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My Recent Media Diet, the Belated End of 2021 Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2022

“Recent” is increasingly becoming a lie with these media diet posts…the last one I did was back on Sept 13, right before my life went to hell in a handcart for a couple of months.1 So let’s get to it: a list of short reviews of all the movies, books, music, TV shows, podcasts, and other things I’ve enjoyed (or not) in the last few months of 2021 (as well as a few 2022 items). As usual, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades — they are subjective and inconsistent. Oh and some of this stuff might have already popped up in my end-of-2021 review, but I’ll try and say something different about them here.

The Great British Baking Show. I already covered this in the last media diet (and the year-end review), but I wanted to include it here as well because it’s become a real favorite. Rahul 4eva! (A)

Project Hail Mary. After my whole family read this and couldn’t stop talking about it, I had to read it too. And……it was alright. I guess I don’t quite get the acclaim for this book — reminded me of a sci-fi Da Vinci Code. Looking forward to the movie being better. (B)

The French Dispatch. Maybe my favorite Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tenenbaums? (A)

The Hunger Games. I watched all four movies in this series because I needed something familiar and also mindless to switch my brain off. (B+)

Ted Lasso (season two). Not quite as good as the first season and definitely not as beloved because they had some new ground to cover, but I enjoyed the season as a whole. And put me down as a fan of the Coach Beard Rumspringa episode. (A-)

Izakaya Minato. I don’t exactly know what it was about this meal, but I’m still thinking about it more than 3 months later. Really fresh, clean, creative food. (A)

Magnus on Water. Amazing cocktails, great service, and the outdoor seating area was just right. (A-)

The Lost Daughter. Gah, so good! Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, and Jessie Buckley are all fantastic and the direction and cinematography (all those tight, almost suffocating shots) were just great. Gonna be thinking about this one for awhile. (A+)

Therapy. I’ve got more to say about this at some point, but I’ve been seeing a therapist since September and it’s been really helpful. (A)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I enjoyed this quite a bit, more than Black Widow or The Eternals (haven’t seen latest Spidey yet). (B+)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soundtrack. Really, really good — been blasting this in the car a lot lately. (A)

Dune. Felt good to see a serious blockbuster in the theater again. And to be able to rewatch it on HBO Max a couple of weeks later. (A-)

Ravine. I’ve only played this a couple of times with the kids, but it got high marks all around for fun and quick rounds. (B+)

The Power of the Dog. A slow burn with a great payoff. Wonderful cast & direction. (A)

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I loved the first half of this book — lots of pithy observations about social media. (B+)

Don’t Look Up. Everyone is comparing this to Dr Strangelove and while it’s not quite on that level, it certainly does some of the same things for climate change that DS did for nuclear war. (A)

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. A super interesting mix of historical fact and narrative fiction about the swift technological changes that took place in the early 20th century that altered history in small and large ways. (A-)

Wingspan. Bought this game after reading Dan Kois’ review and our family has been enjoying it. (B+)

Pirates of the Caribbean. Still fun. I remember being very skeptical before seeing this for the first time back when it came out, but as soon as Jack Sparrow stepped off his sinking ship right onto the dock, I knew it was going to be good. (A-)

Clear and Present Danger. I don’t actually remember watching much of this…must have switched off my brain too much. (-)

Spies in Disguise. I read the plot synopsis of this on Wikipedia and I still don’t remember watching any of it. I think the kids liked it? (-)

The Courier. Solid spy thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Based on a true story. (B+)

Finch. Charming but nothing much actually happens? (B)

Eternals. Now that the Infinity Saga is done, I’m not sure how much interest I’m going to have in some of these new characters & storylines. (B)

Mad Max Fury Road. Seventh rewatch? Eighth? I just plain love this movie. (A)

No Time to Die. I am not really a James Bond fan but I liked this one. (B+)

Succession (season three). This got off to a bit of a slow, meandering start, but the last few episodes were just fantastic. (A)

Omicron variant. You think you’re out but they keep pulling you back in. (F-)

Swimming with bioluminescent plankton. Thought the water was going to glow as I swam through it, but it was more like sparkly fireworks. Magical. (A)

Xolo Tacos. We stumbled in here for dinner after nothing else looked good and were rewarded with the best tacos on Holbox. The carne asada taco might be the best taco I’ve had in years and we ended up ordering a second round. (A)

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. I liked this one slightly less than her first two novels. But only slightly. (A-)

Free Guy. Fun entrant into the video game movie genre. (B+)

Hacks. It was fine but ultimately didn’t understand why so many people on my timeline were raving about this. (B+)

NY Times Crossword app. I’ve never been much for crossword puzzles, but the Times app does all the fiddly work (e.g. of finding the current clue’s boxes, etc.) for me so I’ve been enjoying dipping my toe into the Monday and Tuesday puzzles. But the Minis and Spelling Bee are where it’s at for me. (B+)

The Hunt for Red October. Still a great thriller. (A-)

Avatar: The Last Airbender. After watching The Legend of Korra, the kids and I went back to watch Avatar. The first season and a half is kinda uneven, but overall we really liked it. The beach episode has to be one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on television and the one where Aang is hallucinating from the lack of sleep made my kids laugh so hard I thought they were going to pass out. (A-)

The Matrix Resurrections. I am someone who didn’t dislike the second and third Matrix movies as much as everyone else seemed to, and so it is with this one as well. Wish I could have seen this in the theater, but Omicron. (A-)

The Wrong Trousers. The last five minutes is still maybe the best chase scene in movie history. (A)

Preview of the next media diet: I am enjoying the hell out of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, want to read The Lost Daughter, just started the last season of The Expanse, listening to the audiobook version of Exhalation, want to check out Station Eleven on HBO Max, and plan on watching Pig, Drive My Car, and Licorice Pizza. Oh, and I need to dig into the second seasons of The Great and For All Mankind. And more GBBO! We’ll see how much of that I actually follow through on…

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

  1. Nothing serious, I am embarrassed to say. I just got really into the weeds with a number of things and I kinda fell to pieces.

Extreme Macro Photography of Eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

closeup photo of an eye

I have featured Suren Manvelyan’s ultra-macro photos of human eyes on the site before, but since I think about them all the time, here they are again. I just wish the images were bigger. Manvelyan has also shot a bunch of animal eyes at close range — this is a llama eye:

closeup photo of a llama eye

A Video Countdown of the 25 Best Films of 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2022

I look forward to this every year: David Ehrlich’s video countdown of the 25 best films of 2021. It’s like a trailer for an entire year’s worth of movies, lovingly constructed by a movie fan, critic, and editor, chock full of vivid imagery, memorable moments, and homages to great films of the past. I want to take the rest of the day off and just watch all of these…

A Close-Up Photo of Comet Leonard by an Amateur Astronomer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2022

Comet Leonard

Using a composite of 25 different shots done over a period of 12 minutes in his backyard, amateur astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy created this stunning image of Comet Leonard. From PetaPixel:

Processing comet images is a challenge because even in the span of 12 minutes, the comet drifts across the frame relative to the background stars,” McCarthy tells PetaPixel. “Due to the comet’s motion, it has to be stacked differently. I tell the software to stack the images based on the comet position and star positions separately, which is then combined together to produce an image with the comet and stars both sharp.

See also this image of Leonard and McCarthy’s colorful photo of a full moon.

Beneath the Bird Feeder

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

a red bird with its wings flared in the snow

a gray/brown bird in the snow

a squirrel on snowy ground

Last winter, Carla Rhodes captured some scenes of the animal life underneath her bird feeder. Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer, so the photos are good and she made certain to do the right thing with her feeder:

Ethical considerations were at the forefront of this project. This included hanging the feeder in a tree away from house windows. If not cared for properly, bird feeders can be a vector for diseases, such as salmonella. To avoid this issue I regularly raked beneath the bird feeder (and turned the soil below), rotated the feeder to different branches, occasionally allowed the feeder to be empty, and regularly disinfected the feeder with dish soap and dilute bleach solution.

(via colossal)

“A Grand Unified Theory of Buying Stuff”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2022

I like Paul Ford. He’s a pal even.1 But here’s my problem with Paul Ford, professionally: there are so many good lines and observations in the things that he writes that it’s difficult to do the absurdly simple thing I need to do in my work here, i.e. pick the “best” selection of a piece of writing to get you to click through and read the rest of it. This is a problem even for his short pieces, like A Grand Unified Theory of Buying Stuff from Wired. Here goes:

The problem is that certain kinds of stuff simply attract more stuff. The home is an obvious one: It craves sofas, sweaters, buffet cabinets, chandeliers. Computers are another; they grow USB tendrils. Smartphones beget earbuds, cloud backups, and music service subscriptions. I am jealous of the people who make it work with an Eames chair, a fancy ottoman, some nice art books, and multigenerational inherited wealth. Their iPads are so empty, just a few apps, whereas I have 60 terabytes of storage spread across a variety of blinking devices because I download large data sets for fun.

But also: “I often trick myself into thinking that the road to less stuff might be paved with more stuff.”

And: “The supply chain is fractal: Zoom in on your stuff and there’s more stuff, ad infinitum.”

Ok maybe just go read the whole short thing.

  1. Ok T for truth here…I have an intellectual crush on Paul Ford that’s now entering its third decade.

The Vinyl Boom

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Bar chart titled The Huge Resurgence of Vinyl Records; vinyl records projected to break 30m units (LPs) sold in 2021

About five years ago, a funny thing happened: for birthdays and holidays, instead of LEGO sets or basketball jerseys, my son started asking me to buy him vinyl records. I happily complied: it was fun to mix new and old records together, track down semi-rare albums, and then listen to the music together, plus talk about music all the time.

It turns out my teen wasn’t an outlier: younger people are buying vinyl at a rate not seen in over a generation, not just as collectors or as an affectation, but as a first-line way to enjoy music, new and old. What’s more, the revenue from vinyl sales was a small but substantial lifeline to artists squeezed by streaming’s stingy royalty rates.

At The Hustle, Zachary Crockett does the math:

For modern-day indie artists, it’s a welcome boom. A vinyl record costs ~$7 to manufacture, and a band typically sells it directly to fans for $25, good for $18 in profit. By contrast, streaming services only pay out a fraction of a penny for each listen. A band would have to amass 450k streams on Spotify to match the profit of 100 vinyl sales.

There are also moments where the streaming and vinyl economy come together. Bandcamp has a vinyl pressing service, and some of the most popular music videos on YouTube are needle drop recordings of a fan playing a vinyl record.

There are some bottlenecks, though. First, streaming is a much bigger ocean than vinyl. Second, vinyl’s manufacturing capacity is greatly reduced from its heyday, making it more arduous and fragile to make, manufacture, and distribute a vinyl record. Finally, the environmental impacts of vinyl manufacturing aren’t great.

But the aesthetics — oh, the sweet joy of a needle on a record — the aesthetics can’t be beat.

Update: Crockett’s arithmetic above is a little hasty. For one thing, it doesn’t include shipping costs, which can either make a record much more expensive or cut into the profit margin. It’s definitely a better profit margin than streaming music royalties, but it is one where costs are at a premium.

An Abecedarium of International Postage Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2022

German stamp with the letter D on it

Haitian stamp with the letter H on it

Liberian stamp with the letter L on it

Polish stamp with the letter P on it

Bangladeshi stamp with the number 8 on it

For last year’s 36 Days of Type challenge, artist and type designer Marie Boulanger selected 26 postage stamps from around the world with letters on them (C for Cuba, F for France, K for Kenya, etc.) and 10 stamps with the numerals 0-9 on them. What an amazing array of designs and lettering styles. I’ve included a few of my favorites above — you can see the rest on her Instagram or collected here in miniature.

The Colorful Winners of the 2021 AAP Photo Competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2021

five women holding white balls that mirror the light fixtures above them

overhead view of a green soccer field in a green forest

overhead view of a beach

a hand raised, bathed in blue light

an overhead view of a person surrounded by containers of fish

AAP Magazine has announced the winners of their 21st annual photo competition. This year’s theme was “Colors” and I’ve embedded a few of my favorites above (from top to bottom: Miloš Nejezchleb, Vitaly Golovatyuk, Graham Earnshaw, Joanna Borowiec, and Pham Huy Trung).

A Year In Another Part of the Internet

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

i downloaded all 10.000 of those ugly lazy lions nfts and turned them into a mosaic of a person right-clicking

I confess I haven’t kept up with my Mastodon account in some time, but I’m happy that weird, decentralized, variation of social media is still out there, fighting the good fight and helping people connect with each other. And I was delighted to see this roundup of the year’s top Mastodon posts — like a glimpse into another internet.

For example, Guillem Leon writes:

I have encountered more image descriptions on Mastodon in 24 hours than I have in Twitter in a couple of years. Seriously. I’m not exaggerating.

As a blind person, this means a lot to me. If you read this and you describe your images, thank you so, so, so much on behalf of all of us. If you don’t, now you know you’ll be helping random Internet strangers make sense of your posts by typing in a few more words than usual.

With 607 (now 726) reblogs, this was perhaps the most-seen post on Mastodon this year.

“I’m Black But Look White. Here Are The Horrible Things White People Feel Safe Telling Me.”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

Miriam Zinter for Huffington Post:

My neighbor, the one who asked me why “Black lives matter,” is not the only one who has felt comfortable asking me such a question or making a statement rife with racism.

White people think I am white too, and therefore feel safe saying all kinds of horrible things they might not say publicly. I’ve had people tell me it “disgusts” them to see interracial couples. They’ve told me they don’t understand why Black neighborhoods look so “ghetto,” and that Black people are “animals” or “thugs.” Many of these people are educated, and hold jobs or positions that give them some form of power or influence over Black people. They are doctors, judges, lawyers, social workers and politicians. That’s frightening.

Otherworldly Single Malt Scotch

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

patterns at the bottom of a whiskey glass that look like an alien planet

For his series Vanishing Spirits: The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch, photographer Ernie Buttons photographed the creatively lit bottoms of glasses emptied of their single malt Scotch whisky. The results look like alien worlds.

These remind me a lot of Christopher Jonassen’s frying pan worlds and Nadine Schlieper’s & Robert Pufleb’s photos of pancakes that look like moons. (via moss & fog)

How to Build the Perfect Medieval Castle

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

Castles across Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages were all pretty different, but by looking at the trends over a period of several centuries, you can determine how to build the perfect castle.

We trace the origins of the castle in the feudal system that emerged in France c.900 CE, and look at the early motte-and-bailey castle, used by the Normans to subjugate England and Wales in the 11th century. We then look at how castle’s became stronger and more sophisticated, with the addition of stone curtain walls, massive keeps, towers (square, round and D-shaped), as well as powerful gatehouses, barbicans, machicolations and moats.

(FYI: The sponsorship in this video for a medieval role-playing game is a little annoying but easily skippable and ultimately doesn’t detract from how interesting & educational the video is.)

Goofy 18th-Century Self-Portraits by Joseph Ducreux

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2021

self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux

self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux

self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux

self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux

self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux

self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux

Joseph Ducreux was a French painter active in the latter part of the 18th century — he was a portraitist in the court of Louis XVI and continued his career after the French Revolution. But Ducreux is increasingly remembered for his series of self-portraits that were surprisingly informal for the age in which they were painted. To contemporary eyes, they almost seem to have been painted for use in memes, a purpose for which they certainly have been used.

Lydia Davis on Translation and Learning Languages

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 10, 2021

Lydia Davis.jpeg

My favorite contemporary writer is probably Lydia Davis, in no small part because I don’t know if anyone takes a finer care for the language they use, as a writer and reader.

Davis also does double duty as both an original writer of fiction and essays, and a translator of other people’s writings, in multiple languages. In her new collection, Essays 2, she describes her unusual technique:

Although she learned German by immersion, Davis’s preferred method of language acquisition is quite different, and, to an outside observer, demonically challenging: She finds a book published in a language that she does not fully or even partially understand and then tries to figure out what it means.

To improve her Spanish, she digs into a copy of “Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer.” In some cases the decryption proves easy. Words like “plan” are the same in English and Spanish. In other cases she inductively reasons the meaning of a word after noticing it in different contexts. Hoja initially stumps her when it pops up in the phrase hoja de papel — “hoja of paper.” Later in the book, it occurs in the context of a tree. Finally, Huck wraps a dry hoja around something to make a cigarette, and Davis realizes that only one meaning would work as well with paper as with a tree or a cigarette: “leaf.” Of course, it would be possible to solve the hoja enigma in two seconds by plugging the word into Google, but that would destroy the fun.

I’m (re)learning Italian right now — I sort of learned it backwards the first time, starting with Dante and Petrarch and only now learning how to ask where the bathroom is (dove el gabinetto?) and the difference between coat (cappotto) and hat (cappello). But what remains exciting are the little associations you learn, the conjunctions of phrasing, the possible substitutions of one term for another, the way a question and an answer can reflect the same structure — a map of phonemic possibilities that is also a way of seeing the world. Davis’s method might be impractical for learning a second language, but for a gifted language learner, it seems to put a premium on finding those connections. Which is, indeed, a big part of the fun.

Hyperrealistic Paintings of Rich Vegetation

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2022

hyperrealistic painting of grasses and leaves

hyperrealistic painting of grasses and leaves

hyperrealistic painting of grasses and leaves

Why am I showing you these photos of lush, grassy, leafy plants? Because they are actually meticulously constructed hyperrealistic paintings of lush, grassy, leafy plants by Serbian artists Jelena and Aleksandar Paunkovic. The couple have been inspired by their verdant surroundings (I mean, just look at this) to produce these paintings:

From the big city we moved our studio near the mountain Kosmaj where we started with the production of paintings. We throw plastic bags out of everyday life and instead of them we made our canvas bags that still serve us today. We establish our own small garden, and started producing our natural non-hybrid food. We started composting organic food residues which we will use later as a soil that is rich in ingredients that will help other plants during growth. We meet new people and come to incredible information and knowledge. There will be more about that and other topics on our blog. When we harvested our first fruits after two months, there was no end to our happiness. For a moment we went back to our childhood, we remembered growing up, beautiful moments, and we had the privilege of feeling like a kids again.

With the pleasure of contact with plants, we discovered that we love hiking, but not for the reason of conquering the peaks, they are free and there is nothing to conquer. They can teach us that what we see there should be respected. All the paintings we create are created on those places. Each tour on new mountain, or visiting new environment, becomes material that will later serve us in the studio as a sketch for a new painting. We have found a way to bring the nature to a home or gallery and hang it on the wall to serve as a reminder that we need to think more about how our modern lifestyle affects the environment.

You can follow their progress on Instagram or order prints of their work. (via colossal)

J Is for Jim Crow - Typography and Racial Stereotypes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2022

Ruby Font Jim Crow

For The Believer, Sarah K. Kramer wrote about a typeface called Jim Crow, how it came to be called that (its original name was Gothic Shade), and what its casual use by designers for decades means.

One of Seals’ pet peeves is “stereo-typography” — things like east Asian restaurants with brush-script logos — and in particular, he takes issue with the way designers often use “black weight” (very thick and bold) font to signify African American culture. For example, the Neuland typeface (designed in 1923 by Rudolf Koch) has been used on many covers of books by Black writers, like Richard Wright’s Native Son. One theory on the origin of the association of these black-weight fonts with Black culture is that they evoke woodblock typefaces printed on nineteenth century tobacco ephemera — an industry closely linked with slavery. Needless to say, much of this material featured racist imagery of African Americans. When Seals was contracted by HarperCollins to design a cover for Charles Blow’s The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, he definitely was not going to use a “black weight” font. Instead, he designed the cover with Ruby.

Ruby is a reworked version of Jim Crow from Tré Seals’ type foundry Vocal Type Co, which I covered here a few years ago. (thx, reed)

Grief Is Unexpressed Love

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2021

On The Late Show, Stephen Colbert asked Andrew Garfield how performing and art helps him deal with grief. The relevant bit starts at around the 4:05 mark and continues for three minutes — just give it a watch…there’s not much more I can add to what Garfield says and how he says it.

Update: Colbert is no stranger to conversations about grief — here’s his 2019 conversation with Anderson Cooper. (thx, david)

Victorian Condoms (Possibly)

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

You find the strangest things in the pages of old books, and the folks at the Bodleian Archives at Oxford are no stranger to the eccentric bits of paratext one picks up here and there. But this is indeed something of a mystery:

Folded Tissue with Ribbon.jpeg

The tissue was folded in half, lengthwise. When I unfolded it, it was immediately clear: not a glove, not unless you wanted to cover only one (very long!) finger at a time.

Instead there were four, individual, 8 inch/20cm-long tubes. For each, one end has been skillfully shaped, cut and sealed into a three dimensional dome, like a fingertip on a glove. The other end of each tube is fully open, and a pale blue ribbon drawstring is neatly tucked into a narrow hem around the circumference of each opening.

The archivist’s best guess? A small pack of condoms, quite possibly made from an animal casing, which would have been soft and supple when new (now quite brittle). And to be honest, a book is a perfectly good place to keep such supplies — unlikely to get lost in laundry or wardrobe changes, the closest thing a man of that era might carry to a bag or purse.

How Does The James Webb Space Telescope Work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is still winging its way to its permanent home at the L2 point1 about 930,000 miles from Earth — it’s due to arrive in about 4 days. It’s a massive and fascinating project and for his YouTube series Smarter Every Day, Destin Sandlin talked to Nobel laureate John Mather, the senior project scientist for the JWST, about how the telescope works.

Also worth a watch is Real Engineering’s The Insane Engineering of James Webb Telescope:

It really is a marvel of modern science & engineering — I can’t wait to see what the telescope sees once it’s fully operational.

  1. You can read about Lagrange points here or here…they are interesting!

The Role of Type in Wes Anderson’s Films

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2022

a film still from the French Dispatch showing a magazine scheduling flowchart

In an interview with Creative Boom, type designer Marie Boulanger talks about Wes Anderson’s use of type and typography in his films, specifically The French Dispatch.

I’m just speaking for myself, but I recently rewatched all of his films in chronological order. You can see typography become a more and more prominent component over time — it’s quite fascinating. In later films like Isle of Dogs and the French Dispatch, it almost becomes its own character rather than a visual or narrative flourish. Especially in a story about writers and publishing, every book, every page, every shop sign, every poster.

Even thinking about the three stories contained within the film, graphic design and typography are really at the core of each one: exhibition posters, protest signs and even menus. You piece a lot of key information together just through certain objects from the set, as well as emotional nuance: humour, joy, sadness. With such a huge part of the narration depending on typography, you have to expect a high level of detail.

Some people can be quite dismissive of Anderson’s work as preoccupied with mere aesthetics, so it’s great to hear Boulanger talk about the depth that something that’s ostensibly aesthetic like typography brings to his films. I loved the use of type in The French Dispatch…so much information conveyed with “just” words. (via sidebar)

Randomly Bouncing Balls Arrange Themselves Into Satisfying Patterns

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2022

In this clever simulation, bouncing balls obeying the laws of physics somehow arrange themselves, mid-chaos, into neat patterns. This is immensely satisfying.

Spoiler: the trick here is a pair of simulations stitched together, like a physics Texas Switch: “Each sequence is obtained by joining two simulations, both starting from the time in which the balls are arranged regularly. One simulates forward in time, one backwards.”

The Omicron Variant

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2021

Last week, a worrisome variant of SARS-CoV-2 burst into the public consciousness: the Omicron variant. The concern among scientists and the public at large is substantial, but it is unfortunately going to take a few weeks to figure out whether those concerns are warranted. For a measured take on what we know now and what we can expect, read these two posts by epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina (as well as this one on vaccines).

B.1.1.529 has 32 mutations on the spike protein alone. This is an insane amount of change. As a comparison, Delta had 9 changes on the spike protein. We know that B.1.1.529 is not a “Delta plus” variant. The figure below shows a really long line, with no previous Delta ancestors. So this likely means it mutated over time in one, likely immunocompromised, individual.

Of these, some mutations have properties to escape antibody protection (i.e. outsmart our vaccines and vaccine-induced immunity). There are several mutations association with increased transmissibility. There is a mutation associated with increased infectivity.

That sounds bad but again, we presently do not have enough information to know for sure about any of this. As Jetelina concludes in one of the posts:

We still have more questions than answers. But we will get them soon. Do not take Omicron lightly, but don’t abandon hope either. Our immune systems are incredible.

None of this changes what you can to do right now: Ventilate spaces. Use masks. Test if you have symptoms. Isolate if positive. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.

This Science piece by Kai Kupferschmidt also provides a great overview about where we’re at with Omicron, without the sensationalism.

Whether or not Omicron turns out to be another pandemic gamechanger, the lesson we should take from it (but probably won’t) is that grave danger is lurking in that virus and we need to get *everyone* *everywhere* vaccinated, we need free and ubiquitous rapid testing *everywhere*, we need to focus on indoor ventilation, we need to continue to use measures like distancing and mask-wearing, and we need to keep doing all of the other things in the Swiss cheese model of pandemic defense. Anything else is just continuing our idiotic streak with this virus of fucking around and then finding out. (via jodi ettenberg & eric topol)

Al Hirschfeld’s Drawings of Steven Sondheim’s Musicals

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Al Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment from Steven Sondheim's play Into the Woods

Writing for the New York Times, theater critic emeritus Ben Brantley praises caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s depictions of the late Steven Sondheim’s work:

These seemingly simple pen strokes — and the ellipsis of the white space, which your own, happily collaborative mind fills in — are anything but static. They tremble with energy, tension and, above all, character, as it is conjured in real time on a stage.

Hirschfeld always said he would rather be called a “characterist” than a caricaturist. His illustrations of Sondheim, the most complex character portraitist in the Broadway songbook, make you understand why. Caricatures are a shorthand for the physical traits that make stars distinctive: Angela Lansbury’s immense Tweety Bird eyes, for example, or Bernadette Peters’s Cupid’s bow mouth.

Hirschfeld nails such elements of physiognomy. He also endows them with the exciting emotional temperature that heats up every Sondheim song. The Lansbury he draws as the corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper of “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) and as the cannibal pie-maker Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” are recognizably the same woman.

I particularly like the great energy swirling all around the lead characters in Hirschfeld’s take on “West Side Story”:

Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment in West Side Story

Starbucks Is a Bank that Sells Coffee

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2022

Starbucks sells coffee. But you can also think of Starbucks as a bank — and an unregulated one at that. As part of their rewards program, millions of Starbucks customers have preloaded money onto Starbucks cards, essentially loaning the company more than $1 billion at 0% interest.

Starbucks has around $1.6 billion in stored value card liabilities outstanding. This represents the sum of all physical gift cards held in customer’s wallets as well as the digital value of electronic balances held in the Starbucks Mobile App.* It amounts to ~6% of all of the company’s liabilities.

This is a pretty incredible number. Stored value card liabilities are the money that you, oh loyal Starbucks customer, use to buy coffee. What you might not realize is that these balances simultaneously function as a loan to Starbucks. Starbucks doesn’t pay any interest on balances held in the Starbucks app or gift cards. You, the loyal customer, are providing the company with free debt.

See also McDonald’s is a real estate company.

Donations to Local Holiday Toy Drives Are Down This Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

My kids and I went to the local toy store yesterday to do some holiday shopping for Toys for Tots. When we took our purchases to the counter, the woman thanked us for contributing and said that individual donations are much more important this year because big corporate donations to the program were way down. She said that the toy companies don’t have excess inventory to donate (I’m assuming because of supply chain issues and a desire for more corporate efficiency).

I posted about this on Instagram and heard from folks in other parts of the country that both individual and corporate donations to community toy drives are down. A quick check of Google News reveals several articles around the country about toy drive shortages; here’s a good piece from the Associated Press:

Similar worries are being felt across the country as COVID-related supply chain snafus — produced by clogged U.S. ports, a lack of workers to move the cargo and skyrocketing shipping costs — lead to empty store shelves and higher prices on some products.

The supply chain slowdown is one of the main reasons why donations of new toys to The Toy Foundation have declined by nearly 80% in dollar value this year compared to 2019, according to Pamela Mastrota, the executive director of the group, which was formed by a toy industry trade association to act as an industry-wide charitable collective for manufacturers.

The lack of trade shows due to the COVID-19 pandemic also put a wrench in their collection efforts for the second year in a row, straining their ability to get gifts for sick, impoverished or other vulnerable children who are in need.

“It’s been a real challenge this year, and last year,” Mastrota said. “But this year especially.”

With Christmas just 8 days away, I know it’s late in the game but if you can swing it this year, consider a big donation to your local toy drive. Kids from low-income families have borne the brunt of the pandemic in America — parents/caregivers losing their jobs, erratic education, upheaval, loved ones dying of Covid, sickness and death all around. Let’s do what we can do to help give these kids a happy holiday.

But on a more long-term note (and supply chain & pandemic issues aside), programs like this should be unnecessary in a country as rich as the United States. Remember, feel-good news stories in America are often signs of societal failure and nothing is more feel-good than helping low-income kids during the holidays. Supporting programs and leaders who want to build a much stronger and more robust social safety net is essential if we want to eliminate make needless scarcity like this in America.

The Seinfeld Theme Mixed With A Hit Song From Every Year Seinfeld Was On TV

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2022

Seinfeld2000 and kottke.org favorites The Hood Internet teamed up to make this video of the Seinfeld theme song mixed with a song from every year the show was on the air. So: Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty, Poison by Bell Biv DeVoe, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, Bulls on Parade by Rage Against the Machine, and Around the World by Daft Punk. Genius. I could not love this anymore than I do.

See also Darth Costanza and How the Seinfeld Theme Song Was Made. (via waxy)

The Dark Forest (Or, Why We Should Keep Still and Not Look for Aliens)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

Inspired by the second book in Liu Cixin’s excellent Three-Body Problem trilogy, Kurzgesagt made a video about the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

Confronted with the seemingly empty universe, humanity faces a dilemma. We desperately want to know if we are alone in the Milky Way. We want to call out and reveal ourselves to anyone watching but that could be the last thing we ever do. Because maybe the universe is not empty. Maybe it’s full of civilizations but they are hiding from each other. Maybe the civilizations that attracted attention in the past were wiped away by invisible arrows. This is the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

I have The Dark Forest on the Kindle, so I looked up how this is explained in the book (spoilers, obvs):

“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life-another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod-there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”

Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.

“But in this dark forest, there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’” Luo Ji said.

“Has anyone heard it?”

“That’s guaranteed. But those shouts alone can’t be used to determine the child’s location. Humanity has not yet transmitted information about the exact position of Earth and the Solar System into the universe. From the information that has been sent out, all that can be learned is the distance between Earth and Trisolaris, and their general heading in the Milky Way. The precise location of the two worlds is still a mystery. Since we’re located in the wilderness of the periphery of the galaxy, we’re a little safer.”

That’s the basic idea, but there’s more to it…you should watch the video or, even better, read the series — I’ve read the entire trilogy twice and this makes me want to read it again! (I loved the Drive Easter egg towards the end of the video. Well played.)

The Best Street Photography of 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2021

a pigeon in front of a dog, positioned so it looks like the dog has wings

a woman on the subway with two children

a man steps off of a bus holding an umbrella

a person in a Minnie Mouse costume walking across the street

a number of people walking on the street in NYC

The Street Photographers Foundation has announced the winners of the Street Photography Awards for 2021. What an amazing selection of photos — it was so hard to pick just a few favorites (embedded above). From top to bottom, Subhran Karmakar, Paul Kessel (like a Renaissance painting), Akib Amjad (so reminiscent of this iconic photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson), Andy Hann, and Dimitri Mellos. (via curious about everything)

Brik Font: Creating Type with Lego

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2022

Craig Ward has been creating letterforms using Lego bricks and posting the results to Instagram. The ones I really love are the anti-aliased letters — reminds me of zooming all the way in to do detail work in Photoshop back when I was a web designer.

the word 'ok' made out of Lego bricks

the letter 's' made out of Lego bricks

the letter 'f' made out of Lego bricks

the letter 'a' made out of Lego bricks

There is just something so satisfying about meticulously rendering digital artifacts in a physical medium like Lego.

Winners of the Environmental Photographer of the Year 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2022

a boy wearing a gas mask connected to a potted plant

a room full of high-tech blue tubes

an overhead view of a house surrounded by flood waters

The winning entries in the Environmental Photographer of the Year for 2021 highlight the ways in which our planet’s climate is changing and how humans are (and are not) adapting to those changes. From top to bottom, photos by Kevin Ochieng Onyango, Simone Tramonte, and Michele Lapini. (via dense discovery)

Business Garden Inn & Suites & Hotel Room Inn

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2021

This pitch-perfect SNL commercial featuring Kate McKinnon & Billie Eilish advertises the bland budget business-ish hotel that can be found all across America.

Our rooms provide every comfort required by law: tiny soap in plastic, phone that blinks, Band-Aid-colored blanket, chair for suitcase, black & white photo of Ferris wheel, blow dryer that goes oooooooh, short glass wearing little hat, and small stain in place you have to touch.

And be sure to enjoy our hot tub; it’s always occupied by an eight-year-old boy in goggles staring at your breasts. He’s been in there for hours and he’s not getting out until you do.

I have stayed at this precise hotel many times in the past and I will again in the future. C+++++.

An Absurd Double-Wide Cadillac

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 04, 2022

Car builder Jay Ohrberg has constructed many familiar vehicles for TV and movies, including the DeLorean from Back to the Future, KITT for the Knight Rider movie,1 several Batmobiles, and the Duke boys’ General Lee. But the Ohrberg ride I really like is his robin’s egg blue double-wide Cadillac.

a double-wide blue Cadillac, a long pink convertible, and a comically long limousine

My god, the ingenious outlandishness of that car. The other cars in the photo are equally preposterous, but there is something about the squarish proportions of that Caddy that is really satisfying. And it somehow looks massive and miniature at the same time?

  1. There was a Knight Rider movie?! With Star Trek’s James Doohan in it?

Dreamy & Surreal Imagery by KangHee Kim

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 23, 2021

clouds appear to come out of the top of a gas station canopy

a transparent road sign says 'Hope 1/2 Mile'

clouds in the middle of a lamp

a cloud nestles in a tre branch above a cliff face

Loving these fanciful and playful manipulated photos by KangHee Kim, which can be found on her Instagram or her series Street Errands.

The Postage Stamp Pictures of Paul Edlin

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2022

a colorful abstract scene created with fragments of postage stamps

a colorful abstract scene created with fragments of postage stamps

Artist Paul Edlin used tiny fragments of postage stamps to create these beautiful abstract collages. Here’s closeup of the top image where you can see the fragments more clearly:

closeup of a colorful abstract scene created with fragments of postage stamps

(thx, philip)

Watch the Careful Creation of an Instant Bonsai Tree

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2022

Bonsai is an art that rewards patience. You make moves, often small, and then wait years for the results to show themselves. Trees can take decades to shape into their “finished” form and even then they aren’t ever done. Instead of all that waiting, AbdarRahman Eatwell of Bonsai Releaf took an off-the-shelf juniper and through clever pruning quickly turned it into a bonsai tree that mimics the look of a much older tree that has been struck by lightning.

An ‘instant’ bonsai seems to be somewhat of an oxymoron, but bonsai from untrained material can be created in a very short space of time. As rewarding as it is to invest years into a tree, there is still an undeniable satisfaction gleaned from an occasional faster transformation, but that is always just the beginning of the journey!

I am interested in practicing bonsai someday, but my discomfort at his bold clipping of those branches (you can’t put them back!) makes me think I am not ready yet.

“America Is Now in Fascism’s Legal Phase”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2022

Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, writes about the recent revitalization of the long tradition in the United States of fascist movements using race & racism as tools to move towards their goals. And now with attacks on the courts, education, voting rights, and women’s rights, America is now in fascism’s legal phase.

According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with the threat of violent leftist and Black rebellion being used to justify them. That this is happening at the same time that multiple electoral bills enabling a Republican state legislature majority to overturn their state’s election have been enacted suggests that the true aim of bills criminalizing protest is to have a response in place to expected protests against the stealing of a future election (as a reminder of fascism’s historical connection to big business, some of these laws criminalize protest near gas and oil lines).

The Nazis used Judeo-Bolshevism as their constructed enemy. The fascist movement in the Republican party has turned to critical race theory instead. Fascism feeds off a narrative of supposed national humiliation by internal enemies. Defending a fictional glorious and virtuous national past, and presenting its enemies as deviously maligning the nation to its children, is a classic fascist strategy to stoke fury and resentment. Using the bogeyman of critical race theory, 29 states have introduced bills to restrict teaching about racism and sexism in schools, and 13 states have enacted such bans.

Something I was disappointed about on last week’s anniversary of the terrorist attack on Congress was too much emphasis on Trump’s role in what happened on that day, as if focusing on him somehow makes it possible that the rest of the Republican Party can jettison this bad seed at some point without losing face and American politics can get back to the bipartisan business as usual. This is a total fiction, and as Stanley correctly notes, this shift towards fascism is a party-wide effort that preceded Trump and will outlive him.

Lake Toiletbrush and the Curse of Ikea’s Product Names

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

a woman standing in front of a billboard that reads 'Welcome to Bolman, more than an IKEA toilet brush

Ikea names their products after locations all over Scandinavia and a bunch of those places in Sweden are fighting back against the practice with a clever “discover the originals” ad campaign.

From Strange Maps:

Bolmen. Now there’s a word you don’t use every day. Where have you encountered it before? In IKEA, where it’s the name of a cheap toilet brush — for a dollar, it’s yours. What you probably don’t know is that the brush was named after a pristine lake in southern Sweden. And now that you do know, that lake doesn’t sound so pristine anymore.

Call it the Curse of IKEA. A curse repeated hundreds of times across the map of Sweden. Beautiful places with exotic names, their appeal diminished by association with mundane items from the world’s most popular furniture catalog. Where does that leave the tourist industry around Lake Toiletbrush? Down in the dumps, is where.

Bodviken is “more than an IKEA countertop sink”; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Voxnan is “more than an IKEA shower shelf”; it’s home to a marvelous river for fishing, paddling, and hiking. Björksta is “more than an IKEA picture with frame”; it’s an historic Viking site. You can check out more of the originals here.

US Quarter Featuring Maya Angelou Starts Circulating

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2022

US quarter featuring Maya Angelou on the reverse side

The US Mint has started shipping a quarter featuring poet & activist Maya Angelou on it.

A writer, poet, performer, social activist, and teacher, Angelou rose to international prominence as an author after the publication of her groundbreaking autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s published works of verse, non-fiction, and fiction include more than 30 bestselling titles. Her remarkable career encompasses dance, theater, journalism, and social activism.

The front of the Angelou quarter features a portrait of George Washington (a slaveowner, I feel it is important to note) that is different from the usual image on regular quarters. The new image was sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser in 1931:

In 1931, Congress held a competition to design a coin to honor the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The original competition called for the obverse of the coin to feature a portrait of George Washington, based on the famed life-mask bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse was to feature a design that was to be “national” in nature.

Laura Gardin Fraser submitted a design that features a right-facing portrait of George Washington on the obverse, while the reverse shows an eagle with wings spread wide. In a 1932 letter to recommend Fraser’s design, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) wrote to (then) Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon:

“This bust is regarded by artists who have studied it as the most authentic likeness of Washington. Such was the skill of the artist in making this life-mask that it embodies those high qualities of the man’s character which have given him a place among the great of the world…Simplicity, directness, and nobility characterize it. The design has style and elegance…The Commission believes that this design would present to the people of this country the Washington whom they revere.”

While her design was popular, it was not chosen. Instead, Secretary Mellon ultimately selected the left-facing John Flannigan design, which has appeared on the quarter’s obverse since 1932.

the obverse side (with George Washington) of a US quarter featuring Maya Angelou on the reverse side

The Angelou quarter is the first in a series of quarters featuring notable American women:

Beginning in 2022 and continuing through 2025, the Mint will issue five quarters in each of these years. The ethnically, racially, and geographically diverse group of individuals honored through this program reflects a wide range of accomplishments and fields, including suffrage, civil rights, abolition, government, humanities, science, space, and the arts. The additional honorees in 2022 are physicist and first woman astronaut Dr. Sally Ride; Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and an activist for Native American and women’s rights; Nina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement and the first female superintendent of Santa Fe public schools; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, who achieved international success despite racism and discrimination.

The Angelou quarter will start circulating later this month and early next month — look for it in your change soon!

Natural Forest Growth Simulator

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

The YouTube channel Two Minute Papers enthusiastically shares the findings from scientific papers about technology: computing, graphics, AI, robotics, etc. Recently they reviewed this paper on simulating the growth of large-scale plant ecosystems based on real-world forestry and botany research. From the paper’s abstract:

In this paper we describe a multi-scale method to design large-scale ecosystems with individual plants that are realistically modeled and faithfully capture biological features, such as growth, plant interactions, different types of tropism, and the competition for resources. Our approach is based on leveraging inter- and intra-plant self-similarities for efficiently modeling plant geometry. We focus on the interactive design of plant ecosystems of up to 500K plants, while adhering to biological priors known in forestry and botany research.

What that means, as they show in the video, is that you can watch these incredibly detailed time lapse videos of forests developing over time in a realistic way. So cool. This kind of thing always reminds me of favorite childhood thing, Al Jarnow’s Cosmic Clock. (via waxy)

Temperature Textiles

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2022

a blanket with a pattern of CO2 emissions trends on it

a scarf with a pattern of global temperature trends on it

socks with a pattern of sea level rise indicators on them

Temperature Textiles are knitted textiles like blankets, scarves, and socks with patterns drawn from climate crisis indicators like temperature, sea level rise, and CO2 emissions. See also Global Warming Blankets. (via colossal)

Tree Root System Drawings

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2022

drawing of a plant's root system

drawing of a plant's root system

drawing of a plant's root system

drawing of a plant's root system

The Wageningen University & Research houses a collection of almost 1200 drawings of the root systems of trees, grasses, crops, shrubs, weeds, flowers, and other plants. These drawings were done of plants in Europe, mostly in Austria, over a period of 40 years and are a wonderful combination of scientifically valuable and aesthetically pleasing.

Cracked Eggshells, Carefully Arranged

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2022

cracked eggshells carefully arranged

I am in deep like with this image of neatly arranged eggshells by Kristen Meyer. And her saltine arrangement is still extremely satisfying. You can check out more of her work on her website and at Instagram. Ok wait, I really like this one too:

torn book pages carefully arranged

(via colossal)

1980s Dollhouses Designed by Architects

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2022

a dollhouse designed by an architect for a 1983 Architectural Design Magazine contest

a dollhouse designed by an architect for a 1983 Architectural Design Magazine contest

a dollhouse designed by an architect for a 1983 Architectural Design Magazine contest

From a 1983 Architectural Design Magazine contest, a collection of dollhouses designed by architects, courtesy of Present and Correct.

Award-Winning Photos from an Action & Adventure Sports Photo Competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

a climber jumps away from a cliff face

a person in a kayak shoots out of a massive wave in the rapids

dozens of paragliders fly in the air over the mountains

a man skateboards on a curved rock face next to a stream in the forest

The winners of the 2021 Red Bull Illume Image Quest photography contest have been announced. You can take a look at the winners, runners-up, and finalists in the contest — so much impressive work here. Photos above are by Will Saunders, Rod Hill, Andreas Busslinger, and Adrien Petit. (via in focus)

Surreal Psychedelic Headshots

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2022

a painting of a man with a landscape for a face

a painting of a woman with a landscape for a face

a painting of a man with a landscape for a face

a painting of a woman with a landscape for a face

Among Brazilian artist Rafael Silveira’s surrealist work are these portraits of people with landscape faces. I loved what he said about them in brief remarks to Colossal:

From inside, we are a strange mix of dreams, thoughts, feelings, and human meat. I think these portraits are not persons but moods.

(via colossal)

Mesmerizing Liquid Eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2021

“Abstract shots of liquid experiments that aim to mimic the visual complexity of human eyes” is what it says on the tin and I cannot improve upon it in an effort to get you to watch the video. Some of these really do look amazingly like eyes.

What Will Pandemic Life Be Like in a Month?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2022

Bob Wachter is the chair of the Department of Medicine at the USCF medical center and last week he posted a pair of threads about what the Covid rates might look like in a month and how we might behave if that comes to pass (and if we don’t get another variant mucking things up). I’m going to quote extensively from Wachter’s threads because I think they contain some things that people need to hear right now.

In the first thread, he explains why an individual’s risk of catching Covid will likely be quite low a month from now:

The virus is the same, your immunity is the same, the chances of getting infected from a given encounter much the same. Yet I predict that I — and most of us — who are trying our best to dodge Omicron now will be more “open” next month. Does that make sense?

Yes! It’s all about community prevalence — basically the chances that the person next to you at the restaurant, the movie, or the store is infectious w/ Covid. It they’re not, your encounter is 100% safe. If they are, your encounter is as risky as it is today.

Today, near the Omicron peak, the odds an asymptomatic person has Covid is ~10% in most of U.S. At 10% prevalence, when you enter a room w/ 20 people, there’s an 88% chance that one of them has Covid. Do that enough times without masks and you’re going to get infected.

In a month — if cases fall to prior non-surge #’s — the prevalence among asymptomatic people may be more like 0.2% — even in less vaxxed regions, which’ll have more people whose immunity came from infection. (They should still get vaxxed for better & longer protection.)

0.2% means that the odds of an asymptomatic person having Covid=1-in-500. That room of 20 people: now a 4% chance (1-in-25) that someone’s infected. Not zero — you’ll still want to be careful if you’re at very high risk. But for most, % is low enough to feel pretty safe.

And because overall rates would be much lower, the chances of survival for those who do get Covid will increase because hospitals won’t be overwhelmed, testing will be more available, and antiviral medicines will be more available. Caveats:

Yes, the specter of Long Covid (for some, mild; others disabling) continues — maybe a ~5% chance in a vaxxed person. Some will look at those odds as being concerning enough that they’ll continue to act very cautiously. I probably won’t, but it’s an understandable choice.

And others who have lots of contact w/ very vulnerable people — unvaxxed who didn’t get Omicron, for example, or immunosuppressed - may also make different choices. That’s entirely reasonable.

And there’s also this…he’s fairly confident rates will be low this spring but perhaps not later in the year (because under-vaccinated people’s immunity from catching Omicron in the past 2 months will have waned):

As for me, this is why the community prevalence (cases, test pos %) will dominate my decisions. If they don’t plummet, I’ll keep my guard up until they do. And while I’m reasonably confident about the Spring, my confidence level falls as we move to later in the year.

In the second thread, Wachter talks about how we’ll know when the risk is low and shares how his behavior will change once that happens:

Add it all up & it’s clear that this Spring — w/ a milder virus & nearly 100% population immunity — may be about as safe as it gets… perhaps for many years. Thus I see this Spring as a time when everyone (especially those who have been extra careful for two years) needs to figure out how to navigate a far less risky landscape. (Cue the usual caveat: a new variant could easily screw things up, yet again.)

The bottom line is this: in a few weeks — when this surge ends — things are going to be as good as they’re likely to get for the foreseeable future.

Here’s how he’s going to know when his personal risk level is low enough to do some things differently:

What will my trigger be for switching to less cautious mode? It’s a bit arbitrary - there’s no bright line separating “too risky” & “not risky.” This means that others may come up w/ different thresholds.

Mine will be case rates <10/100K/day (recognizing that reported cases now underestimate case #’s due to home testing). I’d also like to see test positivity rates of <1%. (The math: when we reach a 1% overall rate in SF, that would translate to a ~0.5% asymptomatic positivity rate; or 1/200 asymptomatic people having Covid. At that prevalence, in a room of 15 folks, there’s a 7% chance that at least 1 has Covid.)

So what does that mean in terms of shifting behavior? Here’s Wachter’s personal plan w/ his acceptable level of risk:

The main questions center on indoor spaces crowded with unmasked people of uncertain vaccination status. Small indoor groups, visiting friends & family, indoor dining: all fine, without masks.

If I had school-aged kids who were fully vaccinated, I’d be comfortable without masks in school, particularly if there were a school-wide vaccine requirement and good ventilation.

My practice will be to always carry a KN95, and to don it in very crowded, poorly ventilated spaces with lots of unmasked people, particularly in parts of the U.S. or world with low vax or high case rates. I can’t tell you how crowded or how poorly ventilated, any more than I can say how likely rain needs to be in forecast before I grab an umbrella. I’ll just trust my Spidey Sense: how long I’ll be in space, how awkward wearing a mask will be, whether folks are speaking, yelling, singing, or just standing around. Does it feel scary?

At least at first, I’ll still mask on public transit (trains, planes) & shopping — crowded public spaces w/ lots of unmasked people. Once masks are no longer mandated, I don’t think I’ll mask at the hospital unless I’m seeing a patient with respiratory symptoms.

Both threads are worth a careful read to catch all the caveats and to get a full picture of his reasoning regarding risk and behavior. Hopefully reading them will give you a similar sense of empowerment and hope that they gave me.

One-Minute Time Machine

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2022

A Groundhog Day-esque short film about some of the unintended consequences of time travel, even for short hops. (See also…)

Nadia Boulanger, the Most Influential Music Teacher of the 20th Century

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2022

At one point or another, legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger taught Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and many many more. In the video above, Oscar Osicki of Inside the Score tells us about this remarkable woman and how she came to be “arguably the most renowned music teacher in the world”.

Later in his life, Aaron Copeland wrote to Boulanger about the influence she’d had on him:

It’s almost 30 years (hard to believe) since we met — and I still count our meeting the most important event of my musical life. What you did for me — at exactly the period I most needed it — is unforgettable. Whatever I have accomplished is intimately associated in my mind with those early years and with what you have since been as inspiration and example. All my gratitude and thanks go to you, dear Nadia.

Quincy Jones:

Nadia Boulanger used to tell me all the time, “Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” It’s okay to play fast and all that other stuff, but unless you have a life experience, and have something to say that you’ve lived, you have nothing to contribute at all. So I decided to live my life, and I did.

See also The greatest music teacher who ever lived and She Was Music’s Greatest Teacher. And Much More. (via open culture)

Ten Years Since Trayvon

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2022

a collage-style illustration of Trayvon Martin

A special issue of New York magazine tells the story of the first decade of the Black Lives Matter movement: Ten Years Since Trayvon. Zimmerman getting away with murdering Martin (and becoming a right-wing celebrity for it!) is still infuriating almost a decade later. Michael Arceneaux on The Day I Quit Believing:

The day George Zimmerman was acquitted was the end of a very brief moment in which I gave America the benefit of the doubt. Six days later, Barack Obama, the man responsible for that temporary suspension of disbelief, gave a speech that drove home for me how foolish I had been.

The president acknowledged the pain many of us felt, but, ever the peddler of hope, he stressed that “as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.”

I didn’t believe it when he said it, and it sounds even sillier to me now so many years later.

The whole timeline and package of stories are essential reading.

A Short History (and Future) of Choir Music in Movies

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

a sound designer at a mixing board scoring a film

Adrian Daub has noticed something unusual about choir music in movies: usually, we can’t understand the lyrics. For some reason, it’s important to have human voices rather than an instrument or orchestra carrying the musical load, but the linguistic content, whether it’s in pseudo-Latin, a made up Tolkien language, or Sanskrit translations of Welsh, usually might as well be empty.

This dates from the 1930s, when sound in movies got sophisticated enough to handle simultaneous polyvocal sound, the era of movie musicals and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

And then there was Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). The film concerns the discovery of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, and when we finally get to the fabled land the soundtrack accompanies the matte-painted wonderland with a chorus singing in… well, in a language that isn’t English and doesn’t seem to be Tibetan either. And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

The film’s producers tried to claim that the choral music from Lost Horizon was rooted in Tibetan folk traditions, but this, Daub writes persuasively, is plainly nonsense, and nonsense about nonsense to boot. What matters isn’t the sense, but the feeling, not the authenticity, but the cinematic je-ne-sais-quoi (literally, je ne sais rien) of the music.

What’s more, music choirs (even the nonsensical, polyglot ones) have gone digital and programmable:

The EastWest Symphonic Choirs software allows you to make a virtual choir sing in just about any style imaginable. Want your ooos and aaas to sound like a whisper? More Broadway or more classical? All of that’s in the package.

But there’s more: Due to a system called WordBuilder, you can have this choir sing pretty much anything — you can type in text in English, in phonetics, or a proprietary alphabet called Votox, and the software will assemble it out of a massive databank of vowels and consonants…

All the professional singers I spoke to were keenly aware of products like EastWest Symphonic Choirs and the sample libraries — because more likely than not they’re in them. If you’re in the business of singing on film, these days you won’t always be asked to sing for an actual score, but instead you might get booked to record samples. There’s a scary possibility that these artists are slowly eroding the industry’s need for their labor — that the fruits of their one day of paid work will perform for the studios in perpetuity and with no extra residuals.

At the moment, though, singers come pretty cheap — and in many cases, even a union shop in a city like London (a favorite of movie music producers for just this reason) might insist only on a set rate without residuals. They’re even good at singing their way around nonsense:

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.”

But the thing is, many of us have some experience being sung at in Latin we don’t understand — it’s the Catholic mass. And as Daub writes, the emotional content of the mass (and the accompanying tradition of Latin choral music) has never depended on its intelligibility — in fact, it’s often benefitted from the fact that few if any of the audience could understand what is being said word for word.

Whether they’re after a feeling of evil (as in The Omen), magic (Harry Potter), exotic African-ness (the misplaced Swahili of The Lion King), or familiarity (Black Widow’s callback to the theme from The Avengers), movie producers are literally counting on familiar human voices being misunderstood.

The Psychology of Misinformation

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2022

In this 15-minute presentation, MIT’s David Rand summarizes what recent research says about psychological factors related to belief in information, both true and false. Repetition, alignment with prior beliefs, and hearing from trusted sources are factors that correlate with more belief in information, regardless of its truth. Those who are more likely to believe specifically in falsehoods in general lack critical thinking skills and digital & media literacy. To combat misinformation, Rand recommends corrections & fact-checks (including crowdsourced efforts) and getting people to think about accuracy before sharing information.

Ghost Signs of London

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

London Ghost Signs.jpeg

From Bloomberg’s CityLab:

Study the buildings flanking London’s older streets closely and you’ll see one soon enough: an old painted sign that, once bright and eye-catching, is now faded into the masonry, the name of the business or product it promoted flaking and faint.

Such “ghost signs” are fixtures of older neighborhoods in many cities around the world, but the U.K. capital, which bustled with competing commercial enterprises in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is unusually well-supplied with them. Ghost signs aren’t always easy to spot, but for sharp-eyed passersby and enthusiasts of urban history, they add an extra dimension to London’s appearance, their florid Victorian or cheerful art deco script and images a spectral reminder that once, not that long ago, these were somebody else’s streets.

London’s ghost signs are merely a fraction of the signage that used to greet 19th city dwellers, an era when cheap paper and a movement towards universal literacy made cities unusually alive with letters. But they are the special project of a new book by Sam Roberts and Roy Reed. From the book’s website:

Ghost signs are fascinating pieces of urban archaeology. Imposing yet hidden in plain sight, these faded advertisements are London’s history written on to the contemporary cityscape. They reveal fascinating stories of everyday life in the capital and each sign has its own tale to tell - not just of the business it represents and the people behind it, but of its own improbably survival.

A feast of history, typography and the urban environment, Ghost Signs: A London Story showcases London’s most impressive and historically significant faded painted signs, located, photographed and presented with archival andother contextual images.

Introduced by Wayne Hemingway MBE, the opening section shares insights into topics such as production techniques, economics and preservation. The themed chapters take on subjects including building, clothing, entertaining, branding and, ultimately, burying the city.

The Betty White Timeline of Human History

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

It can be difficult to wrap our minds around just how short recorded human history is — 5500 years is not actually all that long of a time period. In this Twitter thread, Jelena Woehr suggests that we use the unit of Betty White’s lifetime (99 years and counting) as a tool to probe the temporal relationships of important events in the evolution of humans and society.

Y’all, it’s only been about 16 really old people since the fall of Rome.

Shakespeare died four very long-lived grandparents ago?!

It’s been less than two Betty Whites since the Emancipation Proclamation?!?!

I feel like if we expressed time in units of Betty White we’d be better able to understand the lack of human moral progress.

“Society has not gotten better at implementing public health measures since the 1918 flu pandemic” sounds impossible, but that was only 1.03 Bettys ago.

It gets even wilder when you go farther back, too.

Humans have had roughly the same brain size and shape for 1000 Betty Whites.

But we’ve only had writing since 52 Betty Whites ago.

We were going around with these big brains never writing anything down for 948 Bettys????!

This reminds me of The Great Span1 but more specifically of Mark Sumner’s 50 Men from Ur.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States’ great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you’re no more than three away yourself. That’s how short the history of our nation really is.

Not impressed? It’s only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You’re ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.

(thx, matt)

  1. kottke.org readers in chorus: “What doesn’t remind you of The Great Span, Jason?!” Ok, fair enough but it’s still cool!

A Ted Lasso Animated Short: The Missing Christmas Mustache

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2021

Well this is a nice little holiday boost: a four-minute animated short with Ted Lasso and the gang called The Missing Christmas Mustache.

Stunning, Ultra-HD Short Films of National Parks

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2021

For the past 5 years, More Than Just Parks, an organization established by two self-professed “National Park nuts”, have been making short films about America’s National Parks and Forests. Each ultra-HD video is only 3-4 minutes long, extended trailers for the beauty and grandeur of parks like Zion, Grand Teton, and the Badlands and forests like Black Hills, Green Mountains, and Bridger Teton.

You can check out all of the videos on their YouTube channel.

The Courtroom Sketch Artist

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

ghislaine-maxwell-court-sketch.jpeg

Choire Sicha’s interview with Jane Rosenberg, the courtroom sketch artist currently working on the Ghislaine Maxwell trial in New York, is delightful.

Do you and other courtroom artists ever fight?
Oh, sure. You don’t want to hear all that.


All I want to hear is that!
Oh, no, no. I’m not starting. I get along professionally with most artists. There are some who are just really a problem. It’s not normal, what I put up with from the other ones. I used to have a story every day — they cursed me out! They knocked my pastels over! They’re sly as a fox, they do it when no one’s around, but all the court officers know who they are. They’re not in this trial.

Jeez. It’s much nicer among the reporters!
We compete, also! There’s issues of competition for certain clients. Some of us have our set clients, and there’s stealing going on, all kinds of backstabbing going on. It’s not all roses. I’m okay with who’s here, and we do what we have to do.

(Rosenberg has been drawing defendants since 1980.)

A Whole Day of Sunlight at the South Pole

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2021

From September to March each year, the Sun never sets at the South Pole. This time lapse video, taken over 5 days in March, shows the sun circling the entire sky just above the horizon, getting ready to set for the first time in months. (via sentiers)

“It’s a Terrible Idea to Deny Medical Care to Unvaccinated People”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2022

For The Atlantic, Ed Yong writes about an idea that has gained a certain amount of traction in recent weeks as hospital systems have been overwhelmed by the Omicron surge: medical care for unvaccinated people should be limited. Yong says that’s a very bad idea:

I ran this argument past several ethicists, clinicians, and public-health practitioners. Many of them sympathized with the exasperation and fear behind the sentiment. But all of them said that it was an awful idea — unethical, impractical, and founded on a shallow understanding of why some people remain unvaccinated.

“It’s an understandable response out of frustration and anger, and it is completely contrary to the tenets of medical ethics, which have stood pretty firm since the Second World War,” Matt Wynia, a doctor and ethicist at the University of Colorado, told me. “We don’t use the medical-care system as a way of meting out justice. We don’t use it to punish people for their social choices.” The matter “is pretty cut-and-dry,” Sara Murray, a hospitalist at UC San Francisco, added. “We have an ethical obligation to provide care for people regardless of the choices they made, and that stands true for our unvaccinated patients.”

Unvaccinated people are unvaccinated for a wide variety of reasons, many of them structural constraints beyond their control. Yong connects the care of the unvaccinated to the difficulty in receiving quality care already faced by women, Black people, and disabled people:

As health-care workers become more exhausted, demoralized, and furious, they might also unconsciously put less effort into treating unvaccinated patients. After all, implicit biases mean that many groups of people already receive poorer care despite the ethical principles that medicine is meant to uphold. Complex illnesses that disproportionately affect women, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis, dysautonomia, and now long COVID, are often dismissed because of stereotypes of women as hysterical and overly emotional. Black people are undertreated for pain because of persistent racist beliefs that they are less sensitive to it or have thicker skin. Disabled people often receive worse care because of ingrained beliefs that their lives are less meaningful. These biases exist-but they should be resisted. “Stigma and discrimination as a prism for allocating health-care services is already embedded in our society,” Goldberg told me. “The last thing we should do is to celebrate it.”

That is a compelling argument and provides a necessary dose of empathy for those of us who might feel betrayed by people who are unvaccinated at this point in the pandemic. Blaming individuals for these collective responsibilities and failures is of a kind with asserting that mask-wearing and vaccination are solely personal choices rather than necessary collective actions to be undertaken by communities to keep people safer. This is the same sort of individualist thinking that has people focused on their personal “carbon footprint” instead of what massive corporations, high-emissions industries, and governments should be doing to address the climate crisis.