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.
The Daily Pothole is a blog tracking the number of potholes filled each day in New York City. It's published by NYC DOT workers who call themselves the "pothole gang": this is the core group who track the potholes on a mega-spreadsheet and dispatch workers to fix them. And there's a lot to be done; on January 7 alone the site reported that 1,325 potholes were repaired. Last year, more than 200,000 potholes were repaired. This is a busy, tough job. Here's a short film following six members of a... READ ON
In 1981, physicist Richard Feynman was interviewed by the BBC. He told the story of his disagreement with an artist about who can better appreciate the beauty of a flower: artists or scientists. To hear Feynman tell it, the artist believed that a deep scientific understanding actually removed some appreciation of the flower as simply a beautiful thing. In other words, knowing the processes that created a thing could detract from appreciation of that thing.
In this one-minute video by Fraser... READ ON
In 1793, the French smashed the old clock in favor of French Revolutionary Time: a 10-hour day, with 100 minutes per hour, and 100 seconds per minute. ... READ ON
There's nothing a history geek likes more than saying, "Actually, everything you think you know about [insert historical event here] is wrong. And here's why."
In this four-minute video, C.G.P. Grey tackles five historical misconceptions, contrasting the commonly accepted stories with what the historical record actually shows. My favorite is his explanation of Napoleon Bonaparte's height. To ruin the story ever so slightly, it turns out that France has a history of special measurements, so the... READ ON
Working on the International Space Station means three things: it's crowded, you have to exercise to combat the effects of zero gravity, and your hair goes nuts. In this half-hour tour, Commander Sunita Williams shows us around the place during her final day onboard (back in November). It's utterly surreal -- it looks exactly what you'd expect a space station to look like, and Williams floats from section to section showing off the various areas, including the space toilet (just after the 9-minute... READ ON
On December 31, 2012, timelapse.org chose its top timelapse videos of the year. Below, I bring you their picks -- plus a few of my own.
The Lion City
Creator Keith Loutit explains:
For 'The Lion City', the idea behind the extension of the tilt shift technique is for focus and distance to be something the viewer can experience. It also doubles to communicate the constant heat and humidity that hits you whenever you leave the comfort of air conditioning in Singapore.
If you've never heard... READ ON
Good news, everyone! I wrote a book! It's called The Blogger Abides, and it's based on my experience writing for Mental Floss and other publications over the years. Longtime readers of this blog will recognize the book as a very Flossy affair: it includes a lengthy foreword by Ransom Riggs, and it was edited by Adrienne Crezo.
Have you ever wondered what it's like to interview famous people who are intimidatingly awesome and/or rude? Have you asked yourself, "Do bloggers wear pants?" Have you... READ ON
Galeazzo Frudua is a fantastic Italian singer who specializes in deconstructing the complex harmonies of The Beatles. In a series of videos, Frudua breaks down tons of Beatles songs in great detail, so you can understand how to sing each part. These videos are most remarkable to me because the harmony lines by themselves often sound odd, but in context sound just perfect. I also love his accent -- it adds a little flavor to these classic songs. My favorite is his breakdown of "In My Life":
Also... READ ON
You guys, you guys, you can make marshmallows at home! In this video from America's Test Kitchen, senior editor Louise Emerick shows you how it's done. In short: you need a mixer, several forms of sugar, and some speed.
Warning: Video may cause you to require marshmallows immediately.
For a slightly different approach, check out this video from CHOW. My favorite part is the tip about cutting the marshmallows with a pizza... READ ON
In this staggering eight-minute video, you take a guided ride on the Solid Rocket Booster alongside the Space Shuttle. The video is interesting but the sound is astonishing -- put on your headphones, watch this, and read the YouTube annotations as they pop up (it may help to make the video fullscreen so they're more legible). Apparently Skywalker Sound helped to mix and enhance the audio, to give you something like the real experience of being strapped to an SRB. My favorite sound is at just under 2:00... READ ON
In this three-minute video, Gina Gooke explains why the English word "doubt" has a silent "b" in it. The short answer is "because of Latin," but the longer answer is much more interesting, touching on the migration of words from Latin through French and into English -- and the surprising Old English word for doubt that we had before "doubt" made us think twice. This is worth a look for word nerds, students, and anyone who has wondered why "doubt" is spelled weirdly.
This is one of TED Ed's new... READ ON
It's that time of year -- strings of tiny lights are everywhere, and families are wandering around, checking out those lights. If you're like me, you bring your camera along on these light-viewing jaunts. And if you're like me, you use your camera to take boring old pictures of boring old lights. But if you have a decent digital SLR camera (or have a camera phone and are willing to make some compromises on which techniques you use; see below), you can do some nutty stuff -- and it's not hard at all.... READ ON
Not much about life in the trenches of World War I is very festive. What is festive-ish is that in 1914, an unofficial Christmas Truce was spontaneously declared in many trenches, as British and German troops decided to put their differences aside for a bit.
Bizarre things happened, including unarmed soldiers venturing into No Man’s Land (the space between the trenches), exchanges of gifts (apparently mostly food and cigarettes), games of soccer, and even caroling. Here’s an eight-minute film... READ ON
In this Maker Faire talk from 2010, Adam Savage explains how he went from being a billiards player to a prop-maker to a special effects master, and ultimately a MythBuster (among much else). It boils down to problem-solving. Savage sees basically everything in life as an exercise in problem-solving, and he makes a series of points about his process for solving problems. My favorite is an anecdote about MythBusters cohost Jamie Hyneman. Hyneman asks people around the MythBusters shop to "drill a hole in... READ ON
Tonight (Saturday, December 22) at 9:00pm ET/PT on Discovery, take a look back at the Frozen Planet documentary, coproduced with the BBC. If you missed it the first time, tonight is a sort of "greatest hits" hour, with some of the best sequences from the much longer miniseries -- including excellent narration by David Attenborough. This is why you have an HDTV: it's a set of scenes from the north and south tips of the Earth, filmed with incredible care. While some scenes are hilarious (most of the... READ ON
Copenhagen Suborbitals is an organization hoping to launch humans into space, using a D.I.Y. attitude -- they are a self-proclaimed open source, nonprofit space exploration company. In this thirteen-minute documentary, reporters from Vice explain how they're doing it. Although C.S. has not launched a human into space yet, they've put a crash test dummy up...with only one broken leg. Check it out:
And read the rest of the story from Xavier Aaronson at Vice. If you're into the tech, check out... READ ON
Terry Gilliam is now a renowned director, but he got his start in illustration and cut-out animation -- most notably for Monty Python. In the roundup below, I've collected some favorite Gilliam animated shorts. Warning: they are often crude and naughty.
And Now for Something Completely Different
A classic opener, featuring Conrad Poohs and His Dancing Teeth. Oh yes. This had a huge influence on my childhood.
The Dance of Venus
The Birth of Venus gets funky. Apparently from one of... READ ON
Terry Gilliam started out as the only American* member of Monty Python, and he was responsible for the absurd animated sequences seen throughout Monty Python's Flying Circus as well as their later films. Gilliam went on to direct some of my favorite movies (The Fisher King, anyone? Brazil? 12 Monkeys?). But way back in 1974, Gilliam appeared on Bob Godfrey's Do-It-Yourself Animation Show explaining how to make cut-out animations. If you're interested in Python history or actual animation, this is well... READ ON
On August 6, 2012 the Curiosity rover made a successful touchdown on Mars. It was a thrilling moment, the culmination of many careers and decades of hard work -- but at the same time it was just the beginning of the rover's mission on Mars. In the videos below, listen to Allen Chen, who calmly narrated the landing sequence every step of the way. Chen was Entry, Descent, and Landing Operations Lead for the rover (technically known as the Mars Science Laboratory or MSL), and at 2:33 in this video his... READ ON
Need a dose of tranquility? Watch this three-minute timelapse video shot in New York City's Central Park. Photographer Jamie Scott selected fifteen locations in the park and returned to them twice a week for six months, from August 2011 through January 2012. And I do mean fifteen extremely specific locations -- repeating the exact same video pans on the exact same trees, water, and so on -- so you can watch the leaves change colors, then fall off the trees in timelapse. This is a feat of persistence,... READ ON
Neil Gaiman can really tell a story. In this fourteen-minute bit for The Moth, he tells the tale of how he waited for his parents at Liverpool Street Station after returning home from Germany. And they never showed up.
It's delightful, smart, and a little scary around the edges, as Gaiman and his parents seem to swap roles in terms of who's an adult and who's a child. A sample: "I don't know how you went to school. I went to school by getting up and going, 'Oh my God, is that the time?', leaping in... READ ON
"We're in the bullion vault of the Bank of England. I've never seen so much gold -- in fact, I've never seen so much of any element!" So exclaims Professor Martyn Poliakoff, host of this The Periodic Table of Videos visit to Britain's equivalent of Fort Knox. The inside of the vault is surprisingly bland -- just a bunch of blue metal shelves holding gold bars. It looks a little like a gym that happens to contain an insane amount of gold.
Fun fact discussed near the end of this video: if you took... READ ON
In the 1980s, U.S. and Canadian media were up in arms over Dungeons & Dragons and the problem of teen suicide.... READ ON
A week ago today we lost Dave Brubeck, my second-favorite jazz pianist (on my living room stereo he is only surpassed by Vince Guaraldi). I've rounded up a bunch of live performances, along with a few separated in time by 50 years. Enjoy.
"Take Five" (1961)
Easily Brubeck's best-known tune, this performance is from Jazz Casual. "Take Five" is just one composition from the classic Time Out.
"Take Five," Live at Litchfield w/a 10-Year-Old (2008)
Brubeck performs with Dakota Austin, a... READ ON
You have to love a Wikipedia page bearing the goofy warning label: "This page contains material that is kept because it is considered humorous. Please do not take it seriously." That's how the brilliant Wikipedia:Deleted articles with freaky titles begins. It continues, in part: "As to this page's title, consider it a mild addition to the collection of "freaky" titles – the real reason for it was just so that it abbreviates to DAFT. Bewildering titles, bizarre titles, and surreal... READ ON
The Overview Effect is a term describing the cognitive effects of viewing Earth from space. The best-known example hit us just over forty years ago, when the famous Blue Marble photograph was taken, and the world realized: we are all living together on a tiny island in the vastness of space (to paraphrase Carl Sagan).
The change from Earth-dweller to space-farer was profound, and it is hard for me to understand that effect, because I've grown up with the Blue Marble as a common image. I imagine it's... READ ON
Time for your daily mind-blow. In this four-minute video (tsk tsk!), Minute Physics explains why the night sky is dark, and in turn tackles the more interesting question of why space itself is dark. It's a truly puzzling question, largely because space is full of stars -- we can see those little points of light. My puny human brain thinks "Gee whiz, the Sun produces a bunch of light...so why wouldn't all those other stars produce just as much light, turning the inky black of outer space into a sunny... READ ON
M. Alice LeGrow is a professional party princess. It wasn't a job she expected -- she was a graphic novelist until a few years ago, when her publisher went out of business. Seeking a steady job, she took on the job of entertaining kids at parties. In this short documentary by NPR, we learn LeGrow's perspective on the job -- what's challenging about it, how she has learned to like kids, and indeed how she has learned to like the job. Pro tip: "When in doubt, smile harder!"
Princess Marty, The Party... READ ON
In the timelapse video "Further Up Yonder," we hear snippets of speech from the crew of the International Space Station, also known as Space Station Alpha. There are three crew up there at the moment, and as you hear in the video -- they are "the most forward-deployed citizens of the planet at this moment." While doing science experiments, they also shoot stunning photography, and thanks to NASA, that photography is available for free online. This video was made by film student Giacomo Sardelli, who... READ ON
Portland, Oregon is well-known for being weird. Driving around town, you see bumper stickers saying "Keep Portland Weird" and indeed, you often see weird activities like tall-bike jousting, nude mass bicycle rides (bicycle rights!!), and even Santa Rampages. But my favorite Portland weirdism comes from The Unipiper, a bagpiping unicyclist who routinely unicycles around the city in full costume, spreading pop culture joy. If you haven't seen these, allow me to emphasize: this is actually kind of normal... READ ON
Stephen Fry is an actor, writer, poet, TV host, narrator, and for all I know a terrific cook -- the man is so prolific he has a Wikipedia page devoted simply to listing his works. Through all of his work he weaves threads of good humor, keen intellect, and a tremendously open attitude about his own life: the result is a tapestry of wit that is eminently quotable, and deserving of careful reading. Below, I've collected my favorite Fry quotations.
1. On Incuriosity
"The only reason people do not... READ ON
For your daily dose of geekiness, I bring you The Unipiper (yes, a unicycling bagpiper), practicing his unique brand of performance art in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation of The Hobbit. Behold:
I have actually met the mysterious Unipiper (Portland is like the Shire, in that we're all friendly weirdos, and of course we live in mossy underground burrows). So I asked him to clarify exactly which tunes he's piping here. "The first part is from 'Concerning Hobbits' followed by the... READ ON
"They called it the war to end all wars. The called it the London Fire. They called it the Trail of Tears. But they were all wrong. It was called the Great Depression, and the hobos saw it coming." So begins the powerfully hilarious eight-minute mockumentary "Hobo Matters," assembled by Andrew Quitmeyer using audio from John Hodgman's audiobook rendition of The Areas of My Expertise, along with still photography from the PBS documentary American Experience: Riding the Rails. I'm stunned that I didn't... READ ON
The familiar No. 2 pencil is a seemingly simple object, but it's actually an exceedingly complex thing to make. It involves parts from around the world, and precision machinery to combine the parts into a smooth writing instrument. To understand how pencils are made, check out this five-minute video shot inside a German pencil factory, showing all the mechanical steps (but leaving out the non-factory bits like harvesting the cedar, mining the clay and graphite, etc.):
My favorite part: "All the... READ ON
A longstanding urban legend goes like this: During the space race of the 1960s, NASA spent millions developing a fancy "space pen" that could be used in zero gravity ... but the Soviets just used a pencil. This story resonates with us because NASA did actually spend piles of money on writing utensils in space—in 1965 they paid $128 per mechanical pencil, according to NASA historians (for the record, the pencils had high-strength outer casings, but the writing guts were just regular mechanical pencils).... READ ON
Harry Taylor is a photographer with an unusual specialty, at least for this century: tintypes. A tintype is a photograph made on a metal plate (often iron, and apparently never tin). During its heyday circa the US Civil War, the tintype's main advantage was the durability of the metal -- unlike delicate paper prints or photographs on glass, the metal tintype could be carried around in a pocket and more or less survive the journey. The big bonus for photographers was the ability to make the photograph... READ ON
Andrew Bird is my favorite violinist, partly because he's not just a violinist. He's a master whistler, singer, guitarist, xylophonist, and looper -- that last one is particularly interesting. By using digital looping effects, he's able to create the sound of an entire band by himself. In some settings, he trades off playing violin and guitar, setting up loops behind him. It's fantastic stuff, especially live -- I saw him at Coachella some years ago, and his whistling sticks with me. Oh, and he also... READ ON
Have you ever seen the moon floating above the horizon of your city, and noticed that it looked oddly huge? I sure have. In fact, I've seen the effect in lots of popular media, including that one iconic shot from E.T. and other "supermoon" photos. But aside from movie magic, why does this happen in real life? If the moon gets bigger in the sky, it would have to get much closer to the Earth -- and while the moon's orbit does bring it a bit closer at times, it doesn't come close enough to account for the... READ ON
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
Flamingos are naturally white. Their diet of brine shrimp and algae turns them pink.