NASA’s visions of the Future

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab produced some retrofuturist posters a while back.

Imagination is our window into the future. At NASA/JPL we strive to be bold in advancing the edge of possibility so that someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality. As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.

Here are a couple. You can download full-size files (200 MB TIFF!) from the NASA site to print out.

NASA's Grand Tour poster

NASA's Mars poster

Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”

Evan Puschak, who you may remember made ‘How Donald Trump answers a question‘, made this video about the complex and sublime Steely Dan song “Deacon Blues”. Interesting even if you don’t like Steely Dan or aren’t a musician.

Reminiscent of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder. Here’s my favourite SE episode, deconstructing MGMT’s “Time To Pretend”. Having listened to the podcast, I can’t unhear the “Dancing Queen” references:

Awesome CMS

The agency Postlight recently compiled Awesome CMS, a list of popular content management systems.

From their blog post:

At Postlight we do a lot of CMS work — nearly every technology problem involves publishing something to the web—and so this list comes out of professional interest, plus a desire to stop searching far and wide when clients come to us with questions about content management.

This Awesome CMS list is a resource that anyone can use, and it’s open to all to modify. Send us a pull request on GitHub!

Lots of new (to me) things to investigate!

The Simpsons “You Only Move Twice”‘ with Hank Scorpio

A couple of things I learned while reading Alan Siegel’s piece for The Ringer about the nearly twenty-year-old(!) episode.

Albert Brooks improvised a lot of his lines as villain Hank Scorpio:

“Albert Brooks is a brilliant, insane ad-libber,” Weinstein said. “We knew that we didn’t have to get the jokes perfect.” During the marathon recording session, Brooks was hard on himself in a way that may sound familiar to those who know his work. “No, that’s not good,” Weinstein recalled him saying. “That’s not funny. Let me try something else.” Weinstein, who has a fantasy of finding the two-hour tape of Brooks as Scorpio and making an extended version of “You Only Move Twice” with it, said that 80 percent of the lines the actor came up with were funny.

“By the end of that session, I don’t think I had another comedy thought in my head for a month,” Brooks said in 2012. “I said every funny thing I had as Hank Scorpio.”

Brooks delivered an all-time great performance, but what made it even better was that while he repeatedly went off script, Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer, riffed off of him in character. So in the episode, Homer’s reactions to Scorpio are real.

Secretive, possibly mythical Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder is on Twitter. (He’s the guy behind so many of those classic early episodes.)

Swartzwelder’s frame of reference often fell outside of the television age. His comedy was informed by all sorts of old-timey entertainment — W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Preston Sturges, radio crime dramas. In a New Yorker article published in 2000, fellow Simpsons writer George Meyer described one great Swartzwelder joke as “a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal — and yet there’s a kind of logic to it.”

A Swartzwelderian juxtaposition can be found early in “You Only Move Twice.” After Homer is offered the job from Globex, he shows his family a short film promoting the company town of Cypress Creek. The movie begins with shots of dilapidated buildings and a man saying, “Somebody oughta build a town that works!” The narrator then responds with, “Somebody did!” At that moment, parking meters magically become trees, four different storefronts transform into coffee shops, a dumpster morphs into a coffee cart, and finally — and most disturbingly — a homeless man turns into a mailbox.

Mike Nesmith: the coolest Monkee

Sean Nelson (this Sean Nelson?) writes for Pitchfork about The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith:

In the same proportions that the Monkees are equivalent to a “real band,” Nesmith’s coyness is roughly similar to when Neil Young deigns to play a few gigs with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or when Brian Wilson shows up for a Beach Boys tour. Nesmith is the lone figure in the group that even its detractors will admit is cool—the quality that has always eluded the Monkees, no matter how acceptable they have become among music snobs.

So what made Nesmith stand apart from his three fellow cast/bandmates? How did he manage not to allow the two years he spent on a low-rated kids TV show about a fake rock band define the 48 years that followed? How, in short, did Michael Nesmith become the one Monkee it was acceptable to dig?

A nice appraisal and it gives me an opportunity to embed a Nesmith-helmed Monkees song, which I will never turn down.

The title of Nelson’s piece—”Michael Nesmith: The Closest The Monkees Ever Got to Cool”—is a backhanded compliment and, I think, unwarranted. Just try not to pay too much attention to Dolenz goofing around in that video (particularly around 1m 20s).

See also: Nesmith discussing 15 Monkees songs with Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz.

Charles Paget Wade Before Snowshill

My pal Paul Capewell wrote a booklet on the artist, architect and collector Charles Paget Wade. Aside from wanting to read the booklet, I was caught by this paragraph in Paul’s post:

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.

I’m reminded of Rachel Leow’s great 2008 post Only Collect:

Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

Steven Johnson has written about his writing process several times over the past decade. He’s an indiscriminate collector too, and he uses software (specifically DEVONthink) to organise it and reveal unexpected connections, which help direct his books and articles:

For the past three years, I’ve been using tools comparable to the new ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.) The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

WordPress in 2016

Gina Trapani writes on the Postlight blog about recommending WordPress as a CMS:

We talk a lot about content management systems at Postlight, often in the context of a specific client’s needs, and sometimes, as a question about our general philosophy around publishing. And we also build a lot of custom tools for solving very tricky publishing problems—a good example is, which benefited from a custom CMS, fully oriented around a specific workflow.

But not every nail needs a fully-custom hammer. During our CMS conversations, inevitably I am the person in the room who brings upWordPress. Then, my teammates put on their most patient facial expressions and listen to me make the argument.

Ultimately, as a director, I am obligated to consider all the technologies that can help our client achieve our goals—including the old, boring ones. Enter WordPress.

I’ve ignored WordPress for years and years but have enjoyed learning more about it over the past 6 months. Ditto learning PHP, which is (perhaps) unfairly maligned.

The influence of Spotify’s curated playlists

Neil Cowley, writing in The Guardian about how his jazz tune became unexpectedly successful when a Spotify staff member added it to a curated playlist:

Some radio play and a few posts on social media meant that we got the track to 3,000-odd plays in the first couple of days. […] Enter stage left the “Spotify playlist”. Though I far from realised it at the time, this is the holy grail for independent artists such as myself. Overnight I was lifted out of the musty basement section where men with National Health spectacles hang out, and up on to the shiny new rack next to the checkout counter. All because I composed a solo piano piece that Spotify in deemed fit to feature on one of its more popular playlists. “Peaceful piano” with 1.9m subscribers put me in the company of Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm and Max Richter and gifted me on average 25,000 plays a day.

The idea here is that people might not choose to listen to a broad playlist named ‘Jazz’, but they’d listen to the same songs if they appeared in the more specific ‘Peaceful piano’ playlist.

This feels like an ongoing shift in taxonomy that influences curation and UX copy. Presumably Spotify knows that users are less attracted to traditional genre labels, but prefer mood, activity or theme-based descriptions which might cut across multiple genres.

Setting aside user preferences for playlists over albums, it suggests that an artist like Cowley, despite enjoying more plays of this particular song, will see a much more modest increase in plays of the parent album which might well contain jazz music that isn’t ‘peaceful piano’.

Comic book lettering

I’m not a big comics fan, but have always been curious about the standard style of lettering. Now available as downloadable typefaces, the ‘comic book font’—which is more variable than might first appear—arose due to constraints such as people’s handwriting and poor quality paper.