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.
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
In the latest Symphony of Science video, John Boswell grabs the third rail of science topics: climate change. The video features Bill Nye, Isaac Asimov, David Attenborough, and Richard Alley. In light of the recent unpleasantness surrounding Nye's thoughts on Creationism, this takes guts. But aside from Nye -- whose contributions are the heart of the video -- Isaac Asimov's refrain really makes it sing. Enjoy:
If you're not familiar with Boswell's work, he's the guy who does all those... READ ON
Most of us who write for a living recoil at the thought of other people (outsiders!) watching us write, live, as it happens -- the masses would see not only our terrible typers typos, but also have a way to judge our ultra-slow progress. Most of us don't write in a gallery with a crowd watching. So it's surprising that author Silvia Hartmann has invited readers to watch her write her novel The Dragon Lords live on Google Docs. Yes, Hartmann has asked the world to watch every keystroke as it lands, every... READ ON
Today Ben Folds celebrates his 46th birthday, and we rock along with him. I've always liked Ben -- his mix of emotional and geeky songs appeals to me, as do his guts in naming his three-piece band "Ben Folds Five." Let's check a few classic performances by the man and (at times) his band. If you have to pick one of these to watch, try "In Love." It has Shatner. Lots of Shatner.
"Show me the mosh pit...." With Ben Folds Five, obviously.
"In Love," ft. William... READ ON
If you're even slightly arachnophobic, stop reading right now. Wait, you're still reading this? Okay, fine, let's chat. In this 90-second time lapse video, we're treated to (okay, thoroughly disgusted by) a tarantula molting. Yes, spiders molt as they grow -- because they have exoskeletons, they must occasionally shed their worn-out exterior and emerge, creepier than ever. The shiny new spider is ready to freak you out/cuddle/whatever it is you people do with your pet spiders. Um. Seriously, this is... READ ON
Some of America's best-known game show hosts are actually Canadian -- including Alex Trebek, Monty Hall, and Alan Thicke. But in Canada, the game show landscape has featured plenty of painfully weird ways to win a few bucks (sorry, Loonies). Here's a rundown of the most awkward Canadian game shows.
1. Anything You Can Do
This early 70s show pitted men against women "physically, mentally, and any other way you can think of." The most awkward element of the show was the requirement that the teams... READ ON
Smokey Bear was created by the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to prevent forest fires -- and it worked too well. By preventing the small fires that are part of how forests function (clearing out underbrush and small trees), the "Smokey Bear Effect" is causing massive, forest-destroying fires that eradicate large forests. In this short video, NPR explores the effect -- and how we must accept small fires as an integral part of the life of forests.
Representative quote: "For a hundred years, we've... READ ON
In this video, we learn about the Forest City Gear factory in Rockford, Illinois where all the gears and other moving parts for the Curiosity rover were made. "Anything that moves on the rover, any of the actuators, any of the gears — we cut all the gears that did that," says Jeff Hallberg. Fun fact: the gears are all made of titanium.
Lots of small businesses made parts for Curiosity. ABC News even has a video about how "nearly all of" Curiosity was Made in the USA, including parts from... READ ON
It's Saturday. It's summer. Let's make some Spin Art, shall we?
Abraham De La Torre Makes Exquisite Spin Art
Abraham De La Torre is an American painter who specializes in Spin Art. He's even listed on Wikipedia's Spin Art page in the "Fine Art" section. Here's one of his Spin Art demos (there are lots more on his YouTube channel):
Giant Spin Art
These folks made their own Spin Art platform, capable of handling objects up to 60 inches square. I won't be offended if you skip ahead --... READ ON
So there's this asteroid, 99942 Apophis, that will make a "close approach to" (read: "near miss of") Earth in 2029 and possibly again in 2036. Don't worry, we're probably fine -- there are lots of way more dangerous asteroids coming our way...just not quite so soon. Before an asteroid hits Earth (and one eventually will -- it has happened before), we need a plan to take it out, Deep Impact/Armageddon style -- or at least a plan to visit and study the near-miss asteroids, since they'll be in the... READ ON
Today would have been Freddie Mercury's 66th birthday. We lost him in 1991, the year before Wayne's World brought his opus "Bohemian Rhapsody" to a new generation. Mercury had a stunning voice, spanning four octaves, and his stage presence was sized to match. To blow your mind, check out this vocals-only track from "Under Pressure" (with David Bowie). I have advanced it to the point where Mercury belts out his insane "whyyyyyyyyyyyy!" This.
Now, let's settle in for some Queen classics, and... READ ON
On August 27, construction workers in Munich discovered an American bomb from World War II inside an old bar that was being cleared for new construction. The bomb weighed 550 pounds and bore an "unusual fuse," operated by a chemical reaction rather than a mechanical switch. Because the bomb was unsafe to transport, authorities decided that the only means to clear it was to evacuate that area of the city and blow it up -- which they proceeded to do the next evening. Video of the explosion is below.... READ ON
Photographer Noah Kalina has been taking a picture of himself every day since January 11, 2000. He's so dedicated to his "Everyday" project that he made an app for it. Today he released a video compiling all the photographs so far -- 4,514 photos in sequence, showing his unsmiling face staring into a camera. If you pause it at various points, you can spot Kalina in kitchens, airplanes, and what I take to be his apartment in various stages of disorder. The 7-minute video is interesting partly because... READ ON
Image courtesy of Discovery Channel.
I'm a big fan of Les Stroud, better known as Survivorman. When his survival show first appeared on Discovery seven years ago, it was a breath of fresh air -- by shooting everything himself (he lugs all the gear with him; no crew), Stroud gave us a voice in the wilderness that was authentic, minimally produced, and very personal. Indeed, this is a show created by, written by, directed by, and starring Les Stroud. He even provides much of the music, and brings along... READ ON
It's Saturday. It's hot. Let's pop some water balloons in slow motion, shall we?
Water Balloon vs. Face
From Discovery's Time Warp, around 0:36 the balloon finally pops after molding itself to the man's face. From there it's all wet.
Popping a Water Balloon
When that volume of water is suddenly unsupported by its balloon container, it stays remarkably cohesive...until it... READ ON
New Zealand hunkthrob band Flight of the Conchords recently recorded a brilliant new song, "Feel Inside (and Stuff Like That)," for charity. Seeing Bret and Jemaine back in action, I thought it was time to look back at some of their greatest hits (and stuff like that).
"Feel Inside (and Stuff Like That)"
In order to write the song, the guys interviewed a bunch of kids. Favorite lyric? "The? kids who are sick cannot do their hip-hop anymore." In case you don't catch the reference part-way... READ ON
You've probably heard that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is loosely based on a real guy named Jeff Dowd. But what you probably haven't seen is this twenty-minute documentary about Dowd, explaining himself in his own words. The film touches on Dowd's history with politics and independent film, and we see Dowd as a complex character -- is he dedicated to political change, is he coasting on a movie he didn't make, or is he somehow doing both? The film gives you a decent amount of information to make that... READ ON
In the new documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, we get to see the top Tetris players in the world duke it out, to discover who is truly the master of the game. It's a fun, engaging, and moderately geeky documentary -- my favorite kind. Full disclosure: I know director Adam Cornelius from college, and I did a small bit of writing work on the film in postproduction. So this is, in a sense, shameless friend-promotion, with a little self-promotion thrown in. With that said, here's the... READ ON
In this stunning video, we see the best view yet available of NASA's Discovery lander speeding towards the surface of Mars. What makes it special is the relative smoothness of the video -- editor Dominic Muller took the source material, a roughly 4 frame-per-second set of still shots from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and interpolated those frames to a roughly 25-fps HD video. This process of interpolation (creating interstitial frames where there were none before, by calculating what "should" be... READ ON
Remember that animated, professionally narrated version of Peter and the Wolf you saw as a kid? Sure you do -- somewhere in the depths of your memory, you'll probably remember this fifteen-minute Disney short from 1946. It's odd to think now that this came out just a decade after Prokofiev's original composition in 1936 -- they both seem sufficiently remote to be ancient history to kids these days. In any case, "Peter and the Wolf" was written to be performed with a narrator (in Russian); Disney added... READ ON
Neil Armstrong -- astronaut, engineer, professor, Navy pilot, and first man on the moon -- has died at the age of 82. He is best known for the words he spoke just after he set foot on the moon. Contrary to popular belief, Armstrong said (emphasis added): "That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." That word "a" was garbled in the satellite feed heard by the world. Regardless of our ability to hear him, Armstrong was a man of powerful words. Here are a few more to remember him by.... READ ON
Google Street View is handy for finding places you're driving to -- but Google has been putting together a series of special "Street View" tours of places that aren't out on the street. Like Kennedy Space Center. By following that link, you can see a bunch of places where Google brought its Street View cameras into NASA spaces -- allowing you to take a virtual tour. Check out the various locations within Kennedy by clicking around on that page. My favorite is the Apollo 14 Command Module -- as you... READ ON
In June, ICANN announced that over 1,400 new generic top-level domain names (in other words, .wedding, .sex, and .lawyer) were under consideration to join the familiar .com and its kin. Weirdness has ensued.
A Brief Technical Lesson
In the world of web domains, there are two crucial parts: the Domain Name itself (like "mentalfloss") and the Top Level Domain (like ".com"). Those Top Level Domains (TLDs) are broken up into two broad categories: "generic" (gTLDs) like .com, .net, .org, .biz, and... READ ON
Missile engineer Destin (last name undisclosed) made waves a few weeks back with his video explaining Why Cats Usually Land on Their Feet. His YouTube channel is full of great stuff -- here are some favorites to make you, yes, a little smarter every day.
Eliminating "Poop Splash"
"Is there a way we can eliminate...poop splash?" This is surprisingly clean for a video involving "fecal simulants." Around 2:40 the answer is revealed. SCIENCE IN ACTION! As Destin's wife says, "You're welcome."... READ ON
In this funny 15-minute TED Talk, special effects guru Rob Legato explains, shot by shot, how he made visual effects work in Apollo 13, Titanic, and Hugo. In addition to making great models, he did it by observing what people noticed versus what they saw. A sample quote regarding the Saturn V launch he recreated for Apollo 13: "[The shot was about] what they remembered it looked like -- but not what it really looked like." Legato's message here is relevant for any kind of artist: it's more important to... READ ON
This week, Nintendo released "New" Super Mario Bros. 2. But "Old" Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't what you think it is. Here's the odd story of how Nintendo crammed Mario into places he was never meant to be.
Super Mario Bros. 1... READ ON
"How does light look in slow motion?" asks Ramesh Raskar in this brief TED Talk, demonstrating his "femto-photography," a slow motion technique that achieves one trillion frames per second. He proceeds to show us: the camera captures so many frames that you can SEE LIGHT TRAVELING THROUGH WATER. You can see light moving across the surface of a tomato. It's frickin' insane.
Oh, by the way, this technology can also see around corners. It's not perfect but, you guys, it took me like a whole... READ ON
In this decidedly spooky TED Talk, Jon Ronson explains his journey to understand mental illness, which brought him to a prison for the criminally insane to interview a very sanely-dressed possible psychopath, then brought him to "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, whose house was "like Narnia." The whole thing is engaging, challenging, and makes me really want to take the test.
Bonus points if you get the reference on Ronson's tee shirt without Googling it.
This is all discussed in more depth in Ronson's book... READ ON
In this video, astronaut Don Pettit demonstrates yo-yo tricks in space. Yes, he's on the International Space Station making time to vlog about yo-yos and science. Pettit: "Because I'm in space, and I can, I get to name these yo-yo tricks as I invent them. I call this one 'Shoot the Planets!'" He also offers relationship advice for yo-yo/physics loving folks. More like this, please.
This is not the first time we've mentioned Dr. Pettit. He took the recent "Star Trails" photos, and he showed us... READ ON
Twenty-one years ago today, Paul Simon put on a massive concert in Central Park. The performance on August 15, 1991 focused on material from his albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, plus an assortment of greatest hits of his previous work, including Simon & Garfunkel material...but without Garfunkel. The resulting double album has been required listening in my house for the following two+ decades. Of course, Simon's 1991 Concert in the Park wasn't his first Central Park blowout -- way back in... READ ON
Need a little tranquility? In this two-and-a-half minute time lapse video, we see a whole bunch of flowers blooming. We get to see daffodils, daisies, daylilies, amaryllis, iris, and even a dandelion. Creator Vladimir Vorobyov says: "Hopefully, it will cause only positive emotions." He succeeds. Enjoy.
The Beauty of Flowers (??????? ??????) from VOROBYOFF PRODUCTION on Vimeo.
If that's not enough, Vorobyov has a second video that's more of the same, though a little more... READ ON
In this ten-minute video, Kirby Ferguson explains how the basic elements of a "remix" are actually the core parts of all creative work. Ferguson uses Bob Dylan as a case study -- and he's right to do so. Dylan's early work was clearly based on other folk tunes, and there's nothing wrong with that. Dylan modeled himself largely on Woody Guthrie, who is also mentioned in here. Guthrie's immortal quote is put in context: "The words are the important thing. Don't worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing... READ ON
I drive a 2000 Hyundai Elantra with its factory original tape deck. It's in "fair" shape -- low miles but a lotta dents. MSRP for this thing was about $12,000, and Blue Book value is now around $3,500. Let's take a look at some literal children's toys that cost more than my car would sell for today. (For "Hyundai Values" listed below, I'm assuming that $3,500 figure -- though lots of these toys would have beaten my car even when it was new!)
1. A Marble with Teddy Roosevelt's Likeness - $4,500... READ ON
The Archive of American Television is a goldmine. Last week I came across their four-and-a-half-hour interview with Mister Rogers; this week let's take a look at their similarly ultra-in-depth interview with Betty White. This is a five-part sit-down with America's TV sweetheart, conducted at her home in 1997 by her agent, Tony Fantozzi. The interview is gentle, funny, smart, and full of trivia I'd never heard about Betty. I hope you have some spare time today to enjoy this.
From the... READ ON
As an American, my knowledge of London is pretty limited -- you know, big city, Big Ben, big Olympics, yeah, I get it. But it came as quite a surprise to learn that there is another London inside of London.
In this video, serial mindblower C.G.P. Grey explains how the City of London is a very special micro-city entirely contained within the city that is called London. The larger city called London has a Mayor...but the City of London has The Right, Honourable, The Lord Mayor of London. Each enforces... READ ON
Why do cats (usually) land on their feet? In the six-minute video below, missile engineer and last-name-avoider Destin explains...and includes some real stunt-cat dropping photographed with a high-speed camera. He also has archival footage of Air Force researchers dropping cats on parabolic flights, which helps explain the physics behind the phenomenon. As far as I can tell, no cats were harmed in the making of this video -- though they seemed, at the very least, displeased.
For some deeper math,... READ ON
Today in 1961, Dave Evans (known as "The Edge" of U2) was born. In the 51 years since, The Edge has become known for his layered, echoing guitar lines. He famously developed an ultra-complex guitar rig, involving a massive pedal board, a series of rack-mounted effects processors, a stunning array of pedals, and a series of vintage amps. While this mega-tech approach seems fairly common now, its complexity was decidedly over-the-top when U2 debuted. Wikipedia discusses The Edge's signature riff for... READ ON
Neil Harbisson is an artist who was born with a rare form of colorblindness called achromatopsia -- he sees everything in grayscale. The typical "colorblindness" we talk about is more of a color confusion in which some colors blend with others, or it's hard to distinguish between certain similar colors. So Harbisson's condition is unusual to start with. What makes it rad is that he wears an "eyeborg," an assistive device that reads colors in front of his face and plays musical tones in his ear. This... READ ON
Bobak Ferdowsi is Flight Director on the Mars Science Laboratory mission (aka Curiosity). You may know him better as that guy with the mohawk seen at JPL Mission Control during Sunday/Monday's Curiosity landing. In the video below, Shira Lazar interviews Ferdowsi about Curiosity, his experience of the landing, and what it's like to be a sudden internet celebrity...while doing important science work for NASA.
Representative line: "If my mohawk gets a few more people excited about science and this... READ ON
Alaska is so big that you could fit 75 New Jerseys in it.