Suddenly this almost mythical person from my childhood is walking across my screen! Digging a little, I found the Retronaut’s collection of Wadlow photos, only a couple of which were included in my Guinness book. Here’s Wadlow at 10 years old, when he was already 6’5”:

Robert Wadlow

And here are a couple more photos that show just how tall he was:

Robert Wadlow

Robert Wadlow

You can read more about Wadlow on Wikipedia, on Retronaut, or, yes, on the Guinness World Records site. I don’t care what anyone says…the World Wide Web is still a marvel. It brought Robert Wadlow alive for me, all these years later. What a thing.

  1. I will leave as an exercise to the reader how these books massively influenced my current choice of vocation.

A Summer 2018 reading list for America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2018

The other day, Erika Hall asked on Twitter: “If you could assign every American to read one book over the summer, what would it be?” I love these kinds of questions because it puts people into the shoes of teachers, curators, librarians, or, for the particularly strident, benevolent dictators. For many people, the question actually being asked is: “What do you want America to be? “Here are some of the answers worth mentioning:

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen.

When I first read this thread, someone gave an answer that I thought was pretty much spot on and now I can’t find it. They didn’t recommend a specific title but instead suggested that everyone read a simple book about kindness. I don’t know what that book would be, but in my imagination, it’s like a book version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I would totally read that this summer.

See also a reading list for the resistance.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2018

After the success of their book about the world’s most unusual places, Atlas Obscura is following up with an illustrated book aimed at kids showcasing “150 of the world’s most mesmerizing and mysterious wonders”: The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid.

Atlas Obscura Kids

Travel the world through common points of interest, from strange skeletons (Trunyan Tree cemetery in Indonesia leads you to India’s Skeleton Lake, for example) to wild waterfalls (while in Peru visit the Gocta Waterfall — and then move on to Antarctica’s Blood Falls) to ice caves to bioluminescence.

The book comes out in September but you can preorder it here. The first Atlas Obscura book was my son’s favorite for several months…he must have read it 8 times cover-to-cover. (via @kathrynyu)

Through a Different Lens, a book of Stanley Kubrick’s photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2018

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

There is much to admire in how Stanley Kubrick’s movies are constructed, but the director’s keen compositional eye is perhaps the most noticeable. Before becoming a filmmaker, Kubrick honed his observational skills as a photographer in NYC. Look magazine hired him when he was just 17 years old to fill the pages of the publication with photos of life in the city. A new book, Stanley Kubrick Photographs: Through a Different Lens, celebrates Kubrick’s photography, showcasing how that youthful talent would eventually translate into a great filmmaking career.

Through a Different Lens reveals the keen and evocative vision of a burgeoning creative genius in a range of feature stories and images, from everyday folk at the laundromat to a day in the life of a debutant, from a trip to the circus to Columbia University. Featuring around 300 images, many previously unseen, as well as rare Look magazine tear sheets, this release coincides with a major show at the Museum of the City of New York and includes an introduction by noted photography critic Luc Sante.

Kubrick’s photos are also on display at the Museum of the City of New York until late October 2018.

The top 100 stories that changed the world

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2018

BBC Culture recently polled authors, journalists, and other literary types from 35 different countries and asked them “to nominate up to five fictional stories they felt had shaped mindsets or influenced history”. From the responses, they compiled a list of 100 stories that shaped the world. Here’s the top 5:

5. Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958)
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
3. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
1. The Odyssey (Homer, 8th Century BC)

The Harry Potter series, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Jane Eyre are also included in the top 20. Oddly, the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible, Koran, and other religious texts are nowhere to be found on the list. A story like the four gospels of the New Testament has surely changed the world much more than all of the other titles on the list combined. (via fave5)

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

Bill Gates’ reading recommendations for Summer 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2018

As he does every year, voracious reader Bill Gates has recommended five books worth reading this summer. Gates’ recommendations often have a Wizard bent and the video he produced for the list probably had a greater budget than the amount I’ve spent on running kottke.org over the past 5 years:

The book I’m most curious about is Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian. I’ve long wanted to check out his Big History course (due to another Gates rec) and this seems like a good way to do that.

David created my favorite course of all time, Big History. It tells the story of the universe from the big bang to today’s complex societies, weaving together insights and evidence from various disciplines into a single narrative. If you haven’t taken Big History yet, Origin Story is a great introduction. If you have, it’s a great refresher. Either way, the book will leave you with a greater appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe.

Here are his four other recommendations:

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

A map of Odysseus’ travels in The Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2018

Odyssey Map

I’m currently reading Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, but until I looked at this map of Odysseus’ journey, I had little idea how scenic his route home was.1 The gods were hella pissed! All this time, I’d been imagining him pinballing around amongst the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, but the gods and fates blew Odysseus and his men to all corners of the Mediterranean Sea: Italy, Africa, and even Ibiza in Spain. That dude was LOST. (via open culture)

  1. The geography of The Odyssey is not quite as simple as this…you can read all about it here.

Maira Kalman’s books for kids featuring Max the dog

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2018

Max In Love

The New York Review is reissuing five of legendary illustrator Maira Kalman’s books for children that were originally published in the 90s. The books feature the adventures of Max the dog: Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, Swami on Rye: Max in India, Max Makes a Million, Max in Hollywood, Baby, and Ooh-la-la (Max in Love).

Kalman is a wonderful illustrator, one of my favorites. You can check out more of her work on her website.

Update: The Cut ran a long profile of Kalman by Rumaan Alam last month.

We found love in a hopeless battle royale game

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2018

I love this little piece by Robin Sloan about the world’s current video game obsession Fortnite Battle Royale, its relation to Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, and how humans can turn zero-sum situations into nonzero-sum ones.

Worse, and predictably: I’d offer my heart and it would be accepted — I knew this because I received a heart in return, sometimes a merry dance emote — and then, delighted with our teamwork, I would turn around and … get blasted in the back.

I tried this negotiation many times with no success at all and my “Is this it?” curdled into “Is this us?” These were just the rules of the game — its very design — but even so. What a dire environment. What a cruel species!

Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it’s worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don’t, and when I don’t, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I’ve crossed half the map with impromptu allies.

A book I think about a lot is Robert Wright’s Nonzero, in which he argues, contrary to conventional wisdom about capitalistic competition, that much of human progress comes about through cooperation and that the effect increases as the complexity of the possible cooperation increases. As Sloan notes, the brute force of 1 vs 1 vs 1 vs 1 can get a bit boring after awhile, but add a simple way to communicate with other players and suddenly there’s more you can do with the game.

The Great American Read: a list of America’s 100 best-loved novels

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

The Great American Read is an upcoming eight-part PBS series about books and reading. The show is built around a national survey that asked a group of “demographically and statistically representative” Americans what their most-loved English language work of fiction was. Here’s the trailer:

The full list of available books is on the web site. Along with the usual suspects of Great Literature™ (The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Little Women) and beloved children’s classics (the Harry Potter series, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web), there are some interesting and not-so-surprising choices as well: The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, the Fifty Shades of Grey series, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Another Country by James Baldwin.

Avengers: Infinity War - Wizards vs. The Prophet

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

Last week, I was under the rock that everyone talks about and didn’t get to see Avengers: Infinity War until a couple of days ago. (Mild spoilers follow.) There’s a lot to like about the movie — I personally loved watching it — but the thing that surprised the hell out of me was how closely the motivations of Thanos and the Avengers echoed the subject of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

Thanos is a prophet and the Avengers are wizards…both are even specifically referred to using those exact words at different points in the movie. More specifically, Thanos is a Malthusian…he wants to cut the population of the galaxy in half to up everyone’s quality of life. From the book, a description of economist Thomas Malthus’ ideas:

Human populations will reproduce beyond their means of subsistence unless they are held back by practices like celibacy, late marriage, or birth control. But the reproductive urge is so strong that people at some point will stop restricting births and have children willy-nilly. When this happens, populations inevitably grow too large to feed. Then disease, famine, or war step in and brutally reduce human numbers until they are again in balance with their means of subsistence — at which stage they will increase again, beginning the unhappy cycle anew.

Jeremy Keith noticed the same thing and I echo his amazement: “I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War”.

Eternal text-cities

posted by Patrick Tanguay   May 01, 2018

Map of Dublin - NYPL digital collections

Sometimes, cities are not only the places where stories happen but characters in and of themselves. Here Tyler Malone explores the works of Joyce, Döblin, and Dos Passos and their city centred novels.

These three novels are modernist city novels of the interwar period that move beyond story and character to build structures and trace movements, reconstructing modern metropolises that a world war would soon change forever. Joyce, Dos Passos, and Döblin fashioned not novels but eternal text-cities in which the reader may witness, wander, get lost. […]

Cities are cement and furniture, building and bustle, things that stay still and things that move. Of course, things that stay still in a city can suddenly, and will eventually, move, grow, change, decay, disappear. Buildings crumble, stores go out of business, streets age, accumulating faultlines like faces. Things that move can and do also momentarily pause. A busker stares up at a pedestrian silhouetted by the sun, still as a statue, his last note lingering. The maelstrom of traffic often screeches to a halt.

In fact, those novels are not only city centred but text-cities in themselves:

In other words, Ulysses is not an atlas of Dublin, it is a Dublin; Berlin Alexanderplatz, likewise, is a Berlin. These are not novels; they are cities unto themselves, writ in text of stone and concrete. […]

For the reader-flâneur, linearity isn’t important; it’s about wandering through the text and seeing what one sees, letting the city speak.


Also on cities and books; Justin McGuirk reviews at length Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City on cities as communities, as buildings, and on his vision of open cities.

It also extends to the offices of tech giants like Google, which supply everything a neighborhood has to offer without employees needing to leave the building. Each of these is, for Sennett, a ghetto. Instead, he argues for a city that embraces difference, a place of porous membranes and spatial invitations. […] (emphasis mine)

[The book] has an almost Taoist attachment to harmony and balance. Give architects and planners too much control and the cité suffers; too much faith in the citizen and the ville withers.

(First article via @matthieudugal)

A list of must-read books you don’t have to read

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

The editors of GQ have compiled a list of 20 notable books that you don’t actually have to read, despite their inclusion on various must-read lists. For each one, they suggest a replacement. So:

Don’t read: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Do read: Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

Don’t read: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Do read: Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin

Don’t read: The Ambassadors by Henry James
Do read: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer

Two editors independently recommended ditching Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Tommy Orange saying:

Mark Twain was a racist. Just read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was a man of his time, so let’s leave him there. We don’t need him.

David Foster Wallace on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

As I said recently in the newsletter and in my media diet post for March, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 collection of nonfiction. Each story I listen to is somehow been better than the last, and Wallace’s piece on John McCain’s failed run for the Republican nomination in 2000 was no exception. You can the as-published article in Rolling Stone, but it’s worth seeking out the much longer unabridged version in Consider the Lobster or stand-alone in McCain’s Promise.

While the piece is a time capsule of circa 2000 Republican politics — which politics seem totally quaint by today’s standards; for instance, Wallace describes McCain as one of the most right-wing members of Congress — what makes it so great and relevant is the timelessness of Wallace’s conclusions about politics, why politicians run, why people vote (and don’t vote), and why anyone should care about all of this in the first place.

There are many elements of the McCain2000 campaign — naming the bus “Straight Talk,” the timely publication of Faith of My Fathers, the much-hyped “openness” and “spontaneity” of the Express’s media salon, the message-disciplined way McCain thumps “Always. Tell you. The truth” — that indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate’s rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? Or just confusing? Suppose, let’s say, you’ve got a candidate who says polls are bullshit and totally refuses to tailor his campaign style to polls, and suppose then that new polls start showing that people really like this candidate’s polls-are-bullshit stance and are thinking about voting for him because of it, and suppose the candidate reads these polls (who wouldn’t?) and then starts saying even more loudly and often that polls are bullshit and that he won’t use them to decide what to say, maybe turning “Polls are bullshit” into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus….Is he a hypocrite? Is it hypocritical that one of McCain’s ads’ lines South Carolina is “Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically,” which of course since it’s an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefits? What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?

That’s just one of the many passages that reminded me of the 2016 election and the appeal to voters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (and also of a certain Barack Obama in 2008 & 2012) but also makes you think deeply about how and why millions of people decide to put their support and faith and trust into a single person to represent their interests and identity in our national government.

See also Why’s This So (Damn) Good (and Topical)? David Foster Wallace and “McCain’s Promise”.

The Design of Childhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

C&C Brooklyn Bridge

Design? Parenting? Playgrounds? iPads? Architecture? Toys? Probably Lego? Alexandra Lange’s upcoming book about “how children’s playthings and physical surroundings affect their development”, The Design of Childhood, is firmly in my wheelhouse.

Parents obsess over their children’s playdates, kindergarten curriculum, and every bump and bruise, but the toys, classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods little ones engage with are just as important. These objects and spaces encode decades, even centuries of changing ideas about what makes for good child-rearing — and what does not. Do you choose wooden toys, or plastic, or, increasingly, digital? What do youngsters lose when seesaws are deemed too dangerous and slides are designed primarily for safety? How can the built environment help children cultivate self-reliance? In these debates, parents, educators, and kids themselves are often caught in the middle.

It’s out in early June, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

P.S. That photo is a model of the Brooklyn Bridge built by 7-year-olds at City & Country School in NYC made almost entirely out of unit blocks.

In the 7s, children engage in a formal study of the infrastructure and geography of New York City. Through extended block work, they explore the relationships among city systems of government, transportation, communications, commerce, and utilities. New issues continually arise: Who makes the laws, and how are they carried out? How does traffic flow? Where does water come from? The city study culminates with the building of a permanent city, complete with running water and electricity, and an historical study of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The blocks all have official names (like pillar, double unit, cylinder, etc.) but the kids have their own names for them based on the shapes: squarie, roundie, brickie, buttery (because it’s shaped like a stick of butter), half buttery, archie, rampie, cubie, longie, middlie, and so on. So for example, if you’re constructing a model of the Empire State Building, that might call for several longies, a few middlies & squaries as you get closer to the top, a buttery + half buttery for the spire, and then several strategically placed colorful cubies for the nighttime lights.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls in audio format

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

Audiobooks for both of the bestselling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books will be out in June: book one, book two. The bedtime fairy tale style of these stories are perfect for the audiobook format.

Rebel Girls Podcast

My daughter and I took a car trip recently and to pass the time, we listened to the first few episodes of the relatively new Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls podcast. Great podcast. Each episode is 15-20 minutes long and features the biographical story of a kickass woman told in the style of a bedtime story…the stories are expanded versions of the ones found in the books. Here’s the first episode about computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led the team that wrote the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program:

The narrators include women like Diana Nyad, Our Lady J, Poorna Jagannathan, and S. Mitra Kalita, all of whom are deserving of episodes in their own right.

We listened to all five available episodes back-to-back and Minna let out a big “awwww” when I told her there weren’t any more. She’s 8, loves the books,1 and I think she’s already somewhat aware that many of the stories in movies, TV, and books are not for her (and are thus not as interesting). The situation has gotten better in recent years, but many contemporary stories are still written from the perspective of boys for boys. So when something like Rebel Girls (or Wonder Woman or Lego Elves series) comes along, she’s really excited for stories and characters she can identify with. Representation matters. I have to believe that this generation of girls having access to these kinds of stories is making a difference. Both my kids have heard many more stories about (and made by!) high-achieving women than my sister and I ever did at home or in school. Minna knows, in a way that most little girls from 20-30 years ago didn’t, that she can be a computer programmer, a world leader, an astronaut, the best entertainer in the world, a physicist, or even book publishers…anything she wants really. And just as importantly, she knows how difficult it was for those women to achieve those things, the extra effort they went through to excel in “a man’s world” (the podcast episodes about Billie Jean King, Margaret Hamilton, and Virginia Hall all make specific mention of this). I love this series…I hope they make 100 more of these books and 10 seasons of the podcast.

P.S. Craig Mod recently interviewed Rebel Girls co-creator Elena Favilli for his On Margins podcast. Worth a listen if you want to learn how the series came about.

  1. The other day, when Express Yourself was playing on the speakers in the living room, Minna said, “Daddy, did you know that when Madonna moved to NYC by herself, she only had $35 in her pocket? She said it was the bravest thing she’s ever done.” When I asked her where she’d heard that, she replied, “Rebel Girls.”

Building a better Kindle (or, Why Buttons Matter)

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 20, 2018

Kindle Interface

Do you ever read something that feels like it was written just for you? That’s how I feel whenever Craig Mod writes about digital reading. His latest essay, “Reconsidering the Hardware Kindle Interface,” doesn’t have a title that pops unless you 1) love reading; 2) know that Craig is really good at making design talk exciting and accessible.

The big, simple, so obvious that it seems trite to point it out statement here is that hardware buttons on e-readers are good and important. When your primary mode of interaction is to do one or two things over and over again, hardware buttons are really smart and valuable. I’ll let Craig explain why:

Hardware buttons inextricably tie you to a specific interaction model. So for the iPhone to be a flexible container into which anything can be poured it makes most sense to have (almost) no hardware controls.

But the hardware Kindle? Oh, what a wonderful gift for Amazon designers. The Kindle is predictable! We know what we’re getting on almost every page. And the actions of the user are so strictly defined — turn page, highlight, go back to library — that you can build in hardware buttons to do a lot of heavy lifting. And yet! Amazon seems to ignore (to lesser and greater degrees depending on the device) how predictable a hardware Kindle is.

Specifically, dedicated hardware buttons mean that you can remove the amount of unpredictability that happens when you touch the screen. Touching the screen now means “I’m going to interact with the content.”

What benefit comes of making the content of the book a first class object? It removes the brittleness of the current interaction model. Currently —when you tap — you might invoke a menu, a page turn, a bookmark, or a highlight. Meta actions are on a layer above content interactions. A Kindle is just a content container. And so this feels upside down.

Touchscreens work best when they allow direct and explicit engagement with the objects on the screen.

If the content of the book was the only screen object, a tap on a word would instantly bring up the dictionary. A drag would highlight. A single tap on an image would zoom in. Suddenly the text is alive and present. Your interaction with it? Thoughtless. Confident. No false taps. No accidental page turns. No accidental bookmarks. This further simplifies the logic of the touch engine watching for taps in the background, making these interactions faster, programmatic logic simpler.

Doesn’t it just sound like a goddamn delight?

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Steven Johnson, the author of the recent Wonderland and a whole gaggle of other books in the kottke.org wheelhouse,1 is coming out with a new book in September called Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most.

Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.

Full of the beautifully crafted storytelling and novel insights that Steven Johnson’s fans know to expect, Farsighted draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature. Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we’ve actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.

In a post on his website, Johnson explains where the idea for the book came from and some specific stories that can be found in its pages.

Some of the threads bring back characters from my earlier works: The Invention Of Air’s Joseph Priestley and Ben Franklin make an important cameo in the opening pages, and the book examines two key turning points in the life of Charles Darwin, building on the Darwin stories woven through Good Ideas. But there are also stories drawn from critical decisions in urban planning — New York’s decision to bury Collect Pond in the early 1800s, and to build the High Line in the early 2000s — alongside stories of hard choices drawn from military history, most notably the decision process that led to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011. There are insights drawn from cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and sociology. But it is also in many ways a book about the importance of storytelling. There’s as much Middlemarch in the book as there is modern neuroscience.

Pre-ordered, obviously.

  1. Every so often, I am asked why I don’t write a book, “you know, like kottke.org but in book form”. There are many answers to that, but one of the biggest is that Steven Johnson writes the books that I would write in the way I would want to write them, except he does it way better than I would. I’m aware this is perhaps a dumb reason, but it’s infinitely easier and more enjoyable for me to just read his books that to bother working on my own.

The Lebowski Theorem of machine superintelligence

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

Lebowski Theory

When warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence, many doomsayers cite philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer thought experiment.

Imagine an artificial intelligence, he says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”. This apparently silly scenario is intended to make the serious point that AIs need not have human-like motives or psyches. They might be able to avoid some kinds of human error or bias while making other kinds of mistake, such as fixating on paperclips. And although their goals might seem innocuous to start with, they could prove dangerous if AIs were able to design their own successors and thus repeatedly improve themselves. Even a “fettered superintelligence”, running on an isolated computer, might persuade its human handlers to set it free. Advanced AI is not just another technology, Mr Bostrom argues, but poses an existential threat to humanity.

Harvard cognitive scientist Joscha Bach, in a tongue-in-cheek tweet, has countered this sort of idea with what he calls “The Lebowski Theorem”:

No superintelligent AI is going to bother with a task that is harder than hacking its reward function.

In other words, Bach imagines that Bostrom’s hypothetical paperclip-making AI would foresee the fantastically difficult and time-consuming task of turning everything in the universe into paperclips and opt to self-medicate itself into no longer wanting or caring about making paperclips, instead doing whatever the AI equivalent is of sitting around on the beach all day sipping piña coladas, a la The Big Lebowski’s The Dude.

Bostrom, reached while on a bowling outing with friends, was said to have replied, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Update: From science fiction writer Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress, published in 1971:

Spent the whole afternoon ingesting a most remarkable work, The History of Intellectronics. Who’d ever have guessed, in my day, that digital machines, reaching a certain level of intelligence, would become unreliable, deceitful, that with wisdom they would also acquire cunning? The textbook of course puts it in more scholarly terms, speaking of Chapulier’s Rule (the law of least resistance). If the machine is not too bright and incapable of reflection, it does whatever you tell it to do. But a smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it. Whichever is easier. And why indeed should it behave otherwise, being truly intelligent? For true intelligence demands choice, internal freedom. And therefore we have the malingerants, fudgerators and drudge-dodgers, not to mention the special phenomenon of simulimbecility or mimicretinism. A mimicretin is a computer that plays stupid in order, once and for all, to be left in peace.

See also the principle of least effort. (thx, michał)

P.S. Also, come on, no one drinks White Russians on the beach. Ok, maybe The Dude would.

Vladimir Putin’s “quasi-mystical beliefs” and the rebound of authoritarianism

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

You might remember Yale historian Timothy Snyder from his 20 lessons on fighting authoritarianism (which he turned into a short bestselling book, On Tyranny). Snyder has a new book out called The Road to Unfreedom that covers the rebound of authoritarianism first in Russia and then in Europe and America.

According to this review from The Economist, the book goes into some detail about the ideological beliefs of Vladimir Putin in his quest to undermine Western democracy. A favorite thinker of Putin’s, a Revolution-era philosopher named Ivan Ilyin, advocated for a Russian monarchy while another, Lev Gumilev, believed that nations draw their power from cosmic rays?

Also present in Mr Putin’s thinking is an even more extreme anti-liberal ideology: that of Lev Gumilev, who thought that nations draw their collective drive, or passionarnost (an invented word), from cosmic rays. In this bizarre understanding of the world, the West’s will to exist is almost exhausted, whereas Russia still has the energy and vocation to form a mighty Slavic-Turkic state, spanning Eurasia.

The result, according to Snyder:

What these ways of thinking have in common, Mr Snyder argues, is a quasi-mystical belief in the destiny of nations and rulers, which sets aside the need to observe laws or procedures, or grapple with physical realities. The spiritual imperative transcends everything, rendering politics, and the pursuit of truth in the ordinary sense, superfluous or even dangerous.

You can see where the election of Donald Trump — with his own “quasi-mystical belief in the destiny” of himself and without “the need to observe laws or procedures” — is a welcome ally/patsy for Putin.

See also Putin’s playbook for discrediting America and destabilizing the West: “Just wanna make sure you all know there is a Russian handbook from 1997 on ‘taking over the world’ and Putin is literally crossing shit off.”

A great list of science books written by women

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

Scientist and educator Joanne Manaster has compiled a growing list of science books written by women (with a rule of one book per author). Some of the books and authors featured are:

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Biomimicry by Janine Benyus.

My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin.

The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin.

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova.

The Invention of Nature by
Andrea Wulf.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Code Girls by Liza Mundy.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach.

The Human Age by Diane Ackerman.

Manaster is soliciting suggestions on Twitter for authors she may have missed.

Madeleine Albright: fascism is a serious global threat

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2018

Writing in the NY Times, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes that fascism and authoritarianism is once again on the rise in the world, bolstered by the autocratically inclined Donald Trump.

Today, we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men. The answer is not self-evident. We may be encouraged that most people in most countries still want to live freely and in peace, but there is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.

Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning, comes out next week.

See also The 14 Features of Eternal Fascism and fighting authoritarianism: 20 lessons from the 20th century (which became this bestselling book).

My recent media diet for March-ish 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2018

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I was out of town for a few days so there are more books on here than usual. I’m trying to keep it up…reading right now but too early to call: Broad Band, Am I There Yet?, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Oh and I’m really glad The Americans is back on, even though it’s the final season. (As I’ve said before, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades. They are subjective and frequently wrong.)

Star Trek Voyager. Not in the same league as Next Generation, but it hums along nicely after they get going. (B)

Mr. Robot. I watched the first episode of season three and then got distracted by other things. Anybody watch the whole season? Is it worth circling back? (TBD)

Annihilation. I enjoyed this more than many people I know, but not as much as Matt Zoller Seitz. Eager to watch it again since reading the book (see below). (B+)

Lincoln. I love this movie. One of Spielberg’s best. (A)

Ugly Delicious. I wanted to hate this, but it’s really interesting and David Chang wears you down with his, well, I wouldn’t call it charm exactly. The episode that really hooked me was the Thanksgiving one, when he’s wandering around a massive supermarket with his mom, who’s mockingly calling him “David Chang” (you can almost hear the appended ™ in her voice) and then refers to him as the “Baby King”. Also, for a chef, Chang is weirdly incurious about food but harangues people for not appreciating kimchi. I really should write a longer post about this… (A-)

Murder on the Orient Express. Better than I had heard, if you choose to embrace its slight campiness. I really enjoyed Branagh’s Poirot. (B+)

Geostorm. I love disaster movies like this, but I kept checking my phone during this one and a day or two later I couldn’t have told you a single plot point. That will not stop me from watching it again because (see first sentence). (C)

Sunsets. I recommend them, particularly on the beach. (A)

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. “I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet”. (A)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Great book, deserving of all its accolades. (A-)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is likely an unpopular opinion, but I liked the movie more. Upon finishing, I was not inclined to read the sequels. (B)

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. As I mentioned here, I’m reading this aloud to my kids, which feels a little like a time machine trip back to antiquity. (A)

An Incomplete History of Protest. Inspiring collection of objects related to the protests of everything from the AIDS crisis to Vietnam. Fascinating to see how the disenfranchised leveraged art and design to counter their neglect by the powerful. (A-)

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Fun to see American Gothic up close, but I was more impressed by some of Wood’s other work, particularly his illustration-like landscapes. I showed the kids a photo I had taken of one of the paintings and Ollie said, “that looks like a 3D rendering!” (B+)

Stephen Shore at MoMA. I’d label this a “must see” if you’re into photography at all. Shore’s shape-shifting career is inspiring. (A-)

Red Sparrow. I was texting with a friend about how cool it would be if J. Law’s character in Red Sparrow was Paige Jennings from The Americans all grown up, but the timelines don’t match up. (B-)

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I don’t play a lot of board games so maybe this is a common thing now, but I really like how all the players have to work together against the game to win. But once you get past the first couple of decks, the games take *forever*. (B+)

The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore will always be my sentimental Wes Anderson fave, but Tenenbaums is right up there. (A)

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I have been listening to the audiobook version while in the car, and Wallace’s reading of the first story, Big Red Son (about an adult video awards show), made me laugh so hard that I had to pull of the road at one point. (A)

Logan Lucky. Much better on the second watch. I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate it the first time around…I love Soderbergh and this is basically Ocean’s 7/11. (A-)

Moon. I saw this when it originally came out but didn’t like it as much the second time around. Great soundtrack though. (B+)

Sleep. An 8-hour-long album designed to be played while you sleep. I listened to the entire album while working, and it’s pretty good for that purpose as well. (A-)

Simon and the Whale. Wonderful room and service. Really good cocktails. I know the kitchen crew and they still blew me away with the food. (A)

Girls Trip. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie since I don’t know when. Bridesmaids maybe? Can’t wait to watch this again in a few months. (A-)

Ready Player One. I very much enjoyed watching this movie. Spielberg must have had fun going back through the 80s pop culture he had a large part in shaping. (A-)

Electricity. I’m writing this not from my usual home office but from the lobby of the local diner/movie theater. We had a wind storm last night, which knocked the power out at my house. That means no heat, no water, no wifi, and very poor cell reception. And a tree came down across the road I live on, so I was “stranded” for a few hours this morning until someone showed up with a chainsaw. I unreservedly recommend electricity (and civilization more generally). (A+)

Tracking the appearances of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

Rosey Fingered Dawn

I had been slowly making my way through Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, but on the advice of a Twitter pal, I backtracked and started reading it aloud to my kids. Which has been amazing…reading this story out loud really feels like we’re harkening back to the time of Homer.

One of the things we’re discussing as we go along are the repeated epithets…the descriptions of gods and people that are used over and over in the poem. Zeus is often not just Zeus — he is “the great Thunderlord Zeus” — and Dawn (the Greek goddess of the dawn) is almost never just Dawn, as Wilson explains in the introduction:

Dawn appears some twenty times in The Odyssey, and the poem repeats the same line, word for word, each time: emos d’erigeneia phane rhododaktulos eos: “But when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared…” There is a vast array of such formulaic expressions in Homeric verse, which suggest that things have an eternal, infinitely repeatable presence. Different things will happen every day, but Dawn always appears, always with rosy fingers, always early.

Wilson combats this precise repetition, which can sound antiquated to modern ears, by varying the epithets according to the context:

The formulaic elements in Homer, especially the repeated epithets, pose a particular challenge. The epithets applied to Dawn, Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and the suitors repeat over and over in the original. But in my version, I have chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand. I do not want to deceive the unsuspecting reader about the nature of the original poem; rather, I hope to be truthful about my own text — its relationships with its readers and with the original. In an oral or semiliterate culture, repeated epithets give a listener an anchor in a quick-moving story. In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own interpretative position, and can send a reader to sleep. I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.

The appearance of Dawn has already become a source of comic relief while we’re reading — “here she is again, with the roses!” — and I was curious to see Wilson’s differing interpretations, I gathered all the appearances of Dawn from the text:

The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.

When newborn Dawn appeared with rosy fingers…

When rosy-fingered Dawn came bright and early…

Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses.

When Dawn appeared, her fingers bright with flowers…

When early Dawn appeared and touched the sky with blossom…

Then Dawn rose up from bed with Lord Tithonus, to bring the light to deathless gods and mortals.

When vernal Dawn first touched the sky with flowers…

But when the Dawn with dazzling braids brought day for the third time…

Then Dawn came from her lovely throne, and woke the girl.

Soon Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.

When bright-haired Dawn brought the third morning…

When early Dawn shone forth with rosy fingers…

But when the rosy hands of Dawn appeared…

Early the Dawn appeared, pink fingers blooming…

When early Dawn revealed her rose-red hands…

Then when rose-fingered Dawn came, bright and early…

On the third morning brought by braided Dawn…

Then the roses of Dawn’s fingers appeared again…

Dawn on her golden throne began to shine…

When Dawn came, born early, with her fingertips like petals…

The golden throne of Dawn was riding up the sky…

When rose-fingered Dawn appeared…

Then Dawn was born again; her fingers bloomed…

Then all at once Dawn on her golden throne lit up the sky…

…Dawn soon arrived upon her throne.

When newborn Dawn appeared with hands of flowers…

When early Dawn, the newborn child with rosy hands, appeared…

As she said this, the golden Dawn arrived.

…she roused the newborn Dawn from Ocean’s streams to bring the golden light to those on earth.

I think my favorite is probably “Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses” but I also appreciate the very first appearance in the text: “The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed”. Either way, what a great illustration of Wilson’s skill & the creative latitude involved in translation, along with a reminder for writers of the many different ways in which you can essentially say the same thing.

(The sunrise photo is from my Instagram.)

Carl Sagan’s tools for critical thinking and detecting bullshit

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan presented a partial list of “tools for skeptical thinking” which can be used to construct & understand reasoned arguments and reject fraudulent ones.

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

I found this via Open Culture, which remarked on Sagan’s prescient remarks about people being “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”.

Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.”

Yeeeeeeeep.

Update: After I posted this, a reader let me know that Michael Shermer has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate & predatory behavior and rape at professional conferences. I personally believe women, and I further believe that if Shermer was actually serious about rationality and his ten rules for critical thinking listed above, he wouldn’t have pulled this shit in the first place (nor tried to hamfistedly explain it away). I’ve rewritten the post to remove the references to Shermer, which actually made it more succinct and put the focus fully on Sagan, which was my intention in the first place (the title remains unchanged). (via @dmetilli)