Big Think Interview With Jules Feiffer

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Question: As you wrote your memoirs, which moment in your\r\nlife was most fun to look back on?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, look, I’m 81 years old.  It’s got to be more than one.  And it’s harder to define what fun\r\nwas.  I mean, there’s fun in\r\nprivate life, which is all sorts of things, including making out and sex.  But this is a book that centers\r\nprimarily on career, although it does involve some of that other stuff.  In terms of career, it was getting to\r\nthe Village Voice and getting printed for the first time because I had been\r\ntrying, without success; to get into print for something like 4 ½ nearly five\r\nyears and nobody would touch me. \r\nSo, that of course was very exciting.  And then after that, discovering that I was going to write\r\nfor the theater and the trajectory that moved me into that area and how that\r\ndeveloped, and also how the excitement and euphoria that went with writing my\r\nfirst play.

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Question: Which moment in your life was most challenging to\r\nwrite about?

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Jules Feiffer: Oh well, when you do this kind of work,\r\neverything is challenging, but probably the most challenging thing is getting\r\nup in the morning and getting on with it because it’s so easy to stay in bed\r\nand not get on with it. 

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Question: How did you persist through rejection to get your\r\nstart at The Village Voice?

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Jules Feiffer: Well I had been trying to sell my stuff,\r\nwhich were books of satire, cartoon satire, which now would be called graphic\r\nnovels or graphic novellas, there was no such term at that time.  And I wasn’t interested in labels.  There were things I wanted to talk\r\nabout and write about in a satiric form and cartoons.  This was at the height of the Cold War, the height of a form\r\nof domestic suppression where, in the days of Joe McCarthy, Senator Joe\r\nMcCarthy, and the Eisenhower Administration, liberals and left-wing people in\r\ngeneral were basically driven from the debate.  They had no place in the national dialogue, or if they did,\r\nthey were very, very cautious and careful about it and I had nothing to be\r\ncautious or careful about because my elders were afraid of losing their\r\njobs.  I didn’t have a job.  They were afraid of losing their\r\nreputations.  I didn’t have a\r\nreputation.  I had zilch.  So, I had the freedom, which\r\nunemployment gives you, and that was to behave as badly as I believed I should\r\nunder the circumstances.  And the\r\ncircumstances were quite awful. 

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At the time, liberals didn’t understand that they had First\r\nAmendment rights.  So, I was doing\r\ncartoons in this narrative cartoon form about subject surrounding that and as I\r\nwas turned down by editor after editor at each publishing house, I began to\r\nnotice on their desks this new newspaper called The Village Voice, which I then\r\nwent and picked up and thought, well my god, these editors that were turning me\r\ndown all, whom tell me how much they like my stuff, but they don’t know how to\r\nmarket it because nobody knows who I am. \r\nIf I got into this paper, they would know who I am.  And when editors say, “nobody knows,”\r\nwhat they really mean is, “I don’t know.” \r\nAnd once they got to know I thought something might happen, and that’s\r\nexactly what happened.  I went to\r\nthe Voice, I showed them my work, they loved it, they put it in the paper, it\r\ngot on the editor’s desk, the editor’s say, “oh my god, he’s famous,” and they\r\npublish me. 

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So, it was a strategic decision that I made at the age of\r\n26, or 27, that actually turned out well.

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Question: Which of your Village Voice cartoons stirred the\r\nmost controversy?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, in the beginning, it was the form of\r\nthem.  I mean, it’s hard for me to\r\nanswer that question because at the start of it, and for that matter to this\r\nday when I look back at the work, I really don’t understand what the fuss was\r\nabout.  So, I can’t say it’s about\r\nthis or that.  When people started\r\nreading me and talking to me about the work, they didn’t say how funny, or how\r\nsatiric, or how brilliant, or how this or how that, they said, how’d you get\r\naway with it?  How’d you get that\r\ninto print?  And apparently,\r\naddressing what I had said before, that liberals didn’t have First Amendment\r\nrights, that saying the sort of things that I said that my friends and I said\r\nin coffeehouses and bars to each other, these things were not generally said in\r\npublic any more and hadn’t been in some years.  So, I was saying it in a form that simply wasn’t familiar to\r\nanybody who was liberal, or on the left. \r\nAnd these people would read it and say, “Oh my god, this is the way I\r\ntalk, how come it’s getting into print? \r\nWhy isn’t he arrested?” 

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So it was the shock of recognition, probably, rather than\r\nthe quality of the work.  I mean,\r\nthe quality may have been fine, but there’s a lot of fine work out there.  It was the fact that I was doing\r\nsomething that at that time, nobody else was doing, except for say, Mort Saul\r\nout in San Francisco on The Hungry Eye, and “Second City” was emerging out in\r\nChicago. Nothing in print.  It was\r\nbasically happening in cabaret and nothing in fiction.   And certainly nothing in New York\r\nin cartoons.

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Question: What has changed the most about U.S. politics in\r\nthe time that you’ve been cartooning?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, cartoons were very conservative.  The country was very conservative.  Although the liberals were allegedly in\r\ncharge for a long time, there was a very acceptable balance what people would\r\ntalk about in public.  And I wanted\r\nto stretch those and move further out. \r\nAnd as the civil rights movement began, I started doing cartoons on that\r\nand on sit-ins and I was, along with Bill Mauldin, a great cartoonist out of\r\nWorld War II, arguably one of two white cartoonists doing this kind of work,\r\nBill and me.  And that was exciting\r\nto be able to comment on civil rights. \r\nI mean, the civil rights movement that young people don’t know about\r\ntoday, but Martin Luther King was considered by the establishment press in the\r\nearly years of the sit-in movement as a dangerous man, and he was the\r\nequivalent at that time as Malcolm X. \r\nAnd he was told to stop his demonstrations; they were against the law\r\nand all of that.  Now that he’s\r\nsainted and sanctified we’ve forgotten.

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But I was doing cartoons and mocking white liberals, mocking\r\nthe attitude of government who said to go slow, while intending to do\r\nabsolutely nothing for black people, then called Negroes.  And I had a lot of fun and I expressed\r\na lot of anger.  That was another\r\nthing that was important to know at that time.  As I was emerging into more and more into politics that I\r\nwas angry.  I was enraged all the\r\ntime.  We were moving into Viet Nam\r\nand it was clear that the Kennedy Administration was turning its back on\r\nEisenhower’s wisdom, having been a general and not going into Viet Nam.  He kept us out.  And Kennedy was moving in as he moved\r\ninto Cuba with the Bay of Pigs. \r\nAnd all these things I thought were mistakes and I did cartoons on\r\nthem.  And then I think I was the\r\nfirst cartoonist in the country to attack the war in Viet Nam and that helped\r\ninfluence a whole generation of young cartoonists who later on took up the\r\nbattle.  And that was exciting to know\r\nthat I had helped influence work of young people who were moving this forum\r\ninto a better and more exciting area, out of the more by the state that\r\npolitical cartooning had been in. 

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The other cartoonist that should be mentioned at the time,\r\nbeside Malden, doing brilliant work in these very areas I was working in, was\r\nPaul Conrad in the L.A. Times, who was extraordinary, and is to this day.

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Question: How did the sexual revolution contribute to your\r\nwork?

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Jules Feiffer: \r\nI just happened to be around when the sexual revolution was\r\nhappening.  There was Playboy\r\nMagazine on the scene, and shortly after I had been to work in the Voice, I\r\nheard from Hugh Hefner, who asked me to start doing work for Playboy, and Hugh\r\nHefner was the first one to pay me for my work because The Voice did not pay in\r\nthose years.  It thought that\r\ncontributing space to people who wanted to say what they thought was all it\r\ncould do, and that was quite enough for me because it was the only newspaper\r\nthat didn’t tell you how to think and how to write and what form to write.  All the other newspapers, all the other\r\nmagazines basically guide you, including the words you used, including the\r\nstyle, including your personal voice. \r\nIt rewrote that voice.  And\r\nwhether these were liberal publications or conservative publications, whether\r\nthey were mainstream or slightly to the side of the mainstream; out of the\r\nmainstream, they all believed that they had the right to tell you how to\r\nstylize yourself.  And from the New\r\nYork Times to the much more left-winged nation.  And The Voice said, no, whatever you want to.  You drew whatever you want to, we’ll\r\npublish it.  Nobody was doing\r\nthat.  Nobody does it today.  The Voice is no longer that paper, and\r\neditorializing is now in the hands of editors, with few exceptions.

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Question: What materials do you use as a cartoonist?

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Jules Feiffer: Well it’s fluctuated over the years.  And it’s changed a lot when I switched\r\nfrom the comic strip to doing ****. \r\nIt’s a whole new way of working that I’ve never tried before and it was\r\ngreat fun to try and play with an experiment.  But in the beginning, when I was at The Voice, I had a\r\nwriting style down pat and I knew what I wanted to say, I just didn’t like the\r\nway it looked in print and so I fiddled around week after week, and if you see\r\nin the book Backing into Forward, the memoir, It shows the first four or five\r\ncartoons, all of which are done in different styles because I was floundering,\r\nand it took more than a month before I could settle on a line, the way I wanted\r\nit to look.  And the way I came\r\nabout that is, I had picked up some – I was living alone, I was a bachelor, and\r\nI picked up some meat from the meat market, and they had these round little\r\ndowels sticking in the steak with a pointed tip.  And I thought, I wonder what that would be like if I dipped\r\nit in some ink.  So, after I had my\r\nsteak, I dipped it in some ink and I got a line that was both dry and in full\r\ncharacter and quality and far better than any pen line that I was able to put\r\non paper. 

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So, I went out and bought a bunch of these wooden dowels,\r\nthese pointed wooden dowels and I began drawing with them.  And I must have used that as my style,\r\nas my tool of choice for, I don’t know 10 years or so, and it got to be\r\nterribly laborious and slow moving because it’s not meant to be a pen.  And finally I got fed up with that and\r\nswitched to pen and ink, and never liked that very much and also, over the\r\nyears, all I was trying to do in the artwork as it appeared in the paper,\r\nwhether in The Voice, or in Playboy, or in syndication; and syndication just\r\ntook The voice cartoons and ran them around the country.  But all I wanted was a sense of\r\nimmediacy.  A sense of\r\nspontaneity.  And I realized that\r\nthe more I penciled and then inked over it the spontaneity always had a ****\r\nthick, and so I began drawing straight on the paper without any penciling.  And by that time, photocopy machines\r\nwere in, so I could just do them on any kind of paper, any size.  Reduce them or fiddle with them and\r\nthen cut them out and put them in a layout.  And this took two or three times as long a penciling to get\r\n– and to do them over and over again. \r\nBut I had finally a line that just jumped and that was vivid and alive\r\nand basically I was looking for a line, not a professional line, but more of an\r\namateurs line that had life and vitality to it.  And I was beginning to get that by not doing any\r\npredrawing. 

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So, from that day to this, and for more than 30 years I\r\nwould think by now, that’s the way I’ve been working.  And with the kid’s books, I layout this art on separate\r\nsheets of paper just to figure out what the final drawing would look like, and\r\nwith that layout as a guide, I began the finished art and if it doesn’t work\r\nout well on this watercolor paper I’m drawing on, I tear it up and go on and go\r\non and sometimes I do it three or four or five times before it works.  And sometimes it comes out right the\r\nfirst time. 

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And then there’s the excitement of adding color, which I\r\ndidn’t know anything about until 1997 or so, when I did my first picture\r\nbook.  So, the kid’s book in\r\nparticular have been exciting for me because it forced me to go back to the\r\nwork I loved as a young boy reading Sunday’s supplements and comics in the\r\nSunday papers when I was six, seven, eight, nine.  And number of which have been in wonderful collections,\r\nbeautifully reproduced.  And when I\r\nam working a book, I go through my library and take a look through some of the\r\ngreat cartoonists of the past, like Cliff Sterrett, who did “Polly and Her\r\nPals,” or Winsor McCay who did “A Little Nemo in Slumberland,” and Herriman –\r\nand I just looked through these guys and looked for somebody to steal.  You know, looked for who I could swipe,\r\nor turn into – who’s work I will turn into my work.  And I still use, after all these years, these artists as\r\ninspirations. 

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So, here in my eighties, I go back to when I was eight for\r\nmy inspiration.

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Question: What was it like to work on “The Phantom\r\nTollbooth”?

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Jules Feiffer: \r\nWell, I had never done a children’s book.  Early on, shortly after I had gotten out of the Army in\r\n1953, I put some samples together hoping to get some children’s book\r\nillustration, but I ran a **** of somebody named Sendak that was starting out,\r\nand his work was so devastatingly impressive that I thought I’d better get out\r\nof the way and let him have that field and find something on my own.  So, in a way, I gave up children’s\r\nbooks because of Maurice and dedicated myself as a Cold War cartoonist trying\r\nto overthrow the government.  So,\r\nit was by default.

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And with the Tollbooth, Norton Juster, who wrote it, was\r\nfirst a young man who became a friend because we lived in the same building in\r\nBrooklyn Heights, and then we moved into a duplex apartment together with a\r\nthird roommate, and that’s where he started writing the Phantom Tollbooth and\r\nhe would read to me sections and I’d start doing sketches.  So, it was all by accident, by\r\nproximity.  Norton was there, I was\r\nthere, he loved early 19th and 20th century English line drawing\r\nillustration.  So, that’s what I\r\ntried to give him, my version of it, because his whole writing style was\r\nbasically geared to the early 20th century.  So, again, it was one of those things that I backed\r\ninto.  And it was accidental and it\r\nwas great fun to do.  But, once it\r\nwas done, I had no intention of doing more children’s books.  This was in the ‘60’s, and it was\r\nanother 30 years or so before I decided to write and illustrate my own.  And I’ve actually just completed, 50\r\nyears later, my second book with Norton Juster, called The Odious Ogre, which\r\nwill be coming out in the fall of 2010. \r\nAnd that’s a big picture book in color, and very different in style from\r\nThe Phantom Tollbooth.  

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Question: How did you transition from cartooning to the\r\nworld of the theater? 

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I found it was my good fortune to\r\nsomehow be able to work in these forms that I loved when I was a kid.  I love movies and I could write\r\nscreenplays.  I love theater and I\r\ncould write plays.  I mean, they\r\nwould be my own, I could never write what was used to be called the well-made\r\nplay.  But my first play, “Little\r\nMurders,” turned out to be a great success and a great influence on plays at\r\nthat time.  “Carnal Knowledge,”\r\nwhich was originally written as a play, still resonates and people still talk\r\nabout it.  And Mike Nichols’\r\nproduction of the film is the best collaborative work I’ve ever done with\r\nanybody.  So, I’ve had enormous luck\r\nand enormous pleasure in working in these forums and I just – because I could\r\nalways write dialogue, because I always had a sense of how people spoke.  And because I had a strong narrative\r\nsense; growing up and loving stories, loving novels, I just seem to know how to\r\ntell a story and I read a lot, I went to a lot of movies, I went to a lot of\r\nplays, and it rubbed off on me. \r\nAnd that’s all.  It just\r\nrubbed off on me. 

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If Edward Albee had not been writing in the ‘50’s, just when\r\nI was coming along and getting interested in theater, I might never have\r\nwritten a play, but Albee suddenly opened these doors because he was doing\r\nstuff in a form that I found terribly inviting, and god knows I wouldn’t have\r\never thought of it on my own.

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Question: What changes has the cartooning business undergone\r\nduring your career?

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Jules Feiffer: Well for one thing, commercially, it’s\r\nundergone vast change and not all of it to the good.  I mean, when I was a kid, the newspaper comic strip was\r\ndominant and sexy and glamorous, and cartoonists made a lot of money, and they\r\nwere famous.  Milton Caniff who did\r\nTerry and the Pirates, Al Capp, who did “Li’l Abner,”  I mean, there were – Chester Gould who did Dick Tracy, these\r\nthen had household names.  And the\r\nnewspaper strips got smaller and smaller and smaller for newspapers to\r\nmisguidedly save space, and the quality went out of the work, the quality went\r\nout of the art, and certainly out of the writing.  And whatever quality there was disappeared for a long period\r\nof time until underground comics, Crumb and company, and Spiegelman and\r\ncompany, gave birth to something new which was alternative comics, and suddenly\r\nwe have Chris Ware, and Dan Klaus, and Craig Thompson, and a whole new variety\r\nof artists, many of them every bit as good as the best during the golden age of\r\nthe newspaper comic strip.  But\r\nhere doing work wildly original, very different from one another and impossible\r\nto conceive of in mainstream public press. 

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So, this is very exciting now.  It ain’t a living. \r\nI mean, these guys work very, very hard and put in the sort of work and\r\nhours that I would never try to do. \r\nAnd I don’t know how they feed their families, if they do.  But it’s a fascinating form and so I\r\nthink that after a long period of nothing happening and work, nothing very\r\nimpressive, we are into another golden age of comics.  Unfortunately, it’s not a golden age for the artists\r\nthemselves economically.  I don’t\r\nknow how they get along.

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Question: What is the political cartoonist’s role in the\r\nmodern era?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I’m not sure about that role any\r\nlonger.  The role used to be to mix\r\nthings up and I think to a great extent it still is, but the quality of the\r\nwork of the political cartoon has been succeeded by the wisecrack, the gag\r\ncartoon, so that the cartoonist becomes more of the equivalent of the Jay Leno\r\nmonologues, or David Letterman monologues.  And there is not much – that digs much deeper, the most\r\nmeaningful work on politics in terms of political humor that one can possibly\r\nfind on the air is in the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Colbert Show and\r\noccasionally on those opening monologues on Saturday Night Live.  But particularly with Stewart and\r\nColbert, that satire, often very pointed, very barbed with a real point of view\r\nand at its best.  And there aren’t\r\nmany cartoonists working that. \r\nThere’s still **** syndication is wonderful; there’s Jeff Danzinger,\r\nalso in syndication, who is brilliant. \r\nThere’s Tony Austin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Signe Wilkinson of\r\nPhiladelphia Daily News, there’s Tom Toles who is extraordinary in the\r\nWashington Post.  But to my\r\nknowledge the L.A. Times, which for many, many years had one of the great\r\ncartoonists of our time, Paul Conrad, doesn’t have anybody anymore, or runs\r\nthem in syndication, which is sinful, shameful. 

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And over and over again, cartoonists are loosing their jobs\r\nand I don’t think there are 100 cartoonists in the country working on the\r\neditorial pages today.  So, the\r\nwhole form is in danger.  But I’ve\r\nbeen around a long time and I’ve found that these forms, whether it’s the\r\ncartoon, or whether it’s a play, or all these dying forms refuse to die.\r\nSomething happens to rejuvenate them and it will certainly happen to the\r\npolitical cartoon.  It will come\r\nback.  But whether it’s on the\r\ninternet, or whether it’s in some other form, however that works, whether it\r\nlooks the way it looks now, or entirely different, I have no idea.  And thank God I don’t have to worry\r\nabout it.

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Question: Where should good satirists direct their satire\r\ntoday?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, you know with Obama being elected, we\r\nhad a wonderful opportunity.  I\r\nhope it’s not blown, and we have forms of government that don’t seem to be up\r\nto the level of the leaders who are around who will want to move this country\r\nin a proper direction.  Where that\r\ngoes and how that goes, I mean, we seem determined to not move ahead, to stay\r\nin the same place.  And there are a\r\nlot of nuts out there as well. \r\nIt’s a scary, but also wonderful country and I have no idea – I mean\r\nlook I’m the wrong generation to ask that question too, because I’m mired\r\ncompletely in where I come out of. \r\nAnd I come out of a Cold War sensibility, a Cold War mentality, and\r\nduring those Cold War years, I used to know, I thought, the answers to\r\neverything.  And since the end of\r\nthe Cold War, I’m just a dumb as everyone else. 

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Question: How has New York City changed, and is it still\r\nexciting?

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Jules Feiffer: Well, I’m the last guy to probably know how\r\nto answer that question because I live in the city, but I don’t really – I live\r\nin my own little ghetto on the upper west side of Manhattan, which has changed\r\na lot over the years.  But New York\r\nis a place of neighborhoods.  And\r\npeople who live uptown, as I do, seldom go downtown.  Or at a certain age you don’t go downtown.  I found it interesting when my now\r\n40-year old daughter; I have three daughters, one in her 40’s, one in 20’s, and\r\none in teens.  Well, my 40-year\r\nold, when she lived downtown in the East Village, and I would meet her in the\r\nlocal bar, it struck me how different in age everybody was in that local bar\r\nfrom the bars that I went to uptown. \r\nAnd that she would never know or go to a bar that had anybody my age in\r\nit.  And except for this being my\r\ndaughter, I wouldn’t have even know of the existence of the bar because it had\r\nher age in it, and they thought, as did I, that this was the entire\r\nuniverse.  This was the entire\r\nworld.  That’s who they saw. That’s\r\nwhere they felt – we lived that way then, we live that way now, and we continue\r\nto live that way.  Everybody kind\r\nof hangs out with his or her own particular universe and you think that\r\nrepresents everything.

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Question: Is New York becoming too gentrified and sterile?

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Jules Feiffer: Oh, we have lived through periods of\r\nsterility over and over again. \r\nRobert Moses, written about brilliantly in Robert Caro’s book, destroyed\r\nneighborhoods with his super highways, and drove immigrant cultures, whether\r\nfrom Eastern Europe or from the south, out of boroughs and sometimes out of the\r\ncity entirely.  And so that kind of\r\nmix, which had been around since post World War I days, or even before then\r\nchanged, and the city was changed, and the city was – and when I first started\r\nhanging out in the village in the 1950’s, I was told over and over again about\r\nGreenwich Village, that you should have been here, it’s ruined now, it doesn’t\r\nexist anymore.  And now the ‘50’s\r\nis considered one of those golden ages. \r\nBut now when I was starting out, that was considered part of the\r\ncorruption.  You should have been\r\nhere in the ‘30’s, or the ‘20’s. \r\nSo, I seemed to have missed everything.  Whenever I got there, it was always too late.  And that doesn’t change.  The city keeps reinventing itself.  And each generation thinks, as they\r\nenter it, that they’ve missed the best of it, and then they become the authors\r\nof the next “best.”  And so it goes\r\non and on and on.  And New York\r\nkeeps redefining itself and reinventing itself, and then you look at it and\r\nit’s pretty much the way it was back in the 1920’s., or in the 1930’s.  Something stylistically different in\r\nsome ways, but it’s still got the same vitality. 

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Whatever New York loses, if you go to other cities around\r\nthe world, or around the country, New York still has a kind of energy level you\r\nfind nowhere else.  Paris doesn’t\r\nhave it, London doesn’t have it, San Francisco, a great city, doesn’t have\r\nit.  Chicago has many things better\r\nthan New York.  I think Chicago\r\ntheater is basically better than New York in terms of it’s more innovative,\r\nit’s more experimental, it’s not as bottom-line, it’s not as\r\nmarket-oriented.  But it doesn’t\r\nhave that crazy anarchic spirit, which you only find in the city and you found\r\nit back in the ‘20s, you found it in the teens, and you find it still today.

Recorded on February 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin \r\nAllen

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Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
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Scientists just voted to change the definition of a kilogram

The definition of a kilogram will now be fixed to Planck's constant, a fundamental part of quantum physics.

Greg L via Wikipedia
Surprising Science
  • The new definition of a kilogram is based on a physical constant in quantum physics.
  • Unlike the current definition of a kilogram, this measurement will never change.
  • Scientists also voted to update the definitions of several other measurements in physics.
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