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.
Remember Pigs in Space? It was a series of sketches on The Muppet Show parodying Star Trek (and other 60s/70s space-themed TV shows), featuring the adventures of a crew of pigs aboard the Swinetrek. Pigs in Space became so popular that it was used to wake up actual astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia during its second mission. Muppet Wiki tells the story:
The height of pop-culture awareness for the crew of the Swinetrek occurred in 1981. As part of NASA's morning wake-up call tradition, by... READ ON
Now let's watch what happens when you take a blob of mercury and subject it to different audio frequencies. Spoiler alert: the mercury forms geometric shapes and appears to dance. This is slow-motion footage (with music added, not the tones the mercury is reacting to -- we'll get to those original tones in a moment):
Okay, so what happened there?! I spoke to photographer Nick Moore about how this was filmed. (My suspicion was that he might be building a T-1000.) He wrote:
The mercury is... READ ON
In this eight-minute video, MythBuster Adam Savage describes the construction of a replica Indiana Jones bullwhip. Savage made his first bullwhip in the early 90s, then got some advice from master whip maker David Morgan -- so Savage bought a piece of kangaroo hide (apparently kangaroo leather is exceedingly strong) and proceeded to make another whip, an 11.5-foot long one. (For the record, that's way longer than normal, making Savage's whip both dangerous and awesome.)
The video is full of geeky whip... READ ON
(Modern Scantron test sheet; photo by Josh Davis, used under CC license.)
We learned this week that Michael Sokolski, a soldier, engineer, and inventor of the Scantron, died on June 13. Sokolski was an immigrant to the US from Poland, and later an engineer and inventor best known for his work with Scantron. Today, we dig into some Scantron trivia -- please make sure your trivia bubbles are completely filled or the machine may not give you credit.
How Does the Scantron Work?
The original... READ ON
In today's "feel old again" news, the classic song "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners turned 30 this week. The original single was released on June 26, 1982. The song begins with these lines:
Poor old Johnnie Ray
Sounded sad upon the radio
Moved a million hearts in mono
Our mothers cried, sang along
Who would blame them?
In case you missed the memo, Johnnie Ray was a crooner who performed wearing a hearing aid in his right ear -- he lost most of the hearing in that ear in a... READ ON
Big Think has interviewed a staggering array of smart people, and is posting micro-interviews on YouTube. For tonight's viewing, I thought I'd collect five favorites. Yes, they're short, and sometimes they're simple -- but these are smart sentiments.
"How is science education like comedy?" Bill Nye on the parallels between comedy and learning: it's all about making choices.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
On privatizing space exploration. Spoiler alert: he's not for it, except... READ ON
In this brief video, Minute Physics shows a visual proof demonstrating why ?R² gets you the area of a circle. By using various lengths of chain laid into a circular shape, you can make a triangle from the circle -- and from there it's a hop, skip, and a trigonometry jump to proof of your circle's area. Check it:
As Minute Physics explains in the YouTube video description, this video is based on a paper by Russell Jay Hendel of Dowling College: Proof Without Words: Area of a Disk is ?R² (PDF... READ ON
Aaron Sorkin is a fantastic writer of dialogue -- as long as you're okay with listening to Aaron Sorkin talking to Aaron Sorkin through the voices of miscellaneous actors. But really, I do love Sorkin, and I love listening to that endless echoing conversation; it's like Mamet except it actually sounds like people I hang out with. (Yes, I hang out with TV production staff at the Oval Office. All the time.)
In this amazing video, superfan Kevin Porter goes deep on "Sorkinisms," the repeating tropes,... READ ON
Photo circa 2008 courtesy of Joanna J., used by Creative Commons license.
In 1975, construction began on a high-rise building in the center of Kraków, Poland. The massive structure (planned to be 24 stories high) was to be the headquarters for the Polish Federation of Engineering Associations (aka Naczelna Organizacja Techniczna, or "NOT"). After the skeleton of the building was completed, political and economic unrest hit Poland and the project was halted. 37 years later, the unfinished shell still... READ ON
If you take regular sand and expose it to trimethylsilanol vapor (ahem, (CH3)3SiOH for the chemists in the crowd), the sand becomes hydrophobic -- literally meaning "water-fearing." The resulting "magic sand" does interesting stuff when exposed to water, as the sand repels the water. Here are two neat videos showing water interacting with water-fearing sand.
Water Drops on Hydrophobic Sand
A weirdly soothing video, this shows what happens as puddles form on top of the sand.
Hydrophobic... READ ON
33 years ago yesterday, The Muppet Movie made its silver screen debut. Over the opening credits, Kermit played his banjo in the swamp, singing the now-iconic theme song, "Rainbow Connection." The song was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, though it didn't win either; instead it reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, appeared in every subsequent Muppets film, and has been covered dozens of times. And it all started with Jim Henson's voice in a swamp.
Let's... READ ON
In this five-minute video, photographer Nick Moore shows us how to build and photograph your own micro-forest fire, using strike-anywhere matches in a workshop setting. While the building-the-rig portion may seem slow at first, it becomes fascinating when the camera shifts into slow-motion and fast-motion, as appropriate for the length of each task. By the 3-minute mark, we're eagerly anticipating the lighting of the matchstick forest, and it does not disappoint -- just before the 4-minute mark, we see... READ ON
A few weeks back I came across this surprising fact: the Beach Boys song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" featured two accordionists, two drummers, three bassists, and thirteen more musicians. The information in that post came from a YouTube documentary called Behind the Sounds, which is going through each song on the Beach Boys' seminal "Pet Sounds" record, using archival recordings, photographs, and independent research to tell the story of how each song came together. Tonight, enjoy all the songs covered by... READ ON
Blade Runner was famously shown in seven different versions: a workprint shown to test audiences, a sneak preview shown only once, a theatrical cut, an "international" cut for non-US audiences, a broadcast version for CBS, a Director's Cut that the director didn't really approve of, and a "Final Cut" (aka "25th Anniversary Edition") that is supposed to be the last word on the film. So it would seem we don't need any more versions of Blade Runner.
But now, painter Anders Ramsell has put together a... READ ON
Ever wonder how computer-animated films are made? It's a laborious process, involving an "animatic" (a form of pseudo-animated storyboarding), "layout" (rough positioning of 3D models), reference modeling (in which an actor moves around as the characters will, as a reference for animators), and various additional passes through the material to arrive at a realistic-looking animated scene. In this brief video, animator Jamaal Bradley shows us the making of one snippet of Disney's "Tangled." This is how... READ ON
In this five-minute video, Ze Frank posits a theory about why online comments are so overwhelmingly positive or negative. Ze is a guy who has done tons of work online (primarily video, but also interactive group projects), and is currently posting videos several times a week, many of which receive lots of feedback...and most of that feedback is hyper-polarized, loving or hating, to the point that one commenter recently suggested he'd like to punch Ze in the face because Ze's voice is so annoying. As a... READ ON
Do lemmings really jump off cliffs? Are "daddy longlegs" the deadliest spiders, but with fangs too small to hurt you? Do dogs only see in black-and-white? In this fun and educational video, truthwizard C.G.P Grey busts these and five other longstanding myths and misconceptions about our cuddly (and creepy-but-non-deadly) animal friends. Three and a half minutes, eight wrongnesses cleared up -- can't do much better than that. (Well, you could try via Wikipedia's list of common misconceptions, but it... READ ON
Bob Dylan's first national TV appearance came in March of 1963 on a program called "Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs!" He performed three songs, including "Man of Constant Sorrow," a folk tune from circa 1913, originally recorded by the partially blind fiddler Dick Burnett. Burnett, interviewed late in life, couldn't remember whether he had written the tune, saying: "No, I think I got that ballad from somebody. I dunno. It may be my song." Wikipedia comments on the uncertainty around the song's... READ ON
Havatec makes, among other things, massive industrial machinery for processing mushrooms. Now, the world of industrial mushroom processing may not seem that interesting, and I'll admit I'm glad it's not my day job, but it's impressive to see how much effort and thoughtful mechanical work has gone into sorting, trimming, and otherwise preparing mushrooms for sale. It's a complex process, and most of it is automated; human workers guide the process at key points, but for the most part this gigantic machine... READ ON
So Wil Wheaton has a YouTube show about boardgames, and it's awesome. It's called TableTop, and it's a long-form (about a half hour per episode) look at various good boardgames, including a basic explanation of how to play each -- plus an actual play session so you can actually get it. Whether you're a boardgame nerd or a "normal" person looking for a fun diversion for your next party, this is for you. I've collected five starter episodes for your enjoyment. The TableTop YouTube channel has tons of... READ ON
In this two-minute clip from The Muppet Show, two Whatnots sing a semi-tuneless ode to happiness. In a dusty room filled with cobwebs. Covered, themselves, with cobwebs. It's a pretty grim situation. They're pretty happy guys.
So does this song make you happy or sad? It makes me ridiculously happy.
My favorite line? "Sometimes he lies in the rain," sung by the pianist.
(Via... READ ON
Star Trek: The Next Generation had a habit of ending on a positive note, particularly in the first season before those pesky Borg showed up in Season 2. No matter what troubles the crew had seen during their adventure, the episodes generally ended with Picard specifying a new course and then saying "Engage" as music swelled. I recommend this practice the next time you take a road trip: strap everybody in, set a course for Isis III, then say "Engage!"
In this video montage, we see the last ten seconds... READ ON
Apple uses secret internal code names for many of its products before they're released. Over the years, they've come up with some really weird ones -- including one that led to multiple lawsuits.
1. "Carl Sagan"/"Butt-Head Astronomer" - Power Macintosh... READ ON
Jay Cheel's friends play Settlers of Catan. Soda is poured, chips prepared, the board laid out, and then...a ruckus ensues. In this documentary, Cheel reveals the fractured relationships within one group of friends who play, fight, and eat snacks.
Gerry: "I remember screaming, and I'm not sure if I was intelligible or what I was screaming. Yeah, I can't remember, but it has nothing to do with my losing my temper that I can't remember."
Zak: "I think he may have said that he... READ ON
The Beach Boys recorded "Wouldn't It Be Nice" as the opening track on their landmark album "Pet Sounds." It's my favorite Beach Boys song, but I never knew how insanely complex Brian Wilson's arrangement was: the recording includes two accordionists, two drummers, three bassists, three guitarists, four horn players, two pianists, and at least four singers. The main riff of the song is formed by the twin accordions (working together with a lovely walking bassline), though I would've been hard-pressed to... READ ON
Christoph Adami makes "artificial life," effectively self-replicating computer programs. If you've heard of Tierra*, that's the kind of thing Adami does. In this TED Talk, Adami discusses his work, including a brief discussion of how we define life on Earth -- which is lots of fun, as he describes a real-world organism that does not die. And no, we haven't been overrun by this monster (yet).
After the initial discussion of "what is life" (in the context of wanting to identify extraterrestrial life),... READ ON
Today we learned that we had lost Ray Bradbury. Tonight, let's listen to the author speak about his life and career. If you watch nothing else in this list, scroll down and pick one of the short clips from 1968 -- they're all terrific.
On Books, Literacy, and Fahrenheit 451
Bradbury interviewed in a short film for the National Endowment for the Arts. This is all about the library.
Sample quote: "We should learn from history about the destruction of books. When I was 15 years old, Hitler... READ ON
Ray Bradbury died yesterday at the age of 91. Best known for his novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury was a prolific writer and a tireless advocate for libraries. My favorite work of his is the short story The Veldt, which both scared and inspired me as a kid -- that story was one of the first that made me want to become a writer. You can listen to Stephen Colbert perform the story live in a stunning recording. To remember Bradbury, I'm setting aside an hour to re-watch his speech from 2001, presented at... READ ON
In the second installment of the "We Stopped Dreaming" series, Neil deGrasse Tyson puts forth a simple argument: that NASA's missions to the moon and beyond caused humans to focus attention on the Earth. He runs through the list of accomplishments in environmental policy that occurred while the Apollo missions were underway, and it is a compelling argument. Representative quote: "We found time to start thinking about Earth. That is space operating on our culture, and you cannot even put a price on... READ ON
In the first 30 seconds, this video takes us from Pong through a series of 1970s and early 1980s arcade games, then into NES versions of The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. In the remaining two and a half minutes, we're treated to a wild ride of bleeping, blooping, and spastic visuals, as the video's creators mash up popular console and arcade games from the past forty years.
While this isn't a complete history of video games (or even console games), it's insanely nostalgic for gamers of a... READ ON
I've grown up hearing Glenn Gould's two performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Gould's first landmark performance was released in 1955, and it was passionate, fast, and popular -- with a runtime of just over 38 minutes, Gould's first performance left out many of the repeats within the variations, plus he kept the tempo up. That 1955 recording was a blockbuster hit (as classical recordings go), and helped to put the Goldberg Variations on the cultural map; prior to that performance the Variations... READ ON
Before his success with the Muppets, Jim Henson made hundreds of commercials and short industrial films, often involving early Muppets. Here I've rounded up a few favorites.
Wilkins Coffee, 1956-1961
A pair of proto-Muppets (Wilkins and Wontkins) in a series of comically deadly scenarios. Pretty adorable, really -- I'd buy Wilkins Coffee, if it still existed, just to avoid violent death. The Muppet Wiki explains how these came about, and why they're so short (emphasis added):
In 1957, Jim... READ ON
Last Christmas, I received a curious gift: a tiny bag of white crystals labeled Fake Snow. "Just add water," it said. So I did. And the crazy stuff puffed up unbelievably, forming a white-ish snow-like substance. Even weirder, the bag indicated that the snow could be dried out and reused (!) -- I didn't try that part.
So what is fake snow? Apparently the powder I had was primarily sodium polyacrylate, a polymer that can absorb 200-300x its own mass in water. This polymer also shows up in diapers... READ ON
If you don't know Merlin Mann, you're in for a treat. In the most recent edition of his Bulk Bag Newsletter, Merlin ran down five of his favorite talks, all available in handy online video format. I have rearranged the videos in chronological order (Merlin put them in order of awesomeness), so you can get a better sense of Merlin's public progression from "tips and tricks guy" through "realizing the entire internet has somehow become a tips and tricks guy" to his current position of "heart-on-his-sleeve... READ ON
Pluto's demotion from "planet" status to "lame Kuiper Belt resident" ahem "dwarf planet"/"planetoid" continues to be the subject of deep nerd rage. Many of us who grew up with Pluto-as-planet feel that modern astronomers are messing with our childhood memories. Others just make shirts and move on.
Today I bring you C.G.P. Grey's beautifully reasoned discussion of why Pluto is or isn't a planet, what the Kuiper Belt is, the history of planets, and (most fundamentally) what the word "planet" has meant... READ ON
In this short animated video, Dr. Olivia Johnson of the Royal Observatory Greenwich (home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian) explains how scientists measure the universe using parallax, standard candles, and the Doppler effect. Got four minutes? Pick up some basic math. (Sorry, maths.)
Royal Observatory Greenwich is hosting an exhibit on Measuring the Universe through September. See also: Hank Green's explanation of how The Universe Has No Edge.
(Via... READ ON
At this year's Maker Faire, Adam Savage delivered a speech about "why we make" -- a discussion largely about how Savage gets kids interested in making things. But first, he started with a story about his exquisitely perfect Indiana Jones fedora. He begins: "This is a replica of Harrison Ford's hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, one of the most important movies ever, it came out when I was 13 years old, [it] changed my life, gave me a new ... kind of action hero I fell in love with. And the same... READ ON
"Nothing I did, where the only reason for doing it was the money, was ever worth it except as bitter experience. Usually I didn't end up getting the money either. The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I've never regretted the time I've spent on any of them. The problems of failure are hard; the problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them. The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the... READ ON
Kaiten-zushi is better known in the US as "conveyer-belt sushi" or a "sushi train." Sushi is placed on small plates, and the plates on a conveyer belt that runs around the restaurant. Patrons sit at a bar or in booths along the belt's path, picking off plates as they go by. Plates are generally priced according to a color scheme (at my local joint, light green is $1, orange is $1.50, then there's the dreaded and rare dark blue at $3!). At the end of the meal, plates are totaled up to calculate a bill.... READ ON
In this video, YouTube user nik282000 shows us what happens when lithium metal burns -- in slow motion. Using a 300fps camera (10x slower than realtime) and a macro lens, we can see the process of lithium burning, passing through several bizarre phases until it resembles a hunk of charred cauliflower. Have a look!
Note: things don't really get cool until just before the 2-minute mark. Give it time.
If you want a (shaky) view of what this looks like in realtime, check out some guy burning... READ ON
In 2009, students at Cambridge University genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, adding DNA sequences in order to create colors visible to the naked eye (standard E. coli does not have a pigment). The students called this new strain E. chromi, and it has limited uses today, primarily related to detecting pollution or other chemicals -- if the bacteria detects a chemical, it changes color.
That's all well and good, but how do we take this and go nuts with it, creating a Terminator-like dystopian... READ ON
As a little light science-ish fare for Friday, here's a TED Talk in which David Blaine explains his quest to hold his breath for a really, really long time. He goes through a variety of possible "trick" techniques (none of which worked), and discusses his much-publicized failure to escape from handcuffs during his "Drowned Alive" feat. But then he gets to the interesting stuff -- a seemingly credible story of how he trained to do a sustained breath-hold after breathing pure oxygen. This is a different... READ ON
Ze Frank has been making awesome internet videos since before that was a thing. Today, I have the honor to appear briefly* in his show Chase That Happy, which is concerned with how we get happy when we aren't. While the goal of life isn't to be happy all the time, perhaps it is to watch Ze Frank and hope that maybe, someday, he will blink.
Representative quote: "For example I discovered Happy Typing, where you type like a Crazy Secretary in a silent film. [Frank types crazily]" Content note:... READ ON
Today happens to be the birthday of tons of famous musicians. Here's a little roundup of tunes by Liberace, Jonathan Richman, Krist Novoselic, Janet Jackson, Richard Page, Robert Fripp, Boyd Tinsley, and The Beach Boys (whose album "Pet Sounds" was released today in 1966). Other notable musical birthdays today -- unfortunately left out of this wrapup -- include Pervis Jackson of The Spinners, Billy Cobham, Barbara Lee of The Chiffons, Simon Katz of Jamiroquai, and Ralph Tresvant of New Edition. I'm... READ ON
Ken Burns, creator of innumerable documentaries including The Civil War and Baseball, is the subject of a new short film about the nature of stories and storytelling. It's compelling, smart, and complex -- largely because Burns, one of America's most famous and revered documentarians, discusses the reality of what documentary films are: that documentary is not about telling "the truth," it's about telling a story. (If you will, "a truth.")
Representative quote: "All story is manipulation." Also:... READ ON
Last Thursday, This American Life LIVE played in movie theaters around the US, Canada, and Australia, beamed live via satellite from a stage performance in New York City. For public radio nerds, this is pure gold: two hours of This American Life performed onstage, and you watch it in a theater crammed with likeminded nerds who actually know what "Car Talk" and "Fresh Air" are.
The show is running again tonight (pre-recorded from Thursday's performance) in some locations. If you're a public radio nerd... READ ON
The New York Times files away old photographs in a subterranean archive dubbed the morgue. This has been going on for decades. Finally the the morgue has gone online and rebranded itself as "The Lively Morgue" (after all, it's full of some really nice, non-dead stuff -- despite being located in a sub-sub-basement). Their Tumblr site highlights some of the best finds -- truly beautiful photography spanning the past century. Here are some statistics, via their Tumblr's "About" page (emphasis added):... READ ON
In the go-go 90s, the Internet was new and we were all excited about the potential of "webcams," a new technology allowing tiny images, almost-live, to be viewed online. Nearly twenty years after the advent of the technology, the bloom is off the webcam rose, and today the webcam landscape is a bit barren. But fear not, dear reader: I've combed through the remaining sites and collected 11 fun webcams for your amusement (and/or bemusement). Fire up Mosaic and follow me!
1. Live Bubbles On Command... READ ON
Alex George is a bit of a tinkerer. He got his hands on the Disneyland Main Street Collection, a series of miniatures that replicates the Main Street attraction at Disneyland -- including various floats that go by in its lighted Main Street Electrical Parade. But there's one big problem: the miniatures don't move. So George engineered an elaborate, ingenious system to mechanize the Electrical Parade. The project is truly impressive in scope, involving CAD renderings, lots of construction, and... READ ON
Today the Piano Man turns 63. To celebrate, here are ten of his greatest hits (my favorites), arranged in chronological order. Looking back on it, it's stunning how many hit records Billy Joel released -- according to Wikipedia, his catalogue includes "13 studio albums, 5 live albums, 59 singles, and 11 compilation albums." Virtually all of the studio albums went Platinum or Multi-Platinum in the US, with his "Greatest Hits Volume I and II" (which were standard equipment for music listeners in the 80s)... READ ON
ABBA had to negotiate the rights to their name with a canned fish company.