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.
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
Rory Sutherland is one of my favorite TED Talkers (ahem, "Speakers"). He's a former advertising executive who is concerned with psychology -- specifically, how people perceive what is valuable, and how that perception can actually become tangible value. This makes for some interesting quotations, like from this talk: “Where economists make the fundamental mistake is they think that money is money.” Sutherland is talking about how it matters to us where the money we spend is going: if we spend... READ ON
In Japan, it's an end-of-year tradition to sing "Ode to Joy," the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The song is so well-known in Japan that it's known simply as daiku, literally "number nine." In Osaka, a 10,000-person-strong "Number Nine Chorus" of amateur singers performs daiku every December, to thundering effect. While there are some professionals involved (the soloists and orchestra), the Number Nine Chorus is largely a community effort. And the sound of 10,000 singers, trained or... READ ON
In this short talk, Oregonian paper towel expert* Joe Smith explains how to dry your hands using a single paper towel. He gives a series of demos, boiling down to two crucial steps: shake and fold. Now, I'm no paper towel scientist, but this sounds like a great way to save a lot of paper -- and I admit, I'm guilty of routinely grabbing two or three of those "tri-fold" towels, wastrel that I am.
Now let's save some trees, one paper towel at a time. Who's with me?
* = Smith is also former chair... READ ON
As the dot-com bubble reached its peak in 2000, Internet entrepreneurs faced a problem: every word in the dictionary had been registered as a dot-com domain name. So their bold new innovation was to register domains ending in something other than dot-com! Let's take a look back at the stories of three alternate top-level domains: Tuvalu (.tv), Libya (.ly), and Cocos Islands (.cc).
.tv -... READ ON
So there's a YouTube channel called Pronunciation Book, which "shows you how to say various words in American English." It's an extremely simple format: display a word or phrase, then say it aloud three times. The format was simple, and yeah, maybe it helped some people. For example: Jake Gyllenhaal. But then along came the much, much better Pronunciation Manual, which appropriated the existing format and parodied it with hilariously incorrect pronunciations -- including often cutting off the third... READ ON
The HBO series "Game of Thrones" features an exquisite opening title sequence, showing cities and settlements growing like clockwork toys from the landscape, using a slightly bizarre tilt-shift computer animation style. That title sequence is helpful in establishing a map of the roughly nine zillion core locations crucial to the story; unlike the "Song of Ice and Fire" books, we don't have a map to flip to whenever we need it.
In the second season of the HBO show, the opening sequence has been expanded... READ ON
Meanwhile, at the Bat Cave, the Bat Symbol has been changing. Since its first appearance in 1941, designers have tweaked the icon emblazoned on Batman's chest and appearing on various Batphernalia, adapting it for each new iteration of the Batman story. In this video, you can watch the Bat Symbol morph through many versions. Watch as the symbol stretches, contracts, and develops new angles for each era. (I chose to mute the U2 soundtrack, for what it's worth.)
For a non-video treatment of the... READ ON
From Wikimedia Commons: Picture of the Pitch Drop Experiment from University of Queensland featuring the current (2007) custodian, John Mainstone (picture taken in 1990), two years into the life of the 8th drop.
On what is quite likely the most boring webcam ever, you can stare in rapt dumb awe as a drop of Australian pitch (a petroleum product used in waterproofing, among other things) very, very, very slowly drips out of a funnel. How slowly? Well, only eight drops of pitch have fallen since the... READ ON
Got fifty minutes to spare? Okay, how about an unbelievable reservoir of tolerance for cacophony and 60s color schemes? Perfect. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the first two seasons* (ish) of Star Trek.
Yes, it's in HD. Put it on the View Screen, Lieutenant!
* = The first season pilot (The Cage) was omitted due to length; instead, the first episode of the third season was used. I think we can all agree that The Cage isn't strictly canonical.
Related: Watching 130 Episodes of “The... READ ON
Sometimes there's a music video that changes everything -- a video that makes your bad day turn good, turns your frown upside down, and confuses the everliving hell out of you. Today, I bring you that video. In 1976 1973, Hall & Oates made a "promotional video" for their single "She's Gone." It's a spectacular testament to the power of the format: Hall and Oates slump in armchairs, scowling, lazily smoking and occasionally lip-syncing. There's so much going on here (and not going on here) that I think... READ ON
In my neverending quest to make you feel old, I have news: the eponymous Violent Femmes album (also known as "the best Violent Femmes album") turns 29 years old this month. Originally released in April of 1983, Violent Femmes featured an irresistible mix of teen angst and catchy pop, recorded with a super-minimalist set of instruments (drummer Victor DeLorenzo often played just one drum -- a snare -- rather than a full kit). Now, Readers of a Certain Age, let's run down these tracks. Be honest, how... READ ON
MIT's 21-story Green Building was briefly transformed into a giant Tetris game on on September 12, 2011. That game was shut down due to glitches in gameplay. But last Friday, April 20, a fully functioning version of Tetris ran on the building, controlled by a console at ground level. That console was labeled: "Danger: DO NOT play Tetris on Green Bldg." But Tetris players gotta play. According to a first-person account of the game, the second level featured lighter colored blocks (making them harder... READ ON
In this five-minute video, we see portions of a Mad Men episode (episode 408, "The Summer Man") as it appears when incompletely downloaded via BitTorrent. The video is extraordinarily corrupt, showing strange artifacts like missing blocks of the picture, "melting" video, repeated actions, and other such glitches. Taken together, and with a surprisingly nice soundtrack, this actually does feel like art, though it's a sort of found art -- the found art of online video piracy and computer algorithms for... READ ON
In 2000, Daniel Suelo opted out of the cash economy. For the past dozen years, he hasn't used money, hasn't paid taxes, and hasn't used government financial assistance services. He eats roadkill, rummages through dumpsters, and lives in caves. And what's weirder, he has a blog. In addition to his blog, he maintains an amusingly kooky FAQ about how he lives without money. My favorite question: 28. You are a hypocrite/a bum/mentally ill/an egotist/self-righteous, saying you live moneyless. But you can... READ ON
Designers Charles and Ray Eames built a beautiful house in Los Angeles. They moved in on Christmas Eve 1949, and lived there for the rest of their lives. They called it Case Study House No. 8 (it was one of many "Case Study" houses designed by prominent architects and designers), but it's better known simply as the Eames House. It was built as a place for work, life, and play, and to me it epitomizes the mid-century modern aesthetic that permeated so many of the homes I've lived in. According to... READ ON
In this performance of "Tonight You Belong to Me," current Mental Floss cover model John Hodgman and feral mountain man rock star Jonathan Coulton deliver a sweet duet, at one point inviting the listener (ahem, the Internet) to whistle along. Won't you whistle along with them?
See also: coverage of roughly the same thing from 2008, Sweetest Song Ever: "Tonight You Belong to... READ ON
Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the release of Doolittle, a landmark album by the Pixies that influenced boatloads of musicians in the ensuing years (though most musicians I know pretend they liked Surfer Rosa better).
Last year, in a roundup of Pixies covers, I wrote: "The Pixies have had a special place in my heart since I discovered Doolittle in 1996 — three years after the band had broken up and seven years after the album was released. I used to listen to that tape on repeat as I walked to... READ ON
On March 26, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson participated in a talk on "Cosmic Quandaries" in St. Petersburg, Florida. The talk was wide-ranging and lengthy (a little over an hour with NDT himself), but one clip caught my eye: a twelve-minute segment in which the good doctor presents us with some pretty Deep Thoughts on the nature of the universe, and humankind's place within it. This is classic NDT, and I won't say much to give it away -- as his "fascinatingly disturbing thought" isn't revealed until late in... READ ON
In this short video, explainmaestro C.G.P Grey explores the history of copyright, using the only slightly less alarming headline Copyright: Forever Less One Day (there's also a transcript at that page).
Copyright is an important system; it underlies much of the commerce I do every day. And its current implementation is basically cuckoo bananas, due in large part to exquisite lobbying by well-connected corporate interests. If you have five minutes to learn a little history (and have a few chuckles at... READ ON
In this 6-minute video, scientists show what plankton look like -- when photographed through a microscope. Using the story of one fish's journey from egg to larva to dinner, the video focuses on truly beautiful microphotography and clear explanations of what life is like throughout the ocean. Put this one in HD and run it fullscreen.
Representative quote: "A teaspoon of seawater can contain over a million living creatures." Fun viewing tip: note how visually similar the night sky is to these... READ ON
Ready to get fired up about America's space program? Listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson drop some knowledge on the history of NASA and current spending priorities. Here's a brief quote:
"We go to the moon. Space enthusiasts say, 'Oh, we're on the moon in '69, we'll be on Mars in another ten years.' They completely did not understand why we got to the moon in the first place: we were at war. Once we saw that Russia was not ready to land on the moon, we stopped going to the moon. That should not... READ ON
In this fourteen-minute TEDxBoston Talk, uber-geeks Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel talk about what they've learned from processing 5 million books (or 500 billion words) via the Google Ngram Viewer. This tool uses text scanned from books to find specific terms and phrases, so you can figure out historical patterns of language usage. This may sound really geeky, and it is, but it's presented in a really sweet way. On stage we have two guys who are like us -- geeks -- sharing some fun... READ ON
Photographer Alex Rivest has made a habit of creating beautiful timelapse films. Some are very popular, but others have been seen by only a handful of people. Here are some of my favorites from Rivest's collection; there are more on his Vimeo page.
Scenes of life in Amsterdam, July 2011. My favorites are the water closeups.
Lava in Hawaii
File under: beautiful to look at, glad I wasn't... READ ON
The now-famous Keep Calm and Carry On poster was produced by the British Ministry of Information in 1939, as a quintessentially British statement of what to do in the event of German invasion. The poster actually wasn't circulated at the time, and only became popular after its rediscovery at a bookstore. Among my friends, it's something of a mantra -- I know one woman who has the phrase sewn into the lining of her coat.
But enough with boring history. Let's look at some wacky variations on the poster... READ ON
Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt once sneaked out of a White House event, commandeered an airplane, and went on a joyride to Baltimore.