Chris Higgins is the author of The Blogger Abides and writes for This American Life, The Atlantic, Breakfast on Mars, and The Magazine. You can follow him at chrishiggins.com.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. The man holds at least seventeen honorary doctorates in addition to his real one; we're dealing with a badass over here. Now, eleven of our favorite NDT quotes.1. On science: "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." From Real Time with Bill Maher.2. On NASA... READ ON
Way back on March 26, 2001, Sesame Street aired an episode explaining that a hurricane was moving up the eastern seaboard, headed for Sesame Street. Kermit the Frog, correspondent for "Sesame Street News," explained the storm, and even called on real meteorologist Al Roker for details. The episode was focused on explaining the notion of hurricanes and disaster preparedness for kids. Predictably, Oscar the Grouch tried to ride out the storm in his trashcan.
That original episode was re-aired when... READ ON
In this brief tech demo, Nigel Ackland shows off his new prosthetic hand, the bebionic v3. It's frankly amazing -- here is an articulate, five-fingered hand, controlled via two muscle triggers near the elbow. Ackland lost his forearm six years ago in an accident at work; he now uses this prosthetic to do all sorts of things, including typing, cracking eggs, opening and pouring beer, you name it. Although it's not discussed in this video, the prosthetic can be concealed under a silicone glove, which... READ ON
In this live story from The Moth, Malcolm Gladwell explains how he ruined his friendship with his college friend Craig. Craig was a charismatic leader among nerds -- he had a knack for nicknames and songs, and he made a huge impression on Gladwell when they were in school. But when Craig's wedding rolled around, Gladwell ruined everything, just by singing a song. If you have even the slightest interest in Malcolm Gladwell, check out this story -- it's funny, but it's also a lesson about trusting your... READ ON
Image by Flickr user David Goehring, used under Creative Commons license.The phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" is common in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means "to blindly follow," and it usually has a negative connotation: iPhone buyers waiting in line for days have "drank Apple's Kool-Aid," so to speak. But where did this phrase come from? And does it even refer to the correct beverage? We're gonna have to go all the way back to the 1950s to answer this one.The Road to... READ ON
Last night, Americans watched as Barack Obama won his second term as president. Watching that speech, I was reminded that we see both victory speeches and concession speeches every four years. And, you guessed it, YouTube has lots of them. Tonight, let's go back twenty years to Bill Clinton's first (surprisingly brief!) acceptance speech, then roll through all the rest.
Clinton - 1992
Live from Little Rock. Everyone looks so young here, especially Al Gore. My favorite part? The crowd's chants... READ ON
The Monty Hall problem is a logic puzzle named for the host of the gameshow Let's Make a Deal. It's one of my favorite such problems, because it's an example of math completely contradicting my gut instinct. Even though I know the math says to do one thing, my gut consistently says the other -- and thus every time the problem is explained, I get a little window into my fallible human brain. In fact, I used to be so tied to my gut on this one that I would fail to explain the Monty Hall problem correctly... READ ON
In 1956, French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse created The Red Balloon, a fantastical short film in which a boy (played by Lamorisse's son Pascal) discovers a sentient red balloon. The balloon follows the boy through his daily life, and (no spoilers!) other kids become jealous, eventually causing other balloons to get involved.
I saw this Technicolor film in school as a child, and it enthralled me, particularly the final shots -- which you'll recognize as a likely inspiration for scenes in the Pixar movie... READ ON
The Electoral College is an anachronistic system used in the United States to elect our president. It was created to address a series of technical and political problems that were present in the early days of our democracy -- most notably, the issues of slow communications (it took tremendous time and effort to get vote tallies back to Washington from distant states) and of suffrage (the idea of a pure popular vote was a hard sell when you had Southern states containing large populations of enslaved... READ ON
At the 1964/65 New York World's Fair, General Motors brought us Futurama 2, its vision of the not-too-distant future. In this futurist ride envisioning the future, lunar bases were a fact of life, weathermen lived at the South Pole in Lost-style bunkers, lasers cut down trees, and seaweed farms provided abundant food as "aquacopters" mined the seafloor. Deforestation via gigantic "factories on wheels!" Deep sea mining! What could possibly go wrong?
This was the second version of Futurama; the... READ ON
In this seven-minute film by Charles and Ray Eames, we see spinning tops from around the world. It's stunning seeing the variety of tops that are out there -- many use wound-up string to start, others use a pumping mechanism, and others do amazing things like break into multiple independently spinning bits. And yes, there's a whole segment on different styles of dreidel.
If you're sick and tired of storms and elections and hyperactive internet videos, jump in my 1969 time machine and enjoy this... READ ON
Can you play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on piano? If you're a random bus commuter in Newcastle, UK, the answer apparently is "yes" -- with a little help from your friends.
In this video, Andy Jackson of the Cobweb Orchestra plays the majority of the piece, leaving the high melodic lines for passersby. He coaches them through it one or two notes at a time. It's adorable seeing kids and various others (most of whom have never played piano) give it a shot and, for the most part, succeed. My... READ ON
It's Halloween, in case you hadn't noticed. Let's look at my favorite Halloween-ish videos!
Tim Burton - "Vincent"
From 1982, narrated by Vincent Price. An amazing tribute to Edgar Allan Poe.
It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown - Trick or Treat
I was always the kid who got the... READ ON
Let's face it -- we've all wanted to play Tetris on a pumpkin, using the stem as a joystick. Wait, that's just me? All right, watch the video below and prepare for your inevitable jack-o'-lantern envy.
With only a dozen hours of work, a soldering gun, basic electronics skills, an Arduino with LoL Shield, embedded coding skills, 128 LEDs in a massive matrix, and the perfect pumpkin, you can make it work. Maker extraordinaire Nathan Pryor created Pumpktris -- and it only took him three pumpkins to find... READ ON
Storm-related news aside, here's an interesting question about next week's US election: What happens if there's a tie? Within the Electoral College, there are 538 electors. It is possible (indeed, it has happened) that this even number of electors could split their votes. When that happens, you might be tempted to think that some simple fix would go down (like, say, falling back to the popular vote). But no, we have ways to make this way more complicated.
In this three-minute video, the inimitable... READ ON
Kryptos photo via Wikimedia Commons
Kryptos is an encrypted sculpture installed at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It's a set of huge copper plates with enciphered text carved into them -- for example, one segment reads TWTQSJQSSEKZZWATJKLUDIAWINFBNYP, though it looks a lot nicer in context.
Although the sculpture was installed in 1990, it took until 1999 for someone to actually decrypt part of the message: of the four segments of text, three were decrypted (complete with intentional... READ ON
In 1957, Monsanto demonstrated its vision for future housing, emphasizing one word: plastics. Its House of the Future was displayed at Disneyland from 1957 through 1967, and it envisioned a future home from the then-distant future of 1986. The house featured lavish conveniences including a microwave oven, ultrasonic dishwasher (for plastic dishes, of course), "cold zones" to replace refrigerators and freezers (with a special zone for irradiated foods), and dimmable ceiling lights -- and that's just the... READ ON
How do you make a dinosaur roar, when we have no idea what dinosaurs actually sounded like? The sound designers for Jurassic Park recorded living animals and combined them. In this short video, we learn a little about field recording, sampling, and the art of making an extinct dinosaur roar. Keep an eye out for the super-sweet 90s computer plus Synclavier in the audio studio.
According to this very blog in 2006: "T-Rex’s roar was a remix of sounds from a crocodile, a lion, a tiger and a baby... READ ON
A new version of SimCity is coming in March 2013. They're not calling it "SimCity 5" -- instead, EA/Maxis is rebooting the franchise, Star Trek-style, and just calling the new game "SimCity" again. This thing looks amazing to me; I've been playing since I was a kid, and this incarnation of the game feels really exciting and fresh (partly because you no longer need to build separate plumbing lines -- roads now handle everything). Here are some clips from the upcoming game, as well as a look back at... READ ON
The Sikorsky Prize has been unclaimed since its establishment in 1980. The winner will take $250,000 for achieving a simple-sounding set of goals: make a human-powered helicopter that can fly for 60 seconds, reach an altitude of 3 meters, and remain within a 10-meter square area during that time. It turns out this is incredibly hard to do.
In the video below, a team of students from the University of Maryland attempt to claim the prize. Their helicopter is named Gamera, after the flying monster... READ ON
So This American Life host Ira Glass made an eighteen-minute video about how to make balloon animals, contributing to Rookie Magazine. While making the balloon animals, Glass offers advice for teen girls on topics as diverse as short haircuts, crushes, and, um...intimate subjects. Rookie Magazine writes (emphasis added):
Ira Glass is the creator of the public-radio show This American Life, but he used to have a really cool job. As a tweenager he performed at kids’ birthday parties as the... READ ON
Peter Cushing is famous for his roles in the Hammer films, his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, his roles in Doctor Who films, and later as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (among many other roles). The man had some nerd cred. And he totally painted miniature soldiers and played with them, just like us. (For the record, I was six years old when I got into pewter minis, and about twelve when I gave 'em up. Ahem.)
In this short British Pathé news reel, we catch up with Cushing at home, painting his... READ ON
In Feel Old Again news, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console went on sale 27 years ago this week in North America. Yes folks, it was October 18, 1985 when Nintendo Fever first invaded the living rooms of America. The NES came in two bundles to start with: the Deluxe Set ($199.99 - R.O.B., NES Zapper, two controllers, Gyromite, and Duck Hunt), and the barebones Control Deck ($89.99 - two controllers and no game -- adding on Super Mario Bros. was $10 more). I had neither of these bundles -- my... READ ON
In this Classic Albums documentary, we learn how Nirvana's Nevermind was made. It does get into the (now well-trodden) Nirvana backstory, which is fine, but the best gems here are interviews with producer Butch Vig. When we see Vig, he's either telling stories about the making of the album (which are interesting) or sitting behind the console, mixing tracks live (which is downright awesome). I thoroughly agree with the opinion of the View Source blog on this (emphasis added):
... The genius of the... READ ON
Paul Erd?s was a mathematician. In addition to authoring significant papers himself, he created a series of Erd?s problems in which he offered (often small) cash prizes for solutions to difficult and/or significant mathematical challenges. He also had a great affinity for amphetamines, lived out of a suitcase, and drank endless coffee. This combo of genius, substance abuse, and intentional homelessness creates a pretty colorful character.
The hour-long documentary N Is a Number (shown below in its... READ ON
On September 30, 1990, British Satellite Broadcasting aired a single episode of a Nazi-themed sitcom featuring fictionalized versions of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.... READ ON
Sometimes, a video comes along that answers a question I didn't know I had: How does a ladybug fly if it doesn't have visible wings? It doesn't just flap its shell around. Being a lifelong Science Dummy, I guess I never thought about that, though clearly it's an issue for all beetles.
Wikipedia to the rescue! The outer shell is a hardened forewing called an elytron (the plural form is "elytra"). Before the ladybug takes flight, those elytra open up, gull-wing-style, revealing the diaphanous wings... READ ON
The Game Genie was the technological holy grail of my Nintendo-playing childhood. Here was a device that would let me play Super Mario Bros. with infinite lives, or get infinite rockets in Metroid. Here's exactly how it worked, and how people are still using it today.
From the start, the Game Genie was marketed as a "game enhancer," though there's a fine line between "enhancing" and "cheating." In short, it was able to modify games at startup, so you could change them in ways that made... READ ON
What do actors, musicians, and writers say when they die? I consulted the reference Last Words of Notable People by Bill Brahms to collect eleven examples. Read on, and get a hanky ready.1. Bob Hope (1903-2003)The words: "Surprise... READ ON
This past weekend we were treated to a masterful football field tribute to video games by Ohio State University's Marching Band (aka TBDBITL, or The Best Damn Band In The Land). But this is by no means the first amazing thing the band has done. Let's look back at some supremely awesome halftime performances by TBDBITL, and you may vent your sports-related frustration in the comments.
Note: if you have a half hour to kill, Wikipedia's page about the OSUMB is epic.
"To Boldly Go"
The band... READ ON
Serge Haroche and David Wineland were awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday. They share the prize for independently developing methods to study particles of light...without destroying that light, which is usually what happens when it is observed. (For the record, other particles are relevant as well, but let's just keep it simple and suggest that we're talking about photons.) Their invention is clever and interesting, but can be hard to grok for the non-scientist. The discussion involves... READ ON
Fifty years ago today, on October 9, 1962, physicist Nick Holonyak demonstrated the first "visible" LED (in other words, one that emitted non-infrared light). And that tiny invention has helped to light the world.
GE has released a publicity video featuring Holonyak, who invented lots of things in addition to the LED, including light dimmers. In this video, Holonyak recalls his early experience making the first visible-light LED, and how the red LED was such a breakthrough, such a practical and... READ ON
While this question may seem trite, it is truly valuable if we actually consider it: what would you like to do every day, if money were no object? What do you value and enjoy, absent issues of money? In this short video, philosopher and writer Alan Watts is quoted, matched with inspirational footage. This is worth watching and listening to. My favorite part (emphasis added):
When we finally got down to something, which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, you do that and... READ ON
In this stunning 9-minute video, the Ohio State University Marching Band performs a halftime tribute to video games during this weekend's game against Nebraska. It's shocking how well-choreographed the marching and music are -- a series of set pieces result in delightful moments of recognition as the music and visuals suddenly recall a familiar theme. (Though I must admit, as a non-Halo player, I didn't recognize that theme until "Halo" was spelled out.)To me, the most impressive part of this is the... READ ON
On September 30, I spent a geektastic day at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. I arrived early and got a look at many booths before they opened (later, they would be swarmed by thousands of attendees). For much of the day I was one of several referees for the Classic Tetris World Championship. The whole day was a joy -- a convention hall filled with classic games, from Atari to Zelda, with pinball in between. And, this being a Portland event, there were game-themed crafts everywhere. The expo organizers... READ ON
The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly has a smartphone in it. Yes, inside the print magazine, there is a fairly complete phone -- screen, battery, T-Mobile 3G SIM card (!), Android operating system, camera, and even a portion of the keyboard (minus the actual keys). The only bummer is that EW is only producing 1,000 of these special issues, presumably because those proto-phones cost a pretty penny. If you find one, rip it up and you've got a new phone (kinda).
The good folks at Mashable took apart... READ ON
When I want to add two numbers, I use a calculator. Made of metal. But if you're the awesome woodworker Matthias Wandel, you build a binary adding machine out of wood, then drop marbles into it in order to get your result. BEHOLD, THE WOODEN ADDING MACHINE:
My favorite part is when he gets to the bit representing the number 64 -- the machine's registers literally overflow, resetting the machine's state. You guys, all those years of computer science classes suddenly make sense now.
Wandel has... READ ON
Harpo Marx, the "silent" Marx brother, was a phenomenal self-taught harpist -- hence the nickname. (His given name was Adolph, later Americanized to Arthur.) Today I saw a clip of Harpo playing "Blue Moon" quite brilliantly, and thought I'd dig in to find some other performances -- and I was really pleased by what I found. Let's take a look at that clip and a few others, to remember what a terrific harpist Harpo was. For some background on how Harpo learned to play and his position in the harp world,... READ ON
So here's a bit of Dr. Strangelove re-done in Lego stop-motion. In these two clips, we enjoy two key scenes from the film. They contain major spoilers, in case you haven't seen the film before -- but they're so good, they make me want to watch the entire film done in Lego. My favorite part is Lego Strangelove's alien/Nazi right arm. The Lego figure's right hand has been replaced with a black hand, to match Strangelove's glove in the movie. Brilliant.
International diplomacy over the... READ ON
Today marks the beginning of the end of audiobooks. But don't cry -- there is still time to buy the last audiobook you will need before the coming global superpocalypse. You see, John Hodgman has released his final audiobook of complete world knowledge: That is All. It is full of jokes, celebrity cameos, mostly fake trivia, two references to Kale City Kale Chips, and fond recollections of Hodgman's now-burned speed zeppelin Hubris. Some of the narration occurs while Hodgman travels aboard the HMS... READ ON
So you may recall that back in 2010, Jack Horner, the famous paleontologist who partly inspired Jurassic Park, co-authored a paper arguing that the dinosaur Torosaurus didn't exist -- that in fact, it was the adult version of Triceratops. Even weirder, Horner and colleagues later argued that there is a sort of teen version of that sad dinosaur, adorably known as Nedoceratops (though only one specimen of Ned has been found). Their debate is summarized in this amazing New York Times article, which includes... READ ON
When I was a kid with a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), sometimes my games wouldn't load. But I, like all kids, knew the secret: take out the game cartridge, blow on the contacts, and put it back in. And it seemed to work. (When it failed, I'd just keep trying until it worked.) But looking back, did blowing into the cartridge really help? I've talked to the experts, reviewed a study on this very topic, and have the answer. But first, let's talk tech. Famicom, NES, and Zero Insertion Force... READ ON
Coffee cupping is like wine tasting -- but for coffee. Rows of coffee cups are lined up, and tasters use spoons to slurp the brew, noting their impressions of taste, acidity, aftertaste, and body (that last one is the "weight" of the coffee, meaning how light, heavy, and/or creamy it might be). This process is how coffee producers grade and describe their coffee -- but it's also becoming a thing you can do at a local coffee shop. Here in Portland, Stumptown hosts daily cupping events. I have to admit... READ ON
It's Saturday. It's hot in my workshop. Let's enjoy an upbeat tune with a jaw-droppingly good fan video. Trust me on both counts, this will make your day:
Okay, you may ask what this is. It's kinetic typography ("moving text") made by Jarrett Heather. The song is "Shop Vac" by Jonathan Coulton. This video is remarkable for its detail -- the video repeatedly shows type treatments playing on corporate logos (including some that are mentioned in the song), and includes tons of tiny details around... READ ON
31 years ago today, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel reunited for a concert in Central Park. It was September 19, 1981, and the concert was free -- the plan was to use TV and home video royalties from the performance to renovate Central Park itself, which was in bad shape at the time. New York mayor Ed Koch only came around to the idea of the concert after proposing that the park simply be closed. After "Homeward Bound," Simon ironically thanked Ed Koch, garnering boos from the crowd and a smirk from... READ ON
Artist Isao Hashimoto created an animation showing every nuclear test between 1945 (the first Manhattan Project test, called Trinity) and 1998 (a test in Pakistan). The total number? 2,053, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Note that this number doesn't include the rumored North Korean tests in 2006 and 2009. While the video starts slowly, by the late 1950s things are getting intense. Testing peaks in 1962, when over a hundred blasts are shown. You can follow the... READ ON
Tonight on the PBS series American Experience, Ric Burns brings us Death and the Civil War, a bleak and wrenching documentary about the 750,000 people who died in the American Civil War. "Never before and never since have so many Americans died in any war, by any measure or reckoning," the narrator says, then Drew Gilpin Faust explains that in today's population that would mean 7 million dead. "What would we as a nation today be like, if we faced the loss of 7 million individuals?" Faust asks. This is a... READ ON
Jetpacks have long been a staple of American futurism: we believe that soon, just down the line a bit, we'll be able to strap on a jet-powered backpack and fly to work. But, decade after decade, no jetpacks. At least not at my house. The "Where's My Jetpack?" notion is such a mainstay of futurist thinking that it's the title of a book. But despite not having your own jetpack, various prototypes have been built and actually worked. Let's have a look at the best-known jetpack, which was actually called... READ ON
"Kermit and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in the digitally created world of the Muppet Institute of Technology, 1985." -Image © The Jim Henson Company
On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: 'Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met.' Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together -- they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education,... READ ON