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kottke.org posts about books

The best design books that aren’t specifically about design

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2017

The other day, Google Ventures’ Daniel Burka asked his followers for suggestions on the best design books that aren’t about design. Burka offered up How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand as his selection. Agreed! Here are the responses I found most interesting (some of which actually are about design, more or less):

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, a reminder to put humans at the center of city planning.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I read this ages ago and still think about it all the time.

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, a book that takes place entirely on an escalator ride.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, about leadership, creativity, and storytelling at Pixar.

Read Burka’s summary of the thread at Medium (please clap).

The trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2017

The first full-length trailer for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One is out. I enjoyed the book, but the teaser trailer was awful. This trailer’s much better and it’ll be interesting to see late Spielberg’s remix of early Spielberg in action.

“Airport Novella? Sounds interesting,” he said with a nod.

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2017

Airport Novella by Tom Comitta is what he calls a “literary supercut”. Constructed exclusively from the kinds of novels one normally finds in airport bookshops, the 48-page book contains four chapters, one each for the gestures most often found in airport prose: nodding, shrugging, odd looks, and gasps. An short excerpt from the shrugging chapter:

Jeremy was silent for a moment before finally shrugging.

She shrugged without answering. “Can I be frank now?”

He shrugged. “Anything that might help me with the history of the cemetery and the town.”

She shrugged. “Shows me what I know. Being that you’re a journalist from the big city.”

He shrugged, acting innocent.

She suddenly remembered that he’d been trying to guess her age yesterday. “Yep,” she said with a shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug, and she had a sudden vision of what he must have looked like as a small boy. “Hey, I know it’s none of my business, but how did it go with Rodney?”

She hesitated before finally shrugging. “You’re right. It is none of your business.” He could almost hear her shrug.

He gave a sheepish shrug. “I suppose that depends on the perspective.”

For source material, Comitta used books like The Da Vinci Code, the Twilight series, and a novel commissioned by Donald Trump (tagline: “Leave your modesty downstairs. Trump Tower is the sexiest novel of the decade.”)

The best books of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2017

Best Books 2017

If you’re anything like me, there were so very many books published this year that looked amazing but you didn’t get around to reading. Well, thanks to all the best-of-the-year lists coming out, we’re getting a second crack at the ol’ onion. (Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.) Without further ado, etc. etc…

Tyler Cowen, who samples (but doesn’t finish) over 1800 books a year, shared his Must Reads of 2017, a list that is mostly nonfiction and dominated by male authors. He recommends Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (“this book teaches you to think of John and Paul as a management team, and was the most enjoyable read I had all year”), Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, and Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla.

The NY Times whittled down their long list of 100 Notable Books to just The 10 Best Books of 2017, including The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us by Richard Prum and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (which Roxane Gay declared her favorite book of 2017).

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.”

From the longer list, I noticed The Idiot by Elif Batuman, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (the National Book Award winner for nonfiction), and Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patricia Lockwood.

Amazon’s editors picked their top 100 books of the year and then narrowed that list down to 10. Their tippy top pick appeared on several other lists as well: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, which I read and very much enjoyed. Also on their list was Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Robin Sloan’s well-reviewed Sourdough, and Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, the rawness of which had me on the floor at one point.

From Bustle comes a list of 17 Books Every Woman Should Read From 2017. Their picks include The Power by Naomi Alderman and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, both of which I’ve seen on several other lists…the latter won the National Book Award for fiction.

More to come as the lists roll in.

Update: Bill Gates famously loves to read and has published a list of five “amazing books” he read this year. Not all of his choices were published in 2017, but The Best We Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui about her family’s escape from Vietnam, and Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil sound super good in completely different ways.

Tyler Cowen followed up his mostly nonfiction list for Bloomberg with one of just fiction. He highlights Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation. He also calls out Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy as his favorite sci-fi reading of the year. I read them earlier this year and while I enjoyed them at the time, my esteem has grown steadily throughout the year.

Publisher’s Weekly’s top 10 includes White Tears by Hari Kunzru and The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. For their kids picks, they recommend A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui (her second book…see Gates’ picks above), Fault Lines in the Constitution by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson, and Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage (the first in The Book of Dust trilogy).

Update: I’m never going to get around to all of the book lists, but here are a few more that caught my eye.

The book critics of the NY Times offer their top books of 2017. The picks include Richard Nixon: The Life by John Farrell (“the parallels between Nixon and our current president leap off the page like crickets”), John Green’s well-reviewed Turtles All the Way Down, and Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (“my vote for science book of the year”).

For their Year in Reading 2017, The Millions asked some of their favorite readers and writers for their book recommendations. They returned with the likes of My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris and Morgan Parker’s collection of poetry, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce.

The Goodreads Best Books of 2017 is a bit different than the other lists in that the books are chosen exclusively by readers, not critics or writers. The very well-reviewed The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas topped both the debut author and young adult fiction categories while the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them dominated the fantasy category.

At GQ, Kevin Nguyen highlighted Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love (that cover!). Nylon’s Kristin Iversen rec’d Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose. Among Pitchfork’s favorite music books of the year is, yes, that book on the Beatles mentioned above but also Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 made the Guardian’s list of the best science fiction and fantasy of 2017.

“Whumph”: the sound of settling Antarctic snow

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

Polar adventurer Ben Saunders is currently about three weeks into a planned 1000-mile solo journey across Antarctica, blogging about it all the while. In his latest post, he describes the noise that snow makes when it settles under certain conditions, which he calls “whumphing”.

The only redeeming factor of all this fresh snow is what I’ll refer to as ‘whumphing’. I’ve no idea if there’s an actual term for the phenomenon, but I had the best whumph of my life when I first stepped out of the tent today. I assume it’s something to do with the weight of the snow settling, but the sensation is of the area of snow you’re standing on suddenly dropping by an inch or two, accompanied by a sound like a muffled thunderclap. If you’re lucky — as I was this morning — this sets off a chain reaction whumph, with a shockwave rolling out towards the horizon in every direction. It’s petrifying the first time you experience a whumph (in Greenland for me) but once you realise they’re harmless, it’s extraordinarily satisfying, like being a snowfield chiropractor, clicking tons of snow back into the right place.

Curious to see if whumphing was documented elsewhere, I did a little poking around. In a 1920 mountaineering book called Mountain Craft, Geoffrey Young talks about sudden settling due to sub-surface snow that’s less dense than the snow above. On a slope that can lead to an avalanche but on a flat Antarctic surface, you just get the muffled thunderclap.

I was also delighted to find that the legendary Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911, noted the very same effect in his book detailing the journey: The South Pole. In a false start to the expedition in September 1911, facing poor visibility and a temperature of -69 °F, he and his men decide to stop and build igloos for warmth. After settling in, they heard a noise.

That night we heard a strange noise round us. I looked under my bag to see whether we had far to drop, but there was no sign of a disturbance anywhere. In the other hut they had heard nothing. We afterwards discovered that the sound was only due to snow “settling.” By this expression I mean the movement that takes place when a large extent of the snow surface breaks and sinks (settles down). This movement gives one the idea that the ground is sinking under one, and it is not a pleasant feeling. It is followed by a dull roar, which often makes the dogs jump into the air — and their drivers too for that matter. Once we heard this booming on the plateau so loud that it seemed like the thunder of cannon. We soon grew accustomed to it.

Amundsen seemed rather less charmed than Saunders with whumphing, but it’s wonderful to witness the experience of it shared between these two explorers across more than 100 years.

My recent media diet, special Amsterdam edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past three weeks or so. I was in Amsterdam recently to speak at a conference. I had some free time and as it was my first time there, I took in some obvious sights. No books this time…Scale is currently on hold (and perhaps abandoned permanently) while I read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and listen to Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook.

Thor: Ragnarok. Henceforth, all superhero movies should be as fun as this. (B+)

Mindhunter. This one had a slow burn to it and got better as the season went on. Also, now that I know what to look for, the David Fincher camera thing was impossible to ignore. (B+)

Requiem for a Dream. The last 30 minutes of this movie is relentless. (A)

The Book of Life. I tried to steer the kids away from this one to no avail. (C)

On Margins with Kevin Kelly. The bits about how much of the world used to be pre-industrial until fairly recently and how most people only took 20-30 photos per year in the 70s were especially interesting. (B+)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel (season two). Not quite as good as the first season, but my kids are still riveted. (B+)

Doctor Who. I’ve been slowly introducing the kids to Doctor Who, which I watched as a kid with my dad. So far, we’ve seen Jon Pertwee’s final episode and a handful of early Tom Baker episodes…probably the show’s sweet spot. I didn’t want to throw them into the deep end with William Hartnell right off the bat. (B+)

The Dark Knight Rises. A parable for our times: a white, female Bernie supporter (Selina Kyle) votes for Trump because she believes the system needs a reset but comes to appreciate what a terrible fucking idea that was. (A-)

Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum. Kevin Kelly recommended this impressive little magazine shop to me…they must have carried over 1000 different titles. (B+)

Whisky Café L & B. They stock more than 2300 whiskies (!!)…but the space is so small that I don’t know where they keep it all. (B+)

Van Gogh Museum. Maybe the best small museum I’ve ever been to? Utterly fascinating to see how his entire life and career unfolded. (A)

Rijksmuseum. I missed a lot of this one, but what I did see was great. Gaping at the impossibly exquisite lighting in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid for 15 minutes was itself worth the price of admission. (A-)

Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Really conflicting feelings on this. On the one hand, there were hordes of drunken men walking the streets literally shopping for women’s bodies…anyone unclear on what the male gaze means only need spend a few minutes in De Wallen on a weekend night to fully grasp the concept. On the other hand, it can be empowering, economically and otherwise, for women to engage in sex work. Is the RLD sex-positive? I… (-)

Schiphol. Much faster wifi than at my house. Really lovely airport…it would get an “A” if it weren’t actually an airport. (B)

Amsterdam (generally). Visit if you’re a process and infrastructure nerd. Van Gogh Museum and a boat ride in the canals are musts. Didn’t have enough time to sample as much food as I wanted, but I will definitely be back. (A-)

Michael Clayton. I liked this a little less than I remember, even though its star has been on the rise lately. (B+)

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I knew next to nothing about Didion before watching this — aside from her hiring Harrison Ford when he was a carpenter. It’s probably better if you’re already a fan? (B)

Heavyweight: Jesse. One man in a car hits another man on a bike and both are changed forever. And for the better? (B+)

Arrival. Maybe my fourth time watching this? A friend commented on the economy of the storytelling…not a second is wasted. (A)

iPhone X. Most of my early impressions still hold. Still don’t like the notch, it is ridiculous. (A-)

Transparent (season four). The recent allegations against Tambour took the shine off of this season for me, but this is still one of the best TV shows in recent years. (A-)

Coco. I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did, and I don’t know why. (B+)

The 21-minute Frozen “short” that played before Coco. Total unimaginative and cynical garbage. This is what happens when marketing has too much pull. (F)

Stranger Things 2 soundtrack. The music is the best part of the show IMO. (A)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

How to Design a Comic Book Page

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2017

Using a single page from Art Spiegelman’s Maus (considered by many as one of the finest graphic novels ever written), Evan Puschak considers how Spiegelman used the page (and not the individual panel) as the atomic unit of the narrative of his father surviving the Holocaust. Designing the page is the thing. In making this point, he quotes the cartoonist Seth (Gregory Gallant):

The ‘words & pictures’ that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seems more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around — designing — then it is about drawing.

Emergence: how many stupid things become smart together

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2017

A nice overview of emergence by Kurzgesagt. I continue to find the concept of emergence endlessly fascinating — order from disorder, complexity from simplicity, more is different. As a society, we tend to underestimate how much emergence plays a role in why things happen the way they do and are therefore often wrong-footed in our analysis and response.

For a good primer on emergence and other related phenomena, check out Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.

The top 10 bestselling Kindle books of all time

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2017

Top Kindle Books All Time

The Kindle debuted 10 years ago this month and Amazon marked its anniversary with top 10 lists of the bestselling fiction and nonfiction books for the device. The fiction list is fairly predictable (I’ll get to it in a moment), but the nonfiction list is a little more interesting in spots:

1. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
2. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo, Sonja Burpo, and Lynn Vincent
3. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
4. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
5. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
6. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman
7. Bossypants by Tina Fey
8. American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice
9. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
10. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

It’s really nice to see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on there…I would not have guessed that one, although with HBO and Oprah involved, perhaps I should have. Here’s the fiction list, dominated by Shades of Grey and Katniss Everdeen.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
5. Fifty Shades Darker by E L James
6. Fifty Shades Freed by E L James
7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
8. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
9. The Help by Katherine Stockett
10. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

There are some fine books on both lists, but looking at them, you get an inkling of why the IRL Amazon stores are a bit lackluster.

The populism of Amazon’s real-world bookstores

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen recently visited an Amazon Store for the first time and posted some impressions.

1. It is a poorly designed store for me, most of all because it does not emphasize new releases. I feel I am familiar with a lot of older titles, or I went through a more or less rational process of deciding not to become familiar with them. Their current popularity, as measured say by Amazon rankings, does not cause me to reassess those judgments. For me, aggregate Amazon popularity has no real predictive power, except perhaps I don’t want to buy books everyone liked. “A really smart person says to consider this again,” however, would revise my prior estimates.

6. I consider myself quite pro-Amazon, still to me it feels dystopic when an attractive young saleswoman says so cheerily to (some) customers: “Thank you for being Prime!”

Some of his observations match those of other reviewers from when the store opened back in May. On my last trip to NYC, I visited the same store as Cowen (also for the first time) and it didn’t change my opinion about the visibility of the data in the store:

Other bookstores have books arranged according to best-seller lists, store-specific best-sellers, and staff recommendations, but I’ve never seen any store layout so extensively informed by data and where they tell you so much about why you’re seeing each item. Grocery store item placement is very data driven, but they don’t tell you why you’re seeing a display of Coke at the end of the aisle or why the produce is typically right at the entrance. It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon’s approach works or if people will be turned off by shopping inside a product database, a dehumanizing feeling Frommer hints at with “a collection of books that feels blandly standard” when compared to human curated selections at smaller bookstores.

Walking around, I half-expected to see SQL queries accompanying some of the displays — “SELECT * FROM books WHERE rating > 4.8 AND pub_year = 2017 ORDER BY number_sold”. Amazon definitely needs to figure out how to get a little weird into their stores, a little of the human touch. Toning down the data talk would help. A more casual typeface might work too — not Comic Sans but perhaps something at least approaching handwritten? They’ve got so so much data about how people buy books…they just need to be more clever about how they slice and dice it. Maybe look for books that exhibit the Napoleon Dynamite Problem? Find people with interesting wishlists?

Ultimately, I didn’t buy anything either.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2017

True Stories Beaches Hodgman

John Hodgman, formerly of The Daily Show and those Apple commercials, is out with a memoir of his middle-aged wanderings through New England called Vacationland.

Disarmed of falsehood, he was left only with the awful truth: John Hodgman is an older white male monster with bad facial hair, wandering like a privileged Sasquatch through three wildernesses: the hills of Western Massachusetts where he spent much of his youth; the painful beaches of Maine that want to kill him (and some day will); and the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects them.

Vacationland collects these real life wanderings, and through them you learn of the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, and which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison. There is also some advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Some of this hits remarkably close to the bone:

Though wildly, Hodgmaniacally funny as usual, it is also a poignant and sincere account of one human facing his forties, those years when men in particular must stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weird dads that they are.

I don’t know about wiser, but weird dad with a failing body is pretty much right on the money. And I love that cover by Aaron James Draplin. *kisses fingers*

The Future Library

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2017

A few years ago, in a forest just outside of Oslo, 1000 trees were planted. In 2114, after a century of growth, the trees will be cut down and made into paper for an anthology of books. Meet the Future Library, an artwork by Katie Paterson.

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

The first three writers to contribute texts are Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Icelandic novelist Sjón. Atwood said of her participation:

How strange it is to think of my own voice — silent by then for a long time — suddenly being awakened, after a hundred years. What is the first thing that voice will say, as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page?

See also the John Malkovich movie that no one will see for 100 years. The Future Library also has something in common with the (possibly apocryphal) story of the grove of oak trees specifically planted to replace the massive ceiling beams in the dining hall at Oxford hundreds of years in the future. Stewart Brand told the story in the TV adaptation of How Buildings Learn.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

The tension between creativity and productivity

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

Cory Doctorow was an early adopter of the lifehacking lifestyle and toolkit, including David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

Allen’s book is a fantastic and inspiring read. The core of his philosophy is to recognize that there are more things in the world that you want to do than you could do, and that, in the absence of a deliberate approach to this conundrum, you are likely to default to doing things that are easy to scratch off your to-do list, which are also the most trivial. After a lifetime of this, you’ll have accomplished a lot of very little.

Allen counsels deliberate, mindful prioritization of this list, jettisoning things on the basis that they are less satisfying or important than the other things you’d like to do - even if those other things are harder, more time consuming and less likely to result in a satisfying chance to scratch an item off the list.

After living and working this way for more than a decade, Doctorow reports that there’s a conflict between the optimization of your time via getting things done and the sort of experimental playtime you often need to do creative work.

The corollary of this is that it gets much, much harder to winnow out activities over time. Anything I remove from the Jenga stack of my day disturbs the whole tower.

And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification.

Quinn Norton wrote an essay called Against Productivity in which she moves to Puerto Rico to focus on working productively but ends up goofing off and discovering a new career & life path in the process.

I visited with new friends, and tooled around on the net (albeit always at 2G speeds). I watched rain fall. I cooked. I considered the shape of the buildings a lot, and looked after cats periodically. I walked to old forts and lookouts. At one point I took pictures of doors for no reason I could discern. I berated myself for being unproductive, for wasting this precious time I’d set aside to put my professional life together. I spent hours anxious to craft my time to be quantitatively better for writing. Then it all collapsed, and the only habit I fell into was depressive empty afternoons when I was alone with the cats and the rain. But I also, and wholly by accident, thought the thoughts that would take my career and life in a new and unimagined direction.

I was chatting with a friend on the phone today about a talk we’re doing together in a couple weeks and she brought up the same issue, unprompted. She’s a naturally productive person who finds herself with some free time, yet she’s finding it difficult to not stay busy, even though she knows she needs the mind-wandering time to replenish her creative reserves. I struggle with the same thing. I get more done in less time than I ever have, but sometimes I feel like there’s nothing creative about my work anymore. Sure, I make the doughnuts every day but am not inventing the cronut. How do you accomplish your work but also leave ample time for letting your creative mind off the leash?

Alongside mass extinction, humans are also the cause of “a great flourishing of life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

In her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert warns that we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction of life, this time caused by humans.

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

This is a mainstream view of humanity’s effect on the Earth flora and fauna…for evidence, you don’t need to look any further than all of the large mammal species that have gone extinct or are endangered because of human activity.

A more controversial take is offered by Chris Thomas in his recent book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. Thomas allows that there’s a “mini mass extinction” happening, but he also argues that the extreme evolutionary pressure brought by our increasing dominance of our planet’s ecosystems will result in a “sixth mass genesis”, a dramatic increase in the Earth’s biodiversity.

Human cities and mass agriculture have created new places for enterprising animals and plants to live, and our activities have stimulated evolutionary change in virtually every population of living species. Most remarkably, Thomas shows, humans may well have raised the rate at which new species are formed to the highest level in the history of our planet.

Drawing on the success stories of diverse species, from the ochre-colored comma butterfly to the New Zealand pukeko, Thomas overturns the accepted story of declining biodiversity on Earth. In so doing, he questions why we resist new forms of life, and why we see ourselves as unnatural. Ultimately, he suggests that if life on Earth can recover from the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, it can survive the onslaughts of the technological age.

Vox’s Ferris Jabr recently interviewed Thomas about his views. When asked about the “sixth mass genesis”, Thomas answered:

The history of life on Earth is a history of extinctions and ecological failures, but it is also a story of formation of new forms and spread of those new forms around the world. The net result has been a gain in diversity. In the human era we are seeing great losses, but we are also seeing all these biological gains of new animals and plants spreading around the world, new hybrids coming into existence. I am not saying there is yet a balance between the two. I accept the losses, but it is also scientifically, and in terms of our human attitudes to nature, extremely interesting to contemplate the gains simultaneously.

If the processes that are going on at the moment continue for a very long time, it is my expectation that the number of species on Earth will grow enormously. We are moving species of existing animals and plants back and forth across the world, so that they are all arriving in new geographic regions. We know when species have done this in the ancient past, they have turned into new species in those different regions. If you fast-forward a million years or a few million years, all of these introduced species that leave surviving descendants will have turned into new species. And that is going to generate many more species. We have effectively created a massive species generator.

That certainly does put an interesting spin on extinction and invasive species.

On the origin of time travel in fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2017

Drawing from David Wittenberg’s book, Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, as a guide, Evan Puschak goes in search of the origins of time travel in fiction. Along the way, he connects Charles Darwin’s work on evolution to the largely forgotten genre of utopian romance novels to the depiction of time travel in modern sci-fi.

P.S. While I was in France, I met up with Evan for lunch (we happened to be in Paris at the same time). We’d never met before, and it was really strange hearing the voice of one of my favorite YouTube channels coming out of an actual person.

The Lost Words

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Lost Words

Written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris, The Lost Words is a collection of words related to the natural world that are fading from our children’s minds as the “wild childhood” disappears from western society.

All over the country, there are words disappearing from children’s lives. These are the words of the natural world — Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone. The rich landscape of wild imagination and wild play is rapidly fading from our children’s minds.The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of nature words and the natural world they invoke.

The various approaches to time travel in movies & books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Using a number of hand-drawn diagrams, minutephysics goes over the various types of time travel featured in books and movies like Primer, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and Looper. The video covers free will, do-overs, alternate timelines, multiple selves, time machines within time machines, and many other things.

Salvador Dali’s surreal wine guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2017

Wines Of Gala

Wines Of Gala

Last year, Taschen re-released a new edition of a surrealist cookbook originally written by the artist Salvador Dali back in the 70s. The quirky book was a hit, so now the company is re-releasing another of Dali’s food-related books, a guide to wine called The Wines of Gala.

A Dalinian take on pleasures of the grape and a coveted collectible, the book sets out to organize wines “according to the sensations they create in our very depths.” Through eclectic metrics like production method, weight, and color, the book presents wines of the world in such innovative, Dal’iesque groupings as “Wines of Frivolity,” “Wines of the Impossible,” and “Wines of Light.”

Accompanying the fanciful wine advice are more than 140 illustrations by Dali. Punch reviewed the original book a couple years ago.

Of the more than 140 illustrations by the artist, most are reprinted sketches and details from earlier paintings; of the original pieces made for the book, many were produced by slightly altering the work of other artists, adding touches like the aforementioned torso drawers and penis-wine bottle spout, which were appended to a traditional nude by Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academy painter.

(via colossal)

My recent media diet, special French edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two weeks or so. I recently took a trip to France to visit friends and log some time in one of my favorite places on Earth, so this particular media diet is heavy on Parisian museums and food. If you take nothing else away from this post, avoid The Louvre and watch The Handmaid’s Tale at the earliest opportunity.

Dial M for Murder. This Hitchcock film, with its relatively low stakes and filmed mostly in one room, is more suspenseful and thrilling than any of the “the world/galaxy/universe is in peril” movies out today. (A-)

Musée des Arts et Métiers. Before ~1950, you could look at a machine and pretty much know what it did and how it worked. After the invention of the digital computer, everything is an inscrutable black box. (A)

Manon des Sources. This movie feels much older than it is. (B+)

Marconi. The chef from my favorite NYC restaurant recently opened this place in Montreal. Best meal I had during my trip (Paris included). (A)

The Big Sick. It may have been a little predictable, but I really liked this movie. Lots of heart. (B+)

Le Chateaubriand. The skate tartar and a dessert with a smoked cream were the highlights, but the whole experience was top-notch and chill. (A-)

Candelaria. You will never feel cooler in Paris than having an excellent cocktail in a bar behind a hidden door in the back of a taqueria. (A-)

Musée Picasso. Not much else to say about Picasso at this point, is there? That creep can roll, man. (A-)

Women in Physics. My daughter is pretty interested in science and scientists (she’s a particular fan of Marie Curie), so books that highlight women scientists can always be found around our house. (B)

Café de Flore. You will never feel cooler in Paris than sitting outside at Café de Flore at night, reading a book, and drinking a Negroni as Hemingway might have done in the 20s. (Tho Hemingway probably didn’t have a Kindle.) (A-)

Stacked. I recently rediscovered this hour-long mix by Royal Sapien. The two-ish minutes starting at 32:00 are sublime IMO. (A-)

The Devil in the White City. A gripping tale of architecture and serial killing. Chicago 1893 is definitely one of my hypothetical time travel destinations. (A)

Sainte-Chapelle. My favorite church in Paris. Literally jaw-dropping, worth the €10 entry fee. (A)

Rough Night. I will watch anything with Kate McKinnon in it. But… (B-)

Balanchine / Teshigawara / Bausch. An amazing building. (I got to go backstage!) The third act of this ballet was flat-out amazing. (B+)

The Louvre. The best-known works are underwhelming and the rest of this massive museum is overwhelming. The massive crowds, constant photo-taking, and selfies make it difficult to actually look at the art. Should have skipped it. (C)

100 Pounds of Popcorn. Forgettable kids book. (C-)

Kubo and the Two Strings. A fun thing to do is tell someone halfway through that it’s stop motion animated. (A-)

Musée d’Orsay. The building and the art it contains elevate each other. Probably the best big museum in Paris. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. This is both a not-implausible future of the United States and a metaphor for how many women and LGBT+ folks feel about how our society treats them. Excellent, a must-watch. (A)

Musée de l’Orangerie. Two rooms of huge Monet Waterlilies? Yes, please. (A-)

Brasserie Lipp. The steak frites was so-so, but the people watching from my table near the entrance was fascinating. You’ll never feel cooler…etc. etc. (B+)

Monograph by Chris Ware. This thing is *huge* (like it weighs almost 9 pounds) and beautiful. (A-)

D3 Traveller. I bought this on sale, but even so it was an epic splurge for me. Now that I’ve been on 4-5 trips with it, I can say I love love love this bag. Will likely last a lifetime. (A)

Blade Runner 2049. Rewatch, this time on a smaller screen. Despite its flaws, I definitely like this more than the original. (A-)

Leonardo da Vinci is overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Leonardo Overrated

Tyler Cowen asks Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated? and, in a rebuke to Betteridge, proceeds to answer “yes”.

He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them. The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading. Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.

So Leonardo was perhaps not the best at any one thing but he was very good or great at many different things. He is literally the quintessential “Renaissance man” and yet Cowen fails to evaluate him on that basis. Not surprising…history’s generalists are under-celebrated as a rule. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo in the next couple of weeks.

See also how the Mona Lisa became overrated.

My media diet for the past two weeks

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 13, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two weeks or so. I’ve been working and traveling, so there have been fewer books and more podcasts in my life. On the way home from NYC, I started The Devil in the White City on audiobook and can’t wait to get back to it.

From Cells to Cities. Sam Harris podcast interview of Geoffrey West, author of Scale. Two genuinely mind-blowing moments can’t quite salvage the remained 2 hours of rambling. (A-/C-)

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I much prefer the book. (C+)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Entertaining enough. I’ll give the new one a try. (B+)

Philip Glass Piano Works by Vikingur Olafsson. This is relaxing to listen to in the morning. (A-)

Luciferian Towers by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This sounds very much like all their other albums and I am not complaining. (B+)

mother! An intense film but it was too overly metaphorical for me to take any of the intensity seriously. (B)

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. “A fun, high-quality, serial mystery that can be described as Goonies meets Spy Kids meets Stranger Things for 8-12 year olds.” My kids and I listened to season one over the course of a week and they could not wait to hear more. (A-)

The Vietnam War original score. By Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. An unusual choice for the score to a Ken Burns film. (B+)

Blade Runner 2049. Seeing this in IMAX (real IMAX not baby IMAX) really blew my doors off. Visually and sonically amazing. At least 20 minutes too long though. (A-)

New Yorker TechFest. I hadn’t been to a tech conference in awhile because the ratio of style to substance had gotten too high. The caliber of the speakers set this conference apart. My full report is here. (B+)

Items: Is Fashion Modern? Great collection of items, but I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing the answer to the question in the title. (A-)

LBJ’s War. A short, 6-part podcast on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, consisting mostly of interviews and audio recordings from the period in question. A good companion to the PBS series on the war. (B+)

Driverless Dilemma by Radiolab. Revisiting an old episode of Radiolab about the trolley problem in the context of self-driving cars. (B)

Max Richter: Piano Works by Olivia Belli. Short and sweet. (A-)

Jerry Before Seinfeld. This felt pretty phoned-in. Some of these old jokes — “women, am I right?” — should have stayed in the vault. (B-)

Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack. A critical part of the movie that also stands alone. (A-)

Spielberg. A solid appreciation of Spielberg’s career, but more of a critical eye would have been appreciated. Also, was surprised how many of his movies referenced his parents’ divorce. (B+)

Universal Paperclips. Ugh, I cannot ever resist these incremental games. What an odd name, “incremental games”. Aren’t most games incremental? (A-/F)

Dictionary Stories, a book of short stories composed entirely of dictionary example sentences

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2017

Dictionary Stories

From illustrator, designer, and writer Jez Burrows comes a book called Dictionary Stories, a collection of illustrated short stories that are composed entirely of example sentences from the dictionary.

One day, while looking up a word in the New Oxford American Dictionary, Jez Burrows was stopped in his tracks by an example sentence: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” It seemed like a tiny piece of fiction had gotten lost, wandered out of another book and settled down in the dictionary. With that spark, and a handful of experimental stories posted to Tumblr, Dictionary Stories was born.

Super clever.

Universal Paperclips

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2017

There’s a new meta game by Frank Lantz making the rounds: Universal Paperclips, “in which you play an AI who makes paperclips”. Basically, you click a button to make money and use that money to buy upgrades which gives you more money per click, rinse, repeat.

Why AI and paperclips? That’s from a thought experiment by philosopher Nick Bostrom, author of Superintelligence:

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.

But you know, have fun playing! (via @kevinhendricks)

The 2017 National Book Awards finalists

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2017

National Book Awards 2017

The National Book Foundation has announced the finalists (and the longlist) for The 2017 National Book Awards. Among the nominees in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, young people’s literature, and poetry are The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen, The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

I’m excited to see David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon on the list. I read it earlier this year and it was excellent.

A scientific simulation of Seveneves’ Moon disaster

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2017

In the first line of Seveneves, Neal Stephenson lays out the event that the entire book’s action revolves around:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

Mild spoilers, but fairly quickly, scientists in the book figure out that this is a very bad thing that will cause humanity to become extinct unless drastic action is taken.

In the novel, one day the moon breaks up into 7 roughly equal-sized pieces. These pieces continue peacefully orbiting the Earth for a while, and eventually two pieces collide. This collision causes a piece to fragment, making future collisions more likely. The process repeats, at what Stephenson says is an exponential rate, until the Earth is under near-constant bombardment from meteorites, wiping out (nearly) all life on Earth.

Jason Cole wondered how plausible that scenario is and created a simulation to model it. Turns out Stephenson had his figures right.

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2017

Mari Andrew

Like some of you, I’ve been a fan of Mari Andrew’s illustrations on Instagram for a while now. Andrew is coming out with a book next March called Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood. She writes:

I wrote AM I THERE YET? toward the end of my 20s to share what I learned through heartbreak, love, loss, rejection, career confusion, adventures, and the gnawing question in the back of my mind: Where exactly am I going, or am I already there? I wrote and illustrated a book I wish I’d had in my 20s — to know that I wasn’t alone.

Here’s a favorite Andrew illustration of mine:

Mari Andrew

Annihilation, a new film from Alex Garland

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 29, 2017

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name, Annihilation is the newest film directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina).

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide; the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer.

Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh star as members of the 12th expedition sent into Area X.

Update: A full trailer is out and it looks pretty heavy on the horror. Or is that just how all trailers for thrillers are cut now?

My media diet for the past month

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2017

Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. As always, don’t take the letter grades so seriously. I’ve been watching too much TV and not reading enough books. I’m currently trying to get through Scale & Behave and listening to Superintelligence on audiobook and they’re all good & interesting, but I’m having trouble staying interested enough to actually pick them up in lieu of zoning out in front of the TV. I think I need something with more of a narrative.

The Vietnam War. Excellent, a must-see. (A)

The Matrix. Holds up well. I saw this in the theater in 1999, not knowing a damn thing about it, and walked out in a daze…”what the hell did I just see?” (A)

The Founder. There’s a certain kind of businessperson for whom the Ray Kroc depicted in this film would be a hero. Travis Kalanick, etc. Fuck those people. I stand with the McDonald brothers. (B+)

A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches. I aspire to this level of sandwich obsession. (B)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I should have stopped watching after 15 minutes but then I would have missed perhaps the worst closing line in movie history. (C-)

Inception. This might be my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. (A-)

american dream by LCD Soundsystem. I’ve never been able to get into LCD Soundsystem. Is there a trick? What’s the secret? (B-)

Basic Instinct. This movie is not great and hasn’t aged well. But you can totally see why it made Sharon Stone a star…she’s the only thing worth watching in the film. (C-)

Minions. *whispers* I kinda like the Minions and think they are funny and not as insipid/cynical as many others think. (B)

The Antidote. “Reread” this as an audiobook. I recommend this book to others more than any other book I’ve read in the past few years, save the Ferrante books. (A+)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I enjoyed it the first time, but this movie is so much better when watching it with two kids who think that everything coming out of every character’s mouth is the funniest thing they have ever heard. Biggest laugh was “I’m Mary Poppins y’all!” (B+)

Everything Now by Arcade Fire. Gets better every time I listen to it. (B+)

10 Bullets. Neat little one-button game. There’s an iOS version (and sequel) but they don’t work on iOS 11. (B)

Dunkirk. Saw this again on a larger screen (not IMAX sadly) and liked it even more this time. (A)

Champlain Valley Fair. I love fairs. We ate so many mini donuts and saw a dog walking a tightrope! (B+)

Logan Lucky. I was somewhat lukewarm on this leaving the theater but thinking back on it now, I definitely will see this again. (B+)

Sleep Well Beast by The National. Meh? (B-)

War for the Planet of the Apes. I saw this 3-4 weeks ago and can’t remember a whole lot about it, but I enjoyed it at the time? I do remember that the CG is seamless. (B-)

Applebee’s Artichoke and Spinach Dip. Way better than it had any right to be. I will make a special trip to eat this again. (A-)

Blade Runner. Rewatched in advance of the sequel. The final cut version, naturally. I watched the original cut for about 20 minutes once and had to shut it off because of the voiceover. (B+)

Past installments of my media diets can be found here.

Monograph by Chris Ware

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2017

Monograph Chris Ware

Monograph by Chris Ware is a monograph of Chris Ware’s life and work written and illustrated by Chris Ware. Got that? I liked the official description of the book from the Amazon page:

A flabbergasting experiment in publishing hubris, Monograph charts the art and literary world’s increasing tolerance for the language of the empathetic doodle directly through the work of one of its most esthetically constipated practitioners.

Kirkus liked it and Zadie Smith blurbed “there’s no writer alive whose work I love more than Chris Ware”. Instant preorder.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, a previously unpublished children’s book by Mark Twain

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2017

Prince Oleomargarine

To Mark Twain’s posthumously published works, add one more: a book for children called The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Twain jotted down notes for the book — which was discovered a few years ago in the Twain literary archive — but never finished the story. Doubleday bought the rights and worked with Philip and Erin Stead (an author and illustrator, respectively) to complete the story and turn it into a book.

In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished…until now.

Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work.

The Steads introduced several changes to the story, including making the book’s hero black. This New Yorker piece by Mythili Rao explores how much artistic license should be taken with a story that ultimately has Twain’s name on it.

“I was surprised by that,” Bird told me, when I asked him about the Steads’ interpretation of the character. “I just didn’t see the textual evidence for it. If Mark Twain wanted to make somebody black, he would make them black. He was not shy about dealing with matters of race.” When Twain told his daughters bedtime stories, he often incorporated household objects or magazine illustrations in the narrative. In his journals, he wrote, “The tough part of it was that every detail of the story had to be brand-new — invented on the spot — and it must fit the picture.” (Susy, in particular, was an “alert critic.”) The journals suggest that Johnny, a recurring character in Twain’s bedtime stories, was based on a rather clinical William Page illustration of the male figure that the Clemens daughters spotted in an April, 1879, issue of Scribner’s Monthly magazine. It seems likely that neither Twain nor his daughters imagined Johnny as the Steads do.