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Updated: 2018-03-23T17:42:55Z


The Miscellany of Iskander Sultan



It’s relatively difficult to find decent shortlists of the most beautiful books ever made. Here’s an all-European one made by a medievalist and facsimile expert, with the Lindisfarne Gospels as number one.

I wonder where the Miscellany of Iskander Sultan might fit in if you made the list worldwide. It’s 15th century, Persian, tiny, and gorgeous. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful books, cover to cover, I’ve ever seen. (You can peruse the pages at the British Library’s website).


Its content is also much more my speed:

Imagine being a position to commission a magnificent one-volume selection of the reading matter you would most like to carry around on your travels - a kind of miniature personal library. With no expense spared, you could order the most skilful calligraphers in the land to write it, the best painters to illustrate it, the best illuminators to decorate it, the best binders to bind it…

[The 23 texts in the Miscellany] include a wide-ranging selection of religious, narrative and lyrical poetry; in prose, there are treatises on astronomy and astrology, geometry, medicine, farriery, alchemy, history, and Islamic law.

It’s just 5” by 7”. This was a personal book, fashioned to look like a jewel box.


It’s a Borgesian fantasia.

Although the paintings are marvelous, it is the formatting of the text that makes the book truly striking. The manuscript is collage-like in appearance. The text is arranged like a work of architecture, each chunk of calligraphy interlocking with another like the pieces of a puzzle box. The gathered excerpts that comprise the Miscellany are stitched together on its pages like patches on a quilt. Sections of text stack on top of one another, interlaced like fretwork. Bursts of flowers and tangles of vines fill the empty spaces between sections of writing. In one spread, a poem sits in a block at the center of each page, while another poem radiates out from it like rays of light. In another, a bright painting fills the page, while a golden block of text zigzags around its corner. The pages of this book cannot be read in the usual way. They must be navigated and explored, wandered through like labyrinths.


How exciting is that?

Tags: books   Islam   manuscripts   Persia

Blogging, social media, and ambient humanity


Dan Cohen is a history professor and administrator at Northeastern University; he was also the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, and has been a general public smartypants in the field of digital humanities.

Dan recently wrote a blog post titled “Back to the Blog,” which muses on a microtrend I’ve seen as well. Friends and writers, not thousands or probably even hundreds, but solid dozens, returning to old-fashioned weblogging as a way to get their thoughts in order, take ownership of their intellectual property, get away from the Twitter hubbub, stick it to Facebook, or any one of a dozen other reasons to write a blog.

Now, a lot of the professional infrastructure of blogging that once was is broken. The ad networks that supported people don’t exist or don’t work the same way. The distribution, via RSS and then Google Reader, was monopolized and then fractured. Some of the blogging networks take as much of a walled-garden approach to their sites as Facebook does.

But, if you just want to blog (which is different from making a living as a blogger), it’s probably easier to start and host your own blog than it ever was. What’s holding people back, Cohen writes, isn’t really technical:

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

The metaphor suggests that blogging either needs its own mechanisms of ambient humanity — which it’s had, in the form of links, trackbacks, conversations, even (gulp) comments, all of which replicated at least a fraction of the buzz that social media has — or it needs a kind of escape velocity to break that gravitational pull. Gravity or speed. Or a hybrid of both.

Tags: Dan Cohen   weblogs

Hair Dryer Chicken


My friend Helen Rosner loves crispy poultry. She evangelizes dry-brined turkey and fried chicken given an extra turn under a heat lamp. Others may have been surprised when she turned her hair dryer loose on a roaster in the hopes of sucking just a little more moisture from the bird’s skin before it got properly cooked. I was not.

Translation is hard, but translation in public is harder and better. There’s a richness in the commentary, and also a reckoning with the accretion of meanings that have come down through past readings, that you don’t often get without diving into scholarly apparatus. It’s not just peeling back the plaster; it’s trying to understand the work that plaster did in holding the whole structure together. Just remarkable.

Update: Dan Chiasson wrote about Wilson’s use of Twitter for the New Yorker.

Tags: books   Dan Chiasson   Emily Wilson   Homer   language   The Odyssey   translation

A world-historical theory of tool use



I love reading and rereading about the origin of humanity. I love that it’s not settled science: we’re still making new discoveries about when humans first left Africa, how and when we interbred with other hominins, and what makes us human in the first place. It’s just the coolest story, which is also every story.

Popular Science has a really nice new primer on the current state of research on early humanity. Embedded in it is a series of studies on tool use by early humans in Kenya that caught my attention. Basically, the tools got smaller and more portable, the materials used were more exotic (sourced from farther away), and they were decorated with pigments.

“That’s where there’s a similarity to technology in recent times; things start out big and clunky and they get small and portable,” says Richard Potts, head of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and a co-author of the papers. “The history [of] technology has been the same ever since.”

I wonder, though, if all three vectors hold up across history: greater portability, greater range of materials, and greater decorative value.

I suspect the null hypothesis would be that technologies that work tend to stay roughly the same over time. (For most of early human history, our tools didn’t change up that much, which is exactly why the burst of activity in east Africa is noteworthy.) You need something to shake things up: either sudden availability of new materials, or a deprivation of old ones (like the Bronze Age collapse, which eventually helped usher in the Iron Age).

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

“One of the things we see is that around 500,000 years ago in the rift valley of southern Kenya, all hell breaks loose. There’s faulting that occurs, and earthquake activity was moving the landscape up and down. The climate record shows there is a stronger degree of oscillation between wet and dry. That would have disrupted the predictability of food and water, for those early people,” Potts says. “It’s exactly under those conditions that almost any organism—but especially a hunter-gatherer human, even an early one—would begin to expand geography of obtaining food or obtaining resources. It’s under those conditions that you begin to run into other groups of hominins and you become aware of resources beyond your usual boundaries.”
Tags: humans   science   tools

A literal world map





This is a map of the literal translations for the names of the world’s countries (bigger size). Some of the translations include:

Panama: Place of Abundant Fish
Paraguay: People Born Along the River
Namibia: The Vast Place
Ethiopia: Land of Burnt Faces
Egypt: Temple of the Soul of Ptah
Spain: Land of Many Rabbits
Hungary: 10 Arrows
Qatar: Land of Tar
Israel: He That Striveth with God
Thailand: Land of the Free
Nauru: I Go to the Beach
Australia: Southern Land

A spreadsheet of the translations and their sources is available here. See also a world map of every country’s tourism slogan. (via @danielhale)

Update: See also the Etymological Map of Africa. (via @danielhale)

Update: Two things. 1. This is not my map. I didn’t make it…it seems that (based on the logo in the lower right-hand corner) an Australian credit card comparison company did, but I can’t find any record of them having posted it anywhere online. 2. I have gotten many messages indicating the map is incorrect in one aspect or another, so you might want to take the whole thing with a healthy grain of salt (despite the research).

Tags: language   maps

A surgery resident analyzes medical scenes from TV & movies


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Annie Onishi is a general surgery resident at Columbia University and Wired asked her to break down scenes from movies and TV shows featuring emergency rooms, operating rooms, and other medical incidents. Spoiler alert: if you seek medical treatment from a TV doctor, you will probably die. Secondary spoiler alert: that adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart scene in Pulp Fiction is not as implausible as you might think, even if some of the details are wrong.

Tags: Annie Onishi   medicine   movies   Pulp Fiction   TV

“To share something is to risk losing it”


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Remember the Broccoli Tree and its eventual fate?

For the past few years, Patrik Svedberg has been taking photos of a beautiful Swedish tree he dubbed The Broccoli Tree. In a short time, the tree gained a healthy following on Instagram, becoming both a tourist attraction and an online celebrity of sorts. (I posted about tree two years ago.) Yesterday, Svedberg posted a sad update: someone had vandalized the tree by sawing through one of the limbs.

Very soon after, it was decided by some authority that the vandalism meant the entire tree had to come down. A work crew arrived and now it’s gone.

In a short video, John Green shares his perspective on the loss of the tree and the meaning of sharing with others in the age of social media.

To share something is to risk losing it, especially in a world where sharing occurs at tremendous scale and where everyone seems to want to be noticed, even if only for cutting down a beloved tree. […] And the truth is, if we horde and hide what we love, we can still lose it. Only then, we’re alone in the loss.

Tags: celebrity   John Green   video

“Oh my god!” People’s reactions to looking at the Moon through a telescope.


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Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh took a telescope around the streets of LA and invited people to look at the Moon through it. Watching people’s reactions to seeing such a closeup view of the Moon with their own eyes, perhaps for the first time, is really amazing.

Whoa, that looks like that’s right down the street, man!

I often wonder what the effect is of most Americans not being able to see the night sky on a regular basis. As Sriram Murali says:

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

Tags: Alex Gorosh   astronomy   Moon   science   space   Sriram Murali   video   Wylie Overstreet

A recap and photos of National School Walkout Day



I didn’t get to follow National School Walkout Day as closely as I wanted to yesterday, but I just wanted to say on the morning after that I am very much in support of these kids, very proud of them, and deeply ashamed that ours is a country that has to regularly lean so hard on some of our most vulnerable members of society to get people and politicians to react to gross social injustice.

Buzzfeed has a great roundup of action from around the country, including 16-year-old Justin Blackman, who was the only one to walk out at his school…and ended up with millions of people supporting his efforts online. The Atlantic’s In Focus has gathered 35 photos of the walkout from around the nation.

Tags: guns   Justin Blackman   photography   politics

Ohio teenager’s raw photographs of his high school friends




The New Yorker is featuring a selection of photos taken by high school senior Colin Combs, mostly of him and his friends in Dayton, Ohio, “sometimes called the heroin capital of the United States”.

Minimalism is the necessary ethos of both his concept and his process. His equipment consists of expired film and cheap or disposable cameras, which Combs receives from patrons, including Wolfgang Grossmann, a school security guard, and Amy Powell, his photography teacher. Powell, who sent The New Yorker a selection of Combs’s images last December — the magazine later had dozens of rolls developed — has indulged her student’s autodidacticism, a trait that some educators might mistake for disobedience. “Sometimes he won’t do the assignments for class,” she said recently, laughing. “But he is always so hungry, prolific, constantly shooting. I’ve never had a student produce as much.”

The piece compares Combs’ work with that of Nan Goldin; parallels with the work of Larry Clark (NSFW), Ryan McGinley (NSFW), and Harmony Korine are also present. I went to see the Stephen Shore show at MoMA the other day (very recommended) and Combs’ photos making their way to the New Yorker reminded me of a 14-year-old Shore asking Edward Steichen, then MoMA’s curator of photography, to review his portfolio. Steichen purchased three photos from him.

You can follow Combs’ work on Instagram or read more about his work in the local Dayton paper.

Tags: Colin Combs   photography

Gorgeous 8K video of the aurora borealis dancing in the skies during a lunar eclipse


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8K resolution. Time lapse. 360º view. Aurora borealis. Lunar eclipse. I’m not really sure how you could pack much more into this video. Probably best experienced with some sort of VR rig, but for those of us without access to such a thing, watching it several times on a large screen while dragging the view around is a more than adequate substitute. If seeing the aurora borealis in person wasn’t already on your bucket list, it is now. Dang. (via the kid should see this)

Tags: astronomy   science   video


2018-03-14T13:56:23Z is 20 years old today. Holy shit! On March 14, 1998, I launched a new episode of 0sil8 called “Notes”. 0sil8 was a previous website of mine, started in 1995 or 1996. The site’s format was episodic: every month or two the design and content was completely different. With Notes, I wanted to have somewhere to write regularly for my friends, modeled after the online diaries that were growing in popularity at the time. Weblogs were a thing, one of the many types of regularly updated personal sites that were in existence then; they wouldn’t take off and begin to consume all media for another year or two. In December 1998, I registered ( was taken and I wasn’t a network so .org it was) and sometime later moved Notes over, where it’s been ever since. And now it’s one of the oldest regularly updated sites on the web. I’ve been reading back through the early archives (which I wouldn’t recommend), and it feels like excavating down through layers of sediment, tracing the growth & evolution of the web, a media format, and most of all, a person. On March 14, 1998, I was 24 years old and dumb as a brick. Oh sure, I’d had lots of book learning and was quick with ideas, but I knew shockingly little about actual real life.1 I was a cynical and cocky know-it-all. Some of my older posts are genuinely cringeworthy to read now: poorly written, cluelessly privileged, and even mean spirited. I’m ashamed to have written some of them. But had I not written all those posts, good and bad, I wouldn’t be who I am today, which, hopefully, is a somewhat wiser person vectoring towards a better version of himself. What the site has become in its best moments — a slightly highfalutin description from the about page: “[] covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity” — has given me a chance to “try on” hundreds of thousands of ideas, put myself into the shoes of all kinds of different thinkers & creators, meet some wonderful people (some of whom I’m lucky enough to call my friends), and engage with some of the best readers on the web (that’s you!), who regularly challenge me on and improve my understanding of countless topics and viewpoints. I had a personal realization recently: isn’t so much a thing I’m making but a process I’m going through. A journey. A journey towards knowledge, discovery, empathy, connection, and a better way of seeing the world. Along the way, I’ve found myself and all of you. I feel so so so lucky to have had this opportunity. When turned 10, my post marking the anniversary ended with “I’ll see you in 2018”. In my recollection, that line was somewhat serious but also partially somewhere between a joke and a dare. Like, “how has this thing lasted 10 years, why not go for 20?” So…why not go for 30? 40? I’ll see you for sure in 2028 and perhaps even in 2038. Thank you so very much for being here with me, I surely don’t deserve such fine company. P.S. And if you’ll indulge me for a moment in a brief shameless sale pitch, if you have found something valuable here over the past 20 years, please consider supporting the site with a membership. Member support has put the site on a stable financial path into the future and has personally re-energized my involvement and commitment to the site. Thanks! This is still arguably the case.↩ Tags: Jason Kottke   weblogs [...]

Physics giant Stephen Hawking dead at age 76


Stephen Hawking, who uncovered the mysteries of black holes and with A Brief History of Time did more than anyone to popularize science since the late Carl Sagan, has died at his home in Cambridge at age 76. From an obituary in The Guardian: Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. In his finals, he came borderline between a first- and second-class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay. They opted for a first. Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease, and witnessing the death from leukaemia of a boy he knew in hospital, ignited a fresh sense of purpose. “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research,” he once said. Embarking on his career in earnest, he declared: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” From Dennis Overbye’s obit in the NY Times: He went on to become his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them. That work led to a turning point in modern physics, playing itself out in the closing months of 1973 on the walls of his brain when Dr. Hawking set out to apply quantum theory, the weird laws that govern subatomic reality, to black holes. In a long and daunting calculation, Dr. Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes — those mythological avatars of cosmic doom — were not really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons. Nobody, including Dr. Hawking, believed it at first — that particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.” That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title “Black Hole Explosions?,” is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature — to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought. The discovery of Hawking radiation, as it is known, turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators — or at least to recyclers — and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange, new direction. “You can ask what will happen to someone who jumps into a black hole,” Dr. Hawking said in an interview in 1978. “I certainly don’t think he will survive it. “On the other hand,” he added, “if we send someone off to jump into a black hole, neither he nor his constituent atoms will come back, but his mass energy will come back. Maybe that applies to the whole universe.” Dennis W. Sciama, a cosmologist and Dr. Hawking’s thesis adviser at Cambridge, called Hawking’s thesis in Nature “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.” Roger Penrose, the eminent mathematician and physicist who collaborated with Hawking on discoveries related to black holes and the genesis of the universe, wrote a lengthy scient[...]

Holy mountains haloed by drone light





Oh, I love these photos by Reuben Wu. As part of his project Lux Noctis, Wu flies drones in circles around mountain peaks and takes long-exposure photos, creating these beautiful haloed landscapes. Wu spoke to Colossal about his interest in zero-trace land art:

Recently Wu has evolved his process of working with the drones to form light paths above topographical peaks in the mountainous terrain. “I see it as a kind of ‘zero trace’ version of land art where the environment remains untouched by the artist, and at the same time is presented in a sublime way which speaks to 19th century Romantic painting and science and fictional imagery,” said Wu to Colossal.

Tags: art   photography   Reuben Wu

Broad Band, Claire Evans’ book about “The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet”


I’m looking forward to reading Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. Addie Wagenknecht recently did an interview with Evans about the book.

The easy thing is to say that Broad Band is a feminist history of the Internet. That’s what I’ve been telling people. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s a history of the Internet told through women’s stories: boots-on-the-ground accounts of where the women were, how they were feeling and working, at specific, formative moments in Internet history. It emphasizes users and those who design for use, while many popular tech histories tend to zero in on the box. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens after hardware hits the market; it’s what we do with it that counts.

When I first heard of the book, I thought immediately of Halt and Catch Fire, a connection that Adi Robertson picked up on as well.

Robertson: It’s funny how much this book reminded me of Halt and Catch Fire.

Evans: Yes! Oh my god. One of my great regrets about the timing of me writing this book is that Halt and Catch Fire is over now, and I can’t con my way into a consulting job on that show. It was so fun being deep in the process of researching arcana and internet history and then seeing these little nuggets appear in a more glamorous form on my favorite TV show. It kind of felt surreal. But definitely made me feel like I was headed in the right direction.

Tags: Addie Wagenknecht   Adi Robertson   books   Broad Band   Claire Evans

National Geographic: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.”


As part of their issue on race, National Geographic asked historian John Edwin Mason to dive into their archives to examine the magazine’s past coverage of people of color, both in the US and abroad. What he found was not pretty.

What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché.

Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.

“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”

Some of what you find in our archives leaves you speechless, like a 1916 story about Australia. Underneath photos of two Aboriginal people, the caption reads: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

A laudable move, particularly for a publication owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Tags: National Geographic   racism

Puzzle twins





For her project entitled Within 15 Minutes, artist Alma Haser made identical jigsaw puzzles out of portraits she’d taken of identical twins and then swapped every other piece when putting them together, creating these serendipitously fragmented portraits. She said of her first attempt last year:

So today for no apparent reason I thought I’d test out a crazy idea I had. For the project I have been switching just the faces of the identical twins, but today I decided to see what it would look like to swap every other pieces with reach other. Completely entwining the beautiful @being__her sisters. And wow, what an effect! It really make you double take at their faces, trying to decipher one for the other.

You can follow Haser’s work, including the twin puzzles, on Instagram.

Tags: Alma Haser   art   photography