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 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
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
Sea otters hold hands when they sleep so they don't drift apart.