An avatar for Allan

Allan Lasser

studying the text


  • What’s Going on Inside the Fearsome Thunderstorms of Córdoba Province?

    This was an excellent story about the research happening on storms in Argentina. As the climate gets warmer, there’s more moisture and energy in the atmosphere, which fuels more powerful storms. This is mostly reported in the context of hurricanes, but it’s equally true for the tornado-producing storms that roll across the Midwest in the spring and summer.

    In the United States, which is home to the most extensive weather forecasting infrastructure in the world, around a third of severe weather predictions still prove wrong — not only about timing and location but also size, duration and intensity. The false-alarm rate for tornadoes continues to hover at about 70 percent, while the average warning time has only increased from about 10 minutes in the mid-1990s to 15 minutes today.

    If one of these budding cells manages to punch through the tropopause, as the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere is called, the storm mushrooms, feeding on the energy-rich air of the upper atmosphere. As it continues to grow, inhaling up more moisture and breathing it back down as rain and hail, this vast vertical lung can sprout into a self-sustaining system that takes on many different forms.

    Composed of millions of micro air currents, electrical pulses and unfathomably complex networks of ice crystals, every storm is a singular creature, growing and behaving differently based on its geography and climate.

    Until the launch of global weather satellites in the 1990s, this level of sampling and detection wasn’t widely available outside North America. When NASA deployed its Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission in 1997, the satellite offered the first comprehensive look at the entire world’s weather. And part of what it revealed was an enormous regional variability in the size and intensity of storms.

    with ever more heat, moisture and unstable air available to feed on, storms in many parts of the world have begun to exhibit increasingly erratic behavior.

    researchers at M.I.T. and Princeton now consider a Category Six hurricane a realistic possibility


    In 2019, a study conducted by Stockholm University found that one of the only uniform impacts of climate change was on forecasting, which has become more difficult.

    Founded in the 1990s, by the meteorologist Joshua Wurman, C.S.W.R. is a seminomadic 11-person research institution that over the years has earned a reputation for pushing boundaries in chasing technology. In the mid-90s, Wurman built the first truck-mounted doppler radar system, nicknamed the “doppler on wheels,” or DOW. By 1999, a DOW had recorded the fastest wind speed in history within a tornado, in Moore, Okla., at 301 m.p.h. Since then, perhaps no other organization has ventured as far into the world’s deadliest tempests as C.S.W.R., whose fleet of four trucks has now transmitted data from inside 15 hurricanes and about 250 tornadoes.

    ​CSWR is the Center for Severe Weather Research.

    They tell us that the sky, like our drying forests, is rapidly becoming an ocean of fuel, but they don’t tell us where and when it might ignite — much less what, exactly, might spark it.

  • Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy

    pg. 136

    A society with a patchy and minimalist system of unemployment insurance, in which millions live paycheck to paycheck without the protection of paid sick leave, in which tens of millions of children rely on schools for food, cannot easily shut down. If it does, people need help immediately.

  • Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy

    pg. 132

    Such comparisons with the mid-century heyday of Keynesianism no doubt help to capture the drama of the moment. They express the wish of many, on the left as well as the right, to return to that moment when the national economy was first constituted as an integrated and governable entity. As the interconnected implosion of demand and supply demonstrated, macroeconomic connections are very real. But as a frame for reading the crisis response in 2020, this retrofitting risks anachronism. The fiscal-monetary synthesis of 2020 was a synthesis for the twenty-first century. While it overturned the nostrums of neoliberalism, notably with regard to the scale of government interventions, it was framed by neoliberalism’s legacies, in the form of hyperglobalization, fragile and attenuated welfare states, profound social and economic inequality, and the overweening size and influence of private finance.

    Mid-century economic policy as a rescue system for late-century neoliberal capitalism, like a parent getting their problematic teen out of trouble.

  • Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

    pg. 53

    Nature is an event that never stops. As William Bateson, who coined the word genetics, observed, “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing.” When we see an organism, from a fungus to a pine tree, we catch a single moment in its continual development.

  • Hold the Line

    Wielding a whole arsenal of at-home folk remedies to “treat” phones as we might treat scraped knees or earaches of a family member. Those cures — perhaps best represented by the bowl of dry rice that is the ubiquitous prescription for a soaked phone — are ostensibly about addressing technical issues but in practice they bring phones under a kind of discursive control, helping us make sense (albeit false sense) of their largely obfuscated inner workings.

    These folk rituals help us assimilate the “new” into our lives by making it compatible with the old, making it easier to classify and explain. Despite our ostensible modernity and our sense of ourselves as comfortable with technological progress, folk beliefs about technology always bubble up through the cracks, of phone screens and otherwise.

    There are many ways to define folklore, but where phones are concerned, it often takes the form of jokes, rumors, and personal experience narratives, which feature in the conspiracy theories, panics, joke cycles, and the like that periodically circulate online — some so compelling as to achieve meme status, as with the tweets from 2017 about the “FBI agent watching me through my phone,” or a more recent TikTok challenge that claims to identify unfaithful boyfriends based on whether they put down their cell phones face up or not.

  • An Odd Bird

    Exhibit 1 was the Bird, which sat on a table, shimmering and soaring toward the ceiling while the lawyers debated whether it was an “original sculpture” or a metal “article or ware not specially provided for” under the 1922 Tariff Act. For the Bird to enter the country duty-free under the act, Steichen’s lawyers had to prove that Brancusi was a professional sculptor; that the Bird was a work of art; that it was original; and that it had no practical purpose.

    Because art eludes definitions and law needs to impose them, the law on art often seems to be running after its subject.

  • The Disappearing Art Of Maintenance

    The way the world is constructed today is no longer legible, politically or technically. Objects come and go under mysterious circumstances. Cars and trains either run or someone else fixes them. The objects in our lives are shipped to us from faraway lands, and they work until they don’t. Discarded, they get hauled away in the early morning by stinky trucks.

    Maintenance mostly happens out of sight, mysteriously. If we notice it, it’s a nuisance. When road crews block off sections of highway to fix potholes, we treat it as an obstruction, not a vital and necessary process.

    As a type of work that straddles production and consumption, maintenance can help us reckon with both the limits and possibilities of industrial society. ​ Technical and political-economic concerns are perversely entangled. There is the problem of a crumbling bridge, and then there is the problem of coordinating public action to fix a crumbling bridge. There is a technical answer, a set of actions and materials that must be brought to bear, but the political answer is just as important. The follow-up questions pour in: What if it would be better to build a new bridge in a new place, based on changes in demographics? What if the bridge was constructed shoddily from the beginning and should be completely rebuilt? What if society is moving away from automobile travel and requires other bridges built in different ways?

    The price mechanism, and the labor system built around it, is fundamentally opposed to maintenance, both in its narrowest practical applications and in its broadest philosophical implications. The fact that the failures of capitalism happened to encourage maintenance practices at the margins is not worth emulating, and we shouldn’t be waiting around for climate change to recreate that austerity at a global scale.

  • Specifying Spring ’83

    The weak­ness of the pro­to­col, as pre­sented in my demo client, was that you could only design your board by writ­ing raw HTML and CSS. That’s fine for the nerdi­est among us, but still a bit for­bid­ding for every­one else. A bet­ter client would pro­vide built-in templates, maybe a lit­tle WYSI­WIG editor — you can imag­ine this easily. For my part, I settled on a sim­ple design: a blood-red head­line in 72-pixel italic Bodoni over an acid green background. Some­one said to me, not a lit­tle bit archly, “So, really, you made all of this because wanted to tweet in a 72-pixel font.” And I had to con­fess that maybe I did. On this front, I am an evangelist: arbi­trary HTML and CSS should have a place in our social net­works. They are so expres­sive, and they are avail­able everywhere, on every device, essen­tially “for free”.

    Platform design seems to me now like a sharp hill­top with steep slopes descend­ing in both directions. A platform built around twitchy com­pul­sion will trend towards addiction; a plat­form built around stolid patience will trend towards … for­getting about it.

    If only you could bal­ance per­fectly at the summit. Alas, I don’t think it’s pos­si­ble. The oppor­tu­nity before us, as inves­ti­ga­tors and exper­i­menters in the 2020s, isn’t to make Twit­ter or Tum­blr or Insta­gram again, just “in a bet­ter way” this time. Repeat­ing myself from above: a decen­tral­ized or fed­er­ated timeline is still a timeline, and for me, the time­line is the prob­lem. This dig­i­tal medium remains liq­uid, protean, full of potential. Even after a decade of stasis, these pixels, and the ways of relat­ing behind them, will eagerly become what­ever you imag­ine. So: imag­ine!

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 244

    “Perfect order” is how anthropologist Stephen Lansing describes it in his talks and books analyzing the Balinese water temple system. The elaborate array of ninth-century tunnels and rice paddy terraces in steep volcanic mountains is managed from the bottom up through a system of what are called subaks. Each subak is a group of men with adjoining rice fields that share a water source. Their meetings are democratic, dispensing with the otherwise powerful caste distinctions of Bali, and subaks are connected to one another through the hierarchic water-temple network. “The Balinese call their religion Agama Tirtha -the religion of water,” says Lansing. “Each village temple controls the water that flows into nearby rice terraces. Regional water temples control the flow into larger areas.”

    The Balinese system is similar to what Powell proposed in his western water management plan.

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 82

    As for comparing full-life-cycle, everything-counted greenhouse gas emissions, a study published in 2000 by the International Atomic Energy Agency shows total lifetime emissions per kilowatt-hour from nuclear about even with those of wind and hydro, about half of solar, a sixth of “clean” coal (if it ever comes), a tenth of natural gas, and one twenty-seventh of coal as it is burned today.

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 81

    A 1-gigawatt nuclear plant converts 20 tons of fuel a year into 20 tons of waste, which is so dense it fills just two dry-storage casks, each one a cylinder 18 feet high, 10 feet in diameter.

    By contrast, a 1-gigawatt coal plant burns 3 million tons of fuel a year and produces 7 million tons of CO2, all of which immediately goes into everyone’s atmosphere

    In another passage, Brand notes that the footprint of a nuclear plant is in the order of a square mile.

    I find this input/output calculation to be the most appealing aspect of nuclear power. The arguments about not overthinking the waste problem weren’t as convincing, since we do need a mechanism for holding long-term thinking accountable. But comparing the waste is generates against CO2, it seems like a vastly better alternative.

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 72

    As climate change unfolds, cities will be on the frontier of human response. Taking the danger zone as 30 feet above sea level, Columbia University study reported in Science says that two thirds of all cities with population over 5 million are “especially vulnerable” to rising sea levels and “weather oscillations.” The Thames Barrier protecting London from flood tides was raised twenty-seven times between 1986 and 1996, and sixty-six times between 1996 and 2006. Some are forecasting that it will be overwhelmed by 2030.

    Wondering what the current status of the barrier is?

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 72

    Infrastructure makes cities possible, and it has to be rebuilt every few decades. According to a report in 2007 by the infrastructure consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, “Over the next 25 years, modernizing and expanding the water, electricity, and transportation systems of the cities of world will require approximately $40 trillion.” What would infrastructure totally rethought in Green terms look like? China is currently building 170 new mass transit systems. High-speed rail is finally coming to the United States. With the coming of “smart grids” and microgrids, the distribution of electricity will be reshaped toward greater adaptability as well as efficiency.

    A nice thought experiment, but high-speed rail still hasn’t arrived and there’s major political obstacles to rebuilding the grid. One of the ways that technological solutions fail to sufficiently address the crisis is that they don’t account for cultural or social forces that might impede their adoption.

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 62

    A population with that birthrate halves in of forty-five years, and then halves again in the next forty-five years. In one formulation, that means more resources per person—good news both for the people and the resources. But from another angle, it could mean perpetual economic crisis, which would be terrible news for the environment. In an economic crisis, there is neither money nor attention for responsible stewardship. There is no long-term thinking or action. Wars become more likely, and wars are deadly for the environment.

    Possible to see this reaction happening in real time. Oil shocks following the invasion of Ukraine have already led the Biden Administration to authorize another round of fossil fuel projects.

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    pg. 15

    In one of the most influential Green books, Natural Capitalism (1999), Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins propose replacing industrial capitalism, which “liquidates its [natural] capital and calls it income,” with a natural capitalism based on higher efficiency in everything, biology-inspired industrial processes, a focus on services instead of products, and restoration of the all-sustaining envelope of natural systems. It’s a good book with a helpful metaphor.

  • Whole Earth Discipline

    Book dates itself to 2009, and there it is fully fixed. I wonder what Earth Policy Institute guy thinks about this book. It’s very Obama era thinking, very technocratic thinking.

    Brand makes these arguments without really reckoning with the social/cultural aspects that make these projects difficult right now. There’s still huge headwinds preventing transition, including pandemic induced economic shocks and political instability.

    How are we doing at any of these goals stated in the book?

    What conditions is the army corp preparing for? Are they ahead or behind of the best predictions?

  • Q & A with Sydney Ann Holt, a layout designer of the 6502 microprocessor

    My job was the same as Harry Bawcom and Mike Janes. We were given the logic drawings from Bill Mensch and Ray Hirt and etc, and turned them into the drawing you see in the picture from the Electrical Engineering Times article from 1975.

    To do this, we drew them in pieces on big sheets of mylar that fit together like a puzzle. In order to do a careful logic to layout check we taped all the pieces together on the floor and crawled around on it to trace out the lines. The drawings were then digitized into layers so masks could be made from them.

    I remember that once, one of the guys took off his shoes and was on the mylar checking when it was discovered his socks were damp and his toes were erasing the drawing as he moved along. Fortunately, it was caught very soon so the rework was minimal. We had a good laugh over it.

    In order to design a microprocessor without a computer, it first had to be inhabited at human scale. This reminds me of the Minecraft projects that build fully-functional CPUs, the sheer scale of those circuits, and they way players fly through them.

  • The New Dark Age

    pg. 5

    There is a concrete and causal relationship between the complexity of the systems we encounter every day; the opacity with which most of those systems are constructed or described; and fundamental, global issues of inequality, violence, populism and fundamentalism.

    I’m continually fascinated by the “folk stories” I hear people telling about ad-tech. Stories like, “Instagram listens to your conversations and analyzes them to show you ads,” or “5G gives you COVID.” These ideas are rooted in the opacity of day to day technologies and power structures. They are shared by word-of-mouth, which also takes place online.

  • Who holds the welding rod?

    The mad dream of a green energy transition might just be starting to come true, with much of the credit due to stubborn activists, clever engineers and a handful of far-sighted policymakers. But it is also happening for the unlikely reason that it has been redefined as a global capitalist-consumerist project. It realises utopian goals while simultaneously keeping stock markets ticking over, making the rich richer and spreading a general sense of virtue. The system has been able to turn the green energy transition into a set of products—electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines—but the transition to a world of better-treated workers involves systemic changes that are the antithesis of commodification.

    The green energy transition, like synergy, is a case where a radical way of thinking that has become co-opted by capitalism.

  • Rank and File

    The influential German sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann wrote more than 70 books and 400 articles in his lifetime. As he explained in a 1981 essay, his super-prolificity was partially attributable to a note-taking system, the “slip-box” or zettelkasten. (Luhmann’s 90,000 note archive, and the special wooden boxes he kept it in, can be viewed online.) The idea of a zettelkasten itself is about 500 years old, but Luhmann’s use of it still feels like a technological disruption of thinking because of how he theorized it as an experiment in systems theory that would automate the process of thinking new thoughts.

    In some ways, I’m trying to use this personal site as my own zettelkasten. I’m trying to take notes in a discrete way that are all searchable later on.

    The human condition, the condition of the tool-using animal, is to be perpetually vulnerable to mistaking instruments for ends.

    I’ve certainly been vulnerable to this in the past. I need to constantly be asking myself, “am I really doing the right work right now?” Typically I find that once I enjoy using the system, that eliminates a lot of the distraction from building it out more.

  • What carbon markets mean for farmers

    When a farmer implements a new practice such as cover crops, a verifier comes in and calculates how much carbon is being captured. It then will certify that work and create a credit to sell on the market, most often to corporations looking to offset the carbon emissions they aren’t able to cut in their own process.

    Farmers have previously been limited from participating in carbon markets, often due to high costs and poor measurement tools. Most land-related offset practices have focused on planting trees and how forests are managed.

    Measuring soil carbon is directly tied to the efficacy of a carbon market. Sampling is accurate but expensive and narrowly focused, meaning farmers get compensated more fairly by the market. Modeling is broad and cheap, but too inaccurate to base market rates on. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

    There are different approaches on how to account for all these things and come up with a number: one relies on modeling and the other on sampling.


    Sampling, on the other hand, is much more accurate. It also is much more expensive—as much as $2,000 to $3,000 each time—and difficult to do in a comprehensive way. Multiple samples need to be taken at multiple depths on each field, which would be hard to do for every farm, every year.

    The sampling approach could lead to more credits per acre, but farmers likely wouldn’t see that return because of the additional cost to get that data, said IndigoAg’s Hernandez.

    IndigoAg uses a hybrid approach. A subset of acres in their program is sampled, which helps “ground truth to the model and increases its accuracy,” Hernandez said, “but then lets us scale the model in a manageable way.”

  • ‘We’ll Never Make That Kind of Movie Again’

    I’ll tell you one other thing about this story that nobody gets. One day, a friend of mine at the studio comes by pushing a two-wheel cart. It had three or four legal boxes on it. He goes, “Okay, Reynolds, thanks for this.”

    I go, “What’s that?”

    He goes, “This is the Groove, these boxes. This is everything you’ve written.” Anytime you write something and you hand it in, they stamp it and it goes into a box somewhere, because Disney owns it. It’s like that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. [Some time later,] the movie’s out, and a guy knocks on my office door and says, “Are you Dave Reynolds? I’m from archives. I just need the final script for Emperor’s New Groove. They didn’t send one down.”

    I go, “What’s that?”

    He goes, “The final draft, the whole final script.”

    I go, “No script.”

    He goes, “There’s no script? What are you talking about?”

    I go, “We don’t have a script. We never wrote a script. We just made the movie.”

    He goes, “You’ve got to have a script. Archives has to have a script.”

    “I don’t know what to tell you. Tell them to go see the movie. It’s in theaters right now.”

    He goes, “You guys don’t have bound pages?”

    I go, “Nope. We have no bound pages. There’s three or four legal boxes. You can have all you want. I saw them the other day.”

    They had a couple interns just take all the pages and put them into a document, and then they wrote interstitials, and they slapped my name on it. This is the honest-to-God truth: The first and only draft of The Emperor’s New Groove was handed in two weeks after the movie was in theaters.

  • White Castle’s Vegetarian ‘Impossible’ Slider Is One of America’s Best Fast-Food Burgers

    The fast-food burger is an ode to fake cheese, white bread, condiments, and a salty slab of generic cow. No bovine bliss here. And so the genius (or insidiousness) of the Impossible Food folks is not that they’ve created something that tastes like beef — they haven’t — it’s that they’ve taken discrete ingredients from the natural environment and transformed them to mimic the artificial awesomeness (or awfulness) of American processed food.

  • Uses This / Paul Ford

    Note that I do not claim that all of this makes me more productive, merely that it makes things more searchable. I don’t see computing as a way to be productive as much as I see it as a space to be thoughtful. And I really do like things to be nicely searchable and linkable.

    Paul Ford uses emacs as a single, text-based, backed up, blazing fast space for writing and then doing things with that writing.

  • Bedazzled by Energy Efficiency

    The problem with energy efficiency policies, then, is that they are very effective in reproducing and stabilising essentially unsustainable concepts of service. Measuring the energy efficiency of cars and tumble driers, but not of bicycles and clotheslines, makes fast but energy-intensive ways of travel or clothes drying non-negotiable, and marginalises much more sustainable alternatives.

  • Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities

    pg. 273

    The biospherians reinvented, in their own mixed-up way, what it means to be indigenous to a place and a people, in a postindigenous time for mainstream Western culture

  • Rupert Thomson: “I even misspell intellectual”

    Grace means that it is not your place to appraise others, still less condemn, since they may have a role or a purpose that is hidden from you. Because of this, O’Connor consistently withholds judgment. The writer’s role, she said, is not to understand experience, but to understand ‘that he doesn’t understand it’. In this sense her writing is an expression of grace at work.

  • Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller

    pg. 11

    Synergy: another radical concept that was co-opted and made inert by capitalism.

  • Joan Didion on the Santa Ana winds

    Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.

  • Jean-Louis Gassée Introduces the Macintosh Portable

    The Macintosh Portable is huge and heavy, but it’s fundamentally the same product as today’s MacBooks. This is the first place where many of these design solutions were applied to the Mac, like putting the computer to sleep and entering a low-power state once the battery is depleted.

    It’s really neat how he assembles the computer while explaining how its components work and what makes them unique. I’m charmed by the relative simplicity of the components and how they all plug together. It’s very modular and logical.

    There’s a similarity in this approach to the design of Framework’s laptop. I can imagine a similar assembly video being used to introduce that machine and its benefits. Framework forces reconsidering the question: how much integration is really necessary to deliver a great portable computer?

    That screen still looks really good, even without a backlight. It reminds me of the screen used in the Playdate, and I wonder if that nostalgia is what informed Panic’s decision. I would love to see super-crisp LCDs used more often, especially if they would have a customizable LED backlight.

    But omg, it used a lead acid battery. This laptop uses car parts!! Even the battery icon in the OS looks like a car battery.

  • The Sunshine Hotel

    I love how Kottke has started republishing old posts from his archive. There’s so many good stories and links that have been forgotten since they were first shared—like the 175th episode of 99PI, The Sunshine Hotel.

    There’s so much good stuff that’s buried away in archives. It’s nice to know that you can rely on your past self to help resurface them.