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12 Essential American Cartoons

American cartooning began well before 1937, the year Walt Disney’s full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted to astonished audiences. In fact, American animation started as an offshoot of vaudeville, and moved into the theater to provide a pre-show diversion for other films. Characters that proved popular received orders for more cartoons, and the dawn of the cartoon serial and educational cartoon shorts expanded the field of American cartooning into the Cold War era.

Long before the 1980s tied children’s cartoons to product placement, the American cartoon short was where innovation was unveiled and storytelling met entertainment. Here is a special short list of 12 essential American cartoons.

1. "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914)

When animation was still “moving pictures” on the vaudeville circuit, many shorts were gimmicks or tricks using simple animation to create the illusion of movement. Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay was the first animated short to be centered around a character that the performer would interact with—in this case a Brontosaur (or, what we now know as an Apatasaurus) named Gertie. McCay would perform in front of a large screen seemingly interacting with Gertie and eventually stepping behind the screen to ride Gertie off stage.

2. "Out Of The Inkwell" Series (1918-1929)

Max and David Fleischer of Fleischer studios gave America some of its best animation techniques. The Out Of The Inkwell series starring KoKo the clown was the first series of cartoons to mix live action and animation. Not only would Max draw KoKo into existence at the beginning of the shorts but, later in the series, KoKo’s smooth actions were some of the first state-side uses of rotoscoping—shooting a live actor to trace his motions later.

3. Disney’s "Skeleton Dance" (1929)

Painstakingly animated by Ub Iwerks and directed by Walt Disney, Skeleton Dance was the first of the Silly Symphonies series that used musical backing tracks to provide narratives to animated shorts. Up until the Silly Symphonies, American animated films added sound and music through a process called "post-sync" where all the audio was added after the film was finished. Skeleton Dance was the first short to animate to a custom soundtrack rather than let the drawings dictate the storytelling.

4. Betty Boop and Cab Calloway in "Minnie The Moocher" (1932)

Betty Boop was one of the most popular characters of the black and white era. Real-life big band leader and vocalist Cab Calloway’s star was rising at the same time, and the two paired in this cautionary tale that is essentially a music video for Cab Calloway’s song that had been recorded a year before. Calloway himself provided the voice and moves of the Walrus that scares Betty Boop back into her abusive family’s household.

5. Max Fleischer's "Superman" Series (1941)

Paramount Pictures paid Fleischer Studios to make a series of eight animated shorts starring Superman. Popular opinion is that Fleischer didn’t want to work on the project, so he quoted a then ridiculous $100,000 per short (about four times what a Popeye cartoon would cost). For one reason or another, Paramount agreed to the fee, and Fleischer put all the money on screen with a distinct, realistic style and some great action rotoscoping.

6. "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1942)

Originally and hilariously titled “Donald Duck in Nazi Land,” this Disney cartoon features Donald Duck as a reluctant Nazi who gets worked almost to death in a munitions factory—only to wake up from his horrible dream an American citizen. “Der Fuehrer’s Face” is one of the few American propaganda cartoons that still holds up as a technical and social achievement. Disney finally released it on home video in 2004.

7. Tex Avery's "Red Hot Riding Hood" (1943)

The first fractured fairy tale from a medium that would later become famous for Fractured Fairy Tales, animator Tex Avery’s take on Little Red Riding Hood as a nightclub singer influenced everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Mask. Undoubtedly of its time, the look of the short and the techniques used would go on to influence American cartooning into the 60s.

8. "What’s Opera Doc?" (1957)

Disney’s Silly Symphonies were a precursor to Chuck Jones and his Merrie Melodies, but Jones got the last laugh with "What’s Opera Doc?" Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sing their way through the impeccably designed sets and a loose parody of Wagner operas like "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and "Tannhäuser." Most importantly, it brought those operas to Looney Tunes and, in doing so, became one of the most beloved American cartoons ever.

9. Disney’s "Highways of the Future" (1958)

This short was part of Disneyland TV’s “Magic Highway USA” episode and is a prime example of one of the new uses of animation at that time: selling a concept. As Disney was scheming over his theme park, he also had grand views of a highway-dominated future. Some of the inventions have come to pass (like dashboard displays), but others never will thanks to the computer age. Pre-dating The Jetsons by several years, Disney gave the public its first look at a highway-centric future.

10. "Bambi Meets Godzilla" (1969)

This less-than-two-minute short is considered more of a reel for creator Marv Newland. It spends most of its running time crediting Newland before its punchline—and what a punchline. Newland has held occasional jobs in mainstream animation, like directing a few episodes of the stop motion sitcom “The PJs,” but mostly makes his own art shorts like 2009’s "Postalolio," where every frame of the short was sent through the U.S. Postal Service system.

11. "Luxo Jr." (1986)

Everyone might be familiar with Luxo Jr. from the Pixar title cards before their shorts and movies, but the little lamp that plays with the ball was a 2-minute short that featured the first shadowmaps to produce lighting effects (instead of shadows being hand drawn). It was also the first short to use RenderMan, a program that pioneered the now-industry standard method of breaking up large render jobs.

12. Batman: The Animated Series - "Heart of Ice" (1992)

Though not technically groundbreaking, Batman: The Animated Series took a large step in reclaiming cartoon shorts from the Saturday morning cartoon ghetto. All the backgrounds for the show were painted on black paper instead of white paper, and the Art Deco style would become tied to the character’s animated life as time went on. But most notably for the storytelling of the medium, this Paul Dini story took a half-baked Mr. Freeze character and gave him an emotional hook that is considered canon to this day.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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music
New AI-Driven Music System Analyzes Tracks for Perfect Playlists
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Whether you're planning a bachelorette party or recovering from a breakup, a well-curated playlist makes all the difference. If you don't have time to pick the perfect songs manually, services that use the AI-driven system Sonic Style may be able to figure out exactly what you have in mind based on your request.

According to Fast Company, Sonic Style is the new music-categorizing service from the media and entertainment data provider Gracenote. There are plenty of music algorithms out there already, but Sonic Style works a little differently. Rather than listing the entire discography of a certain artist under a single genre, the AI analyzes individual tracks. It considers factors like the artist's typical genre and the era the song was recorded in, as well as qualities it can only learn through listening, like tempo and mood. Based on nearly 450 descriptors, it creates a super-accurate "style profile" of the track that makes it easier for listeners to find it when searching for the perfect song to fit an occasion.

Playlists that use data from Sonic Style feel like they were made by a person with a deep knowledge of music rather than a machine. That's thanks to the system's advanced neural network. It also recognizes artists that don't fit neatly into one genre, or that have evolved into a completely different music style over their careers. Any service—including music-streaming platforms and voice-activated assistants—that uses Gracenote's data will be able to take advantage of the new technology.

With AI at your disposal, all you have to do as the listener is decide on a style of music. Here are some ideas to get you started if you want a playlist for productivity.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Essential Science
What Is Death?
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The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.

DEATH, DEFINED

For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.

A BLURRED LINE

In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."

THE FUTURE OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE

As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.

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