A few weeks ago, I asked the readers of the Noticing newsletter to send in links to their blogs and newsletters (or to their favorite blogs and newsletters written by others). And boy, did they! I pared the submissions list down to a representative sample and sent it out as last week’s newsletter. Here’s a smaller excerpt of that list…you can find the whole thing here.
Ted pointed me towards Julia Evans’ blog, where she writes mostly (but not exclusively) about programming and technology. One of my favorite things about reading blogs is when their authors go off-topic. (Which might explain why everything on kottke.org is off-topic. Or is everything on-topic?)
Madeleine writes Extraordinary Routines, “sharing interviews, musings and life experiments that explore the intersection between creativity and imperfection”.
Kari has kept her blog for the last 15 years. I love what she wrote about why she writes:
I also keep it out of spite, because I refuse to let social media take everything. Those shapeless, formless platforms haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it. I’ve blogged about this many times, but I still believe it: When I log into Facebook, I see Facebook. When I visit your blog, I see you.
Social media is as compelling as ever, but people are increasingly souring on the surveillance state Skinner boxes like Facebook and Twitter. Decentralized media like blogs and newsletters are looking better and better these days…
Quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I was out of town for a few days so there are more books on here than usual. I’m trying to keep it up…reading right now but too early to call: Broad Band, Am I There Yet?, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Oh and I’m really glad The Americans is back on, even though it’s the final season. (As I’ve said before, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades. They are subjective and frequently wrong.)
Star Trek Voyager. Not in the same league as Next Generation, but it hums along nicely after they get going. (B)
Mr. Robot. I watched the first episode of season three and then got distracted by other things. Anybody watch the whole season? Is it worth circling back? (TBD)
Annihilation. I enjoyed this more than many people I know, but not as much as Matt Zoller Seitz. Eager to watch it again since reading the book (see below). (B+)
Lincoln. I love this movie. One of Spielberg’s best. (A)
Ugly Delicious. I wanted to hate this, but it’s really interesting and David Chang wears you down with his, well, I wouldn’t call it charm exactly. The episode that really hooked me was the Thanksgiving one, when he’s wandering around a massive supermarket with his mom, who’s mockingly calling him “David Chang” (you can almost hear the appended ™ in her voice) and then refers to him as the “Baby King”. Also, for a chef, Chang is weirdly incurious about food but harangues people for not appreciating kimchi. I really should write a longer post about this… (A-)
Murder on the Orient Express. Better than I had heard, if you choose to embrace its slight campiness. I really enjoyed Branagh’s Poirot. (B+)
Geostorm. I love disaster movies like this, but I kept checking my phone during this one and a day or two later I couldn’t have told you a single plot point. That will not stop me from watching it again because (see first sentence). (C)
An Incomplete History of Protest. Inspiring collection of objects related to the protests of everything from the AIDS crisis to Vietnam. Fascinating to see how the disenfranchised leveraged art and design to counter their neglect by the powerful. (A-)
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. Fun to see American Gothic up close, but I was more impressed by some of Wood’s other work, particularly his illustration-like landscapes. I showed the kids a photo I had taken of one of the paintings and Ollie said, “that looks like a 3D rendering!” (B+)
Stephen Shore at MoMA. I’d label this a “must see” if you’re into photography at all. Shore’s shape-shifting career is inspiring. (A-)
Red Sparrow. I was texting with a friend about how cool it would be if J. Law’s character in Red Sparrow was Paige Jennings from The Americans all grown up, but the timelines don’t match up. (B-)
Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I don’t play a lot of board games so maybe this is a common thing now, but I really like how all the players have to work together against the game to win. But once you get past the first couple of decks, the games take *forever*. (B+)
The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore will always be my sentimental Wes Anderson fave, but Tenenbaums is right up there. (A)
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. I have been listening to the audiobook version while in the car, and Wallace’s reading of the first story, Big Red Son (about an adult video awards show), made me laugh so hard that I had to pull of the road at one point. (A)
Logan Lucky. Much better on the second watch. I don’t know why I didn’t appreciate it the first time around…I love Soderbergh and this is basically Ocean’s 7/11. (A-)
Moon. I saw this when it originally came out but didn’t like it as much the second time around. Great soundtrack though. (B+)
Simon and the Whale. Wonderful room and service. Really good cocktails. I know the kitchen crew and they still blew me away with the food. (A)
Girls Trip. I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie since I don’t know when. Bridesmaids maybe? Can’t wait to watch this again in a few months. (A-)
Ready Player One. I very much enjoyed watching this movie. Spielberg must have had fun going back through the 80s pop culture he had a large part in shaping. (A-)
Electricity. I’m writing this not from my usual home office but from the lobby of the local diner/movie theater. We had a wind storm last night, which knocked the power out at my house. That means no heat, no water, no wifi, and very poor cell reception. And a tree came down across the road I live on, so I was “stranded” for a few hours this morning until someone showed up with a chainsaw. I unreservedly recommend electricity (and civilization more generally). (A+)
In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan presented a partial list of “tools for skeptical thinking” which can be used to construct & understand reasoned arguments and reject fraudulent ones.
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
I found this via Open Culture, which remarked on Sagan’s prescient remarks about people being “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”.
Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”
This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.”
Update: After I posted this, a reader let me know that Michael Shermer has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate & predatory behavior and rape at professional conferences. I personally believe women, and I further believe that if Shermer was actually serious about rationality and his ten rules for critical thinking listed above, he wouldn’t have pulled this shit in the first place (nor tried to hamfistedly explain it away). I’ve rewritten the post to remove the references to Shermer, which actually made it more succinct and put the focus fully on Sagan, which was my intention in the first place (the title remains unchanged). (via @dmetilli)
Every morning, every day, 85 percent of Americans alter their state of consciousness with a potent psychoactive drug: caffeine.
Their most common source is the roasted seeds of several species of African shrubs in the genus Coffea (coffee), while other Americans use the dried leaves of a species of Camellia plant from China (tea).
Americans love caffeine, but few realize just how ancient the North American craving for caffeine truly is. North Americans have been enthusiastically quaffing caffeinated beverages since before the Boston Tea Party, before the English founded Jamestown, and before Columbus landed in the Americas. That is to say: North Americans discovered caffeine long before Europeans “discovered” North America.
Cassina, or black drink, the caffeinated beverage of choice for indigenous North Americans, was brewed from a species of holly native to coastal areas from the Tidewater region of Virginia to the Gulf Coast of Texas. It was a valuable pre-Columbian commodity and widely traded. Recent analyses of residue left in shell cups from Cahokia, the monumental pre-Columbian city just outside modern-day St. Louis and far outside of cassina’s native range, indicate that it was being drunk there. The Spanish, French, and English all documented American Indians drinking cassina throughout the American South, and some early colonists drank it on a daily basis. They even exported it to Europe.
As tea made from a species of caffeinated holly, cassina may sound unusual. But it has a familiar botanical cousin in yerba maté, a caffeine-bearing holly species from South America whose traditional use, preparation, and flavor is similar. The primary difference between cassina and maté is that while maté weathered the storm of European conquest, cassina has fallen into obscurity.
Today it’s better known as yaupon, and it’s mostly planted as an ornamental throughout the southeastern United States. Recent years have seen a handful of small-scale growers selling and promoting cassina for consumption, typically under the name yaupon tea. Cafes in a few scattered Southern locales are selling it and pushing for a revival.
This is not the first call for a reappraisal. For over a century, botanists, historians, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture have periodically drawn attention to the absurdity of cassina’s disuse in its native land.
So why was a plant of such well documented potential, which seemingly should have developed into a domestic alternative to expensive tea and coffee imports, ignored for so long? What happened to cassina?
Over the years, cassina has gone by many names. But just one gave the tea a permanent black eye that diminished its commercial prospects for centuries.
The first Spanish colonists in Florida who, according to one contemporary account, drank cassina “every day in the morning or evening,” knew it as té del indio or “cacina". The English in North Carolina called it yaupon, a term borrowed from the Catawba language that is still the most common name for the plant itself. In South Carolina, “cassina" was the usual appellation, possibly derived from the long extinct Timucuan language. And colonists throughout the English-speaking colonies often settled simply for “black drink.”
Upon export to Europe, cassina was marketed in England under the names “Carolina tea” and “South Sea tea,” and in France as “appalachina," likely a reference to the Appalachee people.This confusing array of names emphasizes the practicality of the Linnaean classification system, which was still in its infancy when Europeans learned of cassina. William Aiton, an eminent British botanist and horticulturist, director of Kew Gardens, and “Gardener to His Majesty,” is credited with giving cassina the scientific name it bears to this day: Ilex vomitoria. Ilex is the genus commonly known as holly. Vomitoria roughly translates to “makes you vomit.”
Cassina does not make you vomit. Both modern scientific analysis and centuries of regular use by Southerners confirms this. But several early European accounts of cassina mention vomiting. Cassina seems to have been used in elaborate purification rituals where men sat in a circle, sung or chanted, and took turns chugging and then throwing up hot cassina.
Yet other detailed, first-hand accounts of indigenous people drinking cassina don’t mention vomiting at all. Anthropologist Charles M. Hudson and others have suggested that a plant with emetic properties may have been added to the cassina brew (unbeknownst to European observers) or that the black drink ceremony may not have involved cassina at all. Alternatively, if the ritual vomiting did, in fact, involve only cassina, the sheer volume of liquid consumed could explain the vomiting. So could the fact that vomiting was a common ritual practice for Southeastern indigenous people—participants may have trained themselves to throw up at will.
Nevertheless, the association of cassina with vomiting persists: Sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary erroneously describe yaupon leaves as having emetic or purgative properties, keeping alive the myth that cassina makes you throw up.
William Aiton may have simply made a long-perpetuated mistake when he named cassina “Ilex vomitoria.” But there’s reason to believe he and other Europeans conspired against the plant.
As the royal gardener, Aiton knew some of the richest and most powerful people in the British Empire. One of the most profitable and influential forces in that empire was the East India Company, which held a virtual monopoly on the tea trade. Its officers may well have worried that cassina represented a potential replacement for a lucrative British commodity, especially as it grew abundantly within regions then under the control of Spain and France.
In his entry on Ilex vomitoria, Aiton listed “South-Sea Tea” as a common name for cassina, suggesting he was aware of its use as a beverage amongst the English. Further, Aiton chose the name vomitoria even though Carl Linnaeus, the founder of the modern taxonomic system, referenced cassina under the name Ilex Cassine vera Floridanorum in 1753. (Ilex cassine is now the name for a close relative of cassina, the dahoon holly, which has significantly less caffeine.)
If Aiton’s sensational name choice was simply a mistake, it could have been corrected in the subsequent edition of his book Hortus kewensis, which was published by his son in 1810. It’s hard to imagine both Aitons missing Bartram’s Travels (the first English edition was published in the early 1790s) wherein Philadelphia botanist William Bartram describes southeastern American Indians and European traders drinking cassina and makes no mention of them throwing up. There’s no smoking gun, but given that the British Empire passed laws and went to war to maintain monopolies on goods such as sugar, tobacco, and opium, it’s possible Aiton engaged in scientific slander.
Either way, cassina never developed into a major English export or drink of choice. Recent research at the University of Florida suggests that the scientific name continues to make people “leery of buying” cassina despite preferring it over maté in a blind taste test. In the words of Charles M. Hudson, our insistence on associating cassina with vomiting may be because “we are all too ready to emphasize the bizarre and exotic in the cultural practices of the Indians.”
That’s not to say that cassina was never drunk widely after the colonization of the Americas. In the earliest days of the Southern colonies—when plantations were being carved out of woodland and luxury imports were rare—cassina drinking was widespread from slaves to plantation owners. But as plantations became larger and more profitable, the nouveau riche demonstrated their wealth by drinking expensive imported tea.
“Cassina was so abundant on the coast,” writes Hudson in Black Drink: A Native American Tea, “that it could be drunk by the poor; hence it became déclassé.” An 1883 encyclopedia entry on cassina summed up this new state of affairs when it stated that cassina is “still used as a beverage by the poorer classes in North Carolina.”
The Civil War reinforced this association of cassina with a hardscrabble lifestyle. When the South seceded, luxury imports became scarce, and both rich and poor turned to cassina. After the war, when coffee and tea became available again, cassina had acquired more negative associations: war, hunger, and defeat.
In the modern South, cassina, usually known by the name yaupon, is just a plant: a border shrub or small tree in residential developments. (Americans regularly walk by the caffeine-producing plant on their way into coffee shops that source beans from the other side of the globe.) Whether or not the ongoing cassina revival can reverse it ignominy and poor reputation remains to be seen.
The extent to which coffee and tea are now being marketed as ethical, fair, and environmentally friendly, as well as the surging popularity of cassina’s cousin, yerba maté, would seem to indicate that cassina’s time has come. And yet, as the many calls for cassina’s rediscovery over the past century show, cassina has long been predicted as the next big thing. For it to succeed commercially, a change to its botanical name may be necessary: Like an acquitted suspect, no matter how many times cassina is proven innocent, an air of suspicion and nausea lingers from the original accusation.
Novelty, which has replaced necessity as the driving force behind cassina consumption, can only take cassina so far. So what’s hopeful about the recent cassina revival is that it’s centered around cities such as Austin, Texas, and Asheville, North Carolina, which boast strong local food movements. The cities’ growers and cafe owners are touting the unique, richly herbaceous, complex flavor of cassina. It’s also recently become available for purchase by the bag and appeared in bottles in specialty food stores.
Because while explaining cassina calls for a trip into contentious history and unsettling nomenclature, taking a first sip of yaupon is revelatory: America’s rightful caffeinated drink simply tastes wonderful.