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Bad design in action: the false Hawaiian ballistic missile alert

16 January, by Jason Kottke[ —]

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

Fake Hawaii Missile Alert

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

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

Mailchimp Delete

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

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

Tags: design

Find your museum doppelganger

14 January, by Jason Kottke[ —]

Some people have been lucky enough to find themselves in paintings at art museums.

Museum Doppelgangers

Museum Doppelgangers

Museum Doppelgangers

Now the Google Arts & Culture app lets you take a selfie and find your own art doppelganger. The results are kinds iffy — even when making my best Jesus-suffering-on-the-cross face, I couldn’t get it to match me with an actual Passion painting — but you can see some of the results here.

See also Stefan Draschan’s photos of people matching artworks.

Tags: art   Google   iPhone apps

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

14 January, by Jason Kottke[ —]

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Christopher Payne   how to   photography   Sam Anderson   video

Time… Lapsed: An Excerpt from Noticing #2, January 12, 2018

12 January, by Tim Carmody[ —]

The second edition of Noticing, a still-new and all-free kottke.org newsletter, went out this afternoon. Here’s a short excerpt of the third and fourth sections, “Time… Lapsed” and “Ask Dr. Time.” We hope you’ll subscribe.

Time… Lapsed

This was a good week for historical snapshots. I was fascinated by Cinefix's list of the top movie remakes of all time, including maybe especially Michael Mann's Heat, which (I didn't know) is a remake of a failed TV pilot Mann produced in 1989. The deep dive into Herzog's remake of Nosferatu is also great. But all of the featured films, whether remakes, sequels, or adaptations, show the effects of time and choice, and wow, yeah, I am deep into those two things lately. Like, without getting completely junior year of college on it–the metaphysical context for being, and the active, existential fact of being itself.

Consider Alan Taylor's as-always-gorgeous photo remembrance of 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in world and American history. (There are going to be a lot of 50th anniversaries of things I am not ready for there to be 50th anniversaries for.) Or acts of misremembrance and mistaken choices, like how late 1990s and early 2000s nostalgia for World War 2 (and a commensurate forgetting of Vietnam and the Cold War) helped turn September 11, 2001 into a new kind of permanent war that shows no signs of ending.

Or for lighter fare, see this photo of the cast of The Crown with their real-life counterparts, or try out Permanent Redirect, digital art that moves to a new URL whenever someone views it. Watch an English five-pound note be reconstructed from shredded waste, or see this film of time-lapse thunderstorms and tornadoes in 8K high-definition. (That last one is pretty scary, actually. But beautiful.)

Ask Dr. Time

Speaking of time–you may have missed the introduction of Dr. Time, the world's first metaphysical advice columnist, last Friday. Last week we looked at the changing relationship between orality and literacy (or, I should probably say, oralities and literacies) from prehistory through digital technology. I don't have anything quite so sweeping for this week; only this round-up of longevity research compiled by Laura Deming (which I mostly understand), and this exciting new scientific paper on reversing the thermodynamic arrow of time using quantum correlations (which I barely understand). 

So, this week, my advice regarding time would be (in this order):

  1. Try to restrict your caloric intake;
  2. Consider shifting some of your qubits into spin 1/2;
  3. Accept that we're thrown into our circumstances, regardless of how shitty they may be, and greet whatever fate rises to meet you with resolute defiance.
Tags: Dr. Time   movies   Noticing   time lapse

How to fold a circle into an ellipse

12 January, by Tim Carmody[ —]

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

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

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

Tags: geometry   origami

Foreclosing on the future of the book

12 January, by Tim Carmody[ —]

Microsoft Reader Ad - 1999.jpg

At Wired, my old colleague David Pierce writes about a topic near and dear to my heart: Amazon’s Kindle, and its effects on how we buy and read books:

For a decade, Amazon’s relentlessly offered new ways for people to read books. But even as platforms change, books haven’t, and the incompatibility is beginning to show. Phones and tablets contain nothing of what makes a paperback wonderful. They’re full of distractions, eye-wrecking backlights, and batteries that die in a few hours. They also open up massive new opportunities. On a tablet, books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row. They can be easily navigable, endlessly searchable, and constantly updated. They can use images, video, even games to augment the experience….

The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all. Instead, the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading. Just as filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh are experimenting with what it means to make a “movie” that’s really an app on a totally interactive device with a smaller screen, Amazon and the book world are beginning to figure out what’s possible when you’re not dealing with paper anymore.

Except… not really.

Very few people have held out more hope for the digital transformation of the book than me. I used to run a website called Bookfuturism. I wrote, at length, in The Atlantic, at Wired, at The Verge, at any magazine or website that would have me, about the possibility of a new reading avant-garde. And it just never happened. For reasons.

For one thing, almost every kind of forward-looking reading technology can be put to more lucrative uses than making e-books. Facebook will buy your company. Google will buy your company. Some games publisher will buy your company. You will not be making books any more. You will be making something else. It might be cool! But it won’t be books.

Second, and more importantly, the main way that the Kindle and other digital devices have transformed books is to make them as liquid as possible. By liquid, I mean, they take the shape of their container, rather than dictating the container’s shape. You need a single book to read in much the same way on a Kindle as on an iPhone, a full-sized tablet, a PC, and on whatever device you’re using to read your audiobook. Plus, you know-printed books, which are still huge. And part of the value of the digital book is that it’s a reasonable facsimile of the printed book.

While all of these devices are more multimedia-capable than an analog printed book, the differences between their capabilities is vast, and designing around those differences is no easy task. So Amazon has done what I think any of us might do given those requirements, and basically de-formed the book, deemphasizing page design and anything else that might not cross over to devices with different screen sizes, media capabilities, and affordances.

Getting wild with digital design in 2018 means getting wild in 2018 with responsive design that’s agnostic to the kind of device you’re rocking. That’s doable, probably, but it’s really, really hard.

“If Amazon wanted to, it could with a single act bring a new form of book into being,” Pierce writes. It’s true that Amazon is probably the only company that could do so. But it has good reasons, not least the overall conservative nature of the book market writ large, to move exceedingly slowly.

Every generation deserves to have its own dreams for the future of the book dashed against the wall. For reference, here is a timeline Microsoft-nice, safe, Word-and-Office Microsoft!-put forward back in 1999.

2003- eBook devices weigh less than a pound and run for eight hours on a charge. Costs run from $99 for a simple black and white device to about $899 for the most powerful, color magazine-sized machine.

2005- eBook title and ePeriodical sales top $1 billion. Many serial publications are given away free with advertising support that now also totals more than $1 billion. An estimated 250 million people regularly read books and newspapers on their PCs, laptops, and palm machines.

2006- eNewstands (kiosks) proliferate on street corners, airports, etc. As usual, airlines offer customers old magazines on the flight, but the magazines are now downloaded to eBook devices.

2009- Several top authors now publish directly to their audiences, many of whom subscribe to their favorite authors rather than buy book-by-book. Some authors join genre cooperatives, in which they hold an ownership stake, to cover the costs of marketing, handle group advertising sales and sell “ancillary” (that is, non-electronic) rights, including “paper rights.” Major publishing houses survive and prosper by offering authors editing and marketing services, rather than arranging for book printing. Printing firms diversify into eBook preparation and converting old paper titles to electronic formats.

2011- Advances in non-volatile chip storage, including Hitachi’s Single Electron terabit chip, allow eBooks to store 4 million books - more than many university libraries - or every newspaper ever printed in America.

2012- The pulp industry mounts its pro-paper “Real Books” ad campaign, featuring a friendly logger who urges consumers to “Buy the real thing - real books printed on real paper.”

2018- In common parlance, eBook titles are simply called “books.” The old kinds are increasingly called “paper books.”

2020- Ninety percent of all titles are now sold in electronic rather than paper form. Webster alters its First Definition of “book” to mean, “a substantial piece of writing commonly displayed on a computer or other personal viewing device.”.

The technology has never been the issue. The willingness of big players in the industry to move quickly has never been the issue. I never thought Kindles were going to be wildly experimental, but I thought they might start doing everything that text does, or that paper does. But people don’t really want to even do Sudoku on their Kindles. What they seem to want to do is read (and in some cases, listen to) books. Books, and the enormous and enormously complex interconnected nature of the book market and book readership, seem to be the issue. You just can’t make that barge turn on a hairpin.

(Thanks to John Overholt and Catablogger for a photo of the Microsoft ad.)

Tags: Amazon   books   David Pierce   publishing

How Haiti became poor

12 January, by Tim Carmody[ —]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recommended reading:

Tags: Donald Trump   Ebony Elizabeth Thomas   Haiti   Jonathan Katz   poverty

Possible roadblock to CRISPR use in humans: we might be immune to it

11 January, by Jason Kottke[ —]

Researchers from Stanford have published a study showing that immunity might hinder the use of the CRISPR gene editing technique in humans. The Cas9 bacterial protein commonly used in CRISPR is found in and around human bodies, so many of those bodies have already built up an immunity to it. That means if you send Cas9 into a body to do some gene editing, that body’s immune system might attack and destroy it before it can do its work. Sarah Zhang wrote about the study for The Atlantic.

Porteus and his colleagues focused on two versions of Cas9, the bacterial protein mostly commonly used in CRISPR gene editing. One comes from Staphylococcus aureus, which often harmlessly lives on skin but can sometimes causes staph infections, and another from Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes strep throat but can also become “flesh-eating bacteria” when it spreads to other parts of the body. So yeah, you want your immune system to be on guard against these bacteria.

It sounds like this was something geneticists were well aware of but wasn’t common knowledge among non-technical CRISPR enthusiasts. As Chang notes, scientists are already employing strategies to route around the potential immunity roadblock:

Modify Cas9 or use a different CRISPR protein altogether: It may be possible to redesign Cas9 to hide it from the immune system or to find other bacterial proteins that can do the job of Cas9 without provoking the immune response. Many different bacteria have CRISPR systems. “We already have lots of Cas enzymes and could get many more,” George Church, a geneticist at Harvard and a founding scientific advisor of Editas, wrote in an email.

Tags: CRISPR   genetics   Sarah Zhang   science

Remembering 1968

11 January, by Jason Kottke[ —]

Photos 1968

Photos 1968

Photos 1968

At In Focus, Alan Taylor celebrates his 50th birthday by sharing some photos of 1968 that remind us of the momentous events of that year, which is certainly one of the most noteworthy years in recent world history.

Protests erupted in France, Czechoslovakia. Germany, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, and many other places. Some of these protests ended peacefully; many were put down harshly. Two of the biggest catalysts for protest were the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the ongoing lack of civil rights in the U.S. and elsewhere. Two of America’s most prominent leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, were assassinated within months of each other. But some lessons were being learned and some progress was being made — this was also the year that NASA first sent astronauts around the moon and back, and the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

If nothing else, 1968 is a reminder that perhaps our current events aren’t so bad after all.

I love that Taylor includes an event not usually associated with 1968: The Mother of All Demos.

The demonstration is hailed as one of the most significant technological presentations in history, showcasing technologies that have become what we now know as modern computing. He gave the first public demonstration of a computer mouse, a graphical user interface, windowed computing, hypertext, word processing, video processing, and much more.

The influence of this demo has grown over time and rightly deserves consideration as one of that year’s most notable events.

Tags: Alan Taylor   photography

Amazing black & white storm time lapse in 8K

11 January, by Jason Kottke[ —]

Storm-chasing photographer Mike Olbinski is back with a new time lapse video and this one is in black & white and was shot in 8K resolution. (BTW, 8K is 7680×4320 or 4320p. That’s a lot of K!)

Breathe is made up solely of storm clips from 2017…either from the spring across the central plains or from the monsoon here in the southwest. Some are favorites, some are just ones I knew would be amazing in monochrome and others I used because they fit the music so well.

The video was unavailable in 8K to me on both YouTube and Vimeo — maybe you need to be a paying member? — but even at 4K, this thing is hypnotically stunning. I rewound and watched the part starting at 1:39 about five times. You can see more of my posts about Olbinski here. (via colossal)

Tags: clouds   Mike Olbinski   time lapse   video

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